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Scientiae Studia

Print version ISSN 1678-3166

Abstract

BEZERRA, Valter Alnis. Maxwell, the field theory and the demechanization of physics. Sci. stud. [online]. 2006, vol.4, n.2, pp.177-220. ISSN 1678-3166.  https://doi.org/10.1590/S1678-31662006000200003.

This paper surveys the conceptual development of classical field theoy - particularly Maxwell's electrodynamics, as it was presented in the pioneer papers of 1856, 1861/1862 and 1864 and in the Treatise on electricity and magnetism - aiming at getting an understanding of the role it played in the crisis of the mechanistic image of nature. Maxwell's role as a transition character between the mechanistic and the post-mechanistic views stands out clearly when one analyzes the tension that builds up in his texts on electrodynamics between his scientific methodology, on the one hand, and his ontology and cognitive axiology, on the other. This tension reflects the very tension existing between mechanism and demechanization. Special attention is given to an analysis of the role played by the field concept, the mechanical models, analogies, the Lagrangian formalism and the ever-chaning concept of ether. In order to carry out this analysis, we develop a taxonomy of the different kinds of mechanism, and also avail ourselves of concepts brought forth by Larry Laudan's reticulational model of scientific rationality. Some features of the phase prior to Maxwell are discussed besides his electrodynamics - in particular the debate concerning action-at-a-distance, as well as Faraday's views on fields and forces - thus allowing one to better bring into context his research program in electrodynamics. Some latter developments in field theory are also discussed, aiming at getting a clearer notion of how did the demechanization process proceed in the ensuing years, until being finally brought to completion in the twentieth century, with the coming of special and general relativity theory, the full emancipation of the concept of field, and the ultimate demise of the mechanistic worldview.

Keywords : Action at distance; Aether; Demechanization; Einstein; Electromagnetic field; Electromagnetism; Faraday; Maxwell; Mechanical analogies; Mechanism.

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