Article ID: CBB847582954

Prismatic Equivalence – A New Case of Underdetermination: Goethe vs. Newton on the Prism Experiments (2016)


Goethe's objections to Newton's theory of light and colours are better than often acknowledged. You can accept the most important elements of these objections without disagreeing with Newton about light and colours. As I will argue, Goethe exposed a crucial weakness of Newton's methodological self-assessment. Newton believed that with the help of his prism experiments, he could prove that sunlight was composed of variously coloured rays of light. Goethe showed that this step from observation to theory is more problematic than Newton wanted to admit. By insisting that the step to theory is not forced upon us by the phenomena, Goethe revealed our own free, creative contribution to theory construction. And Goethe's insight is surprisingly significant, because he correctly claimed that all of the results of Newton's prism experiments fit a theoretical alternative equally well. If this is correct, then by suggesting an alternative to a well-established physical theory, Goethe developed the problem of underdetermination a century before Duhem and Quine's famous arguments.

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Authors & Contributors
Gloy, Karen
Buchheim, Wolfgang
Ribe, Neil M.
Schönherr, Hartmut R.
Duck, Michael J.
Kötter, Rudolf
Perspectives on Science
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie
British Journal for the History of Science
Science and Education
Archive for History of Exact Sciences
Königshausen & Neumann
Pavia University Press
Color theory
Experiments and experimentation
Explanation; hypotheses; theories
Newton, Isaac
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
Lambert, Johann Heinrich
Michelson, Albert Abraham
Morley, Edward Williams
Hume, David
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
17th century
20th century
Early modern

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