No. 43, October 16, 2001
Book Review by Soshichi Uchii:
The Discovery of Dynamics
by Julian Barbour
Editor: Soshichi Uchii
The Discovery of Dynamics: A study from a Machian point of view of the discovery and the structure of dynamical theories by Julian Barbour, Oxford University Press, 2001
This book is essentially a paperback reprint of Barbour's first book, Absolute or Relative Motion? Vol. 1, published from Cambridge University Press, 1989. A new preface is added, where the author responds to the major reviews of the preceding book, and explains why the Volume 2 (which has been long awaited by many, including this reviewer) has not appeared yet. In the meantime, Barbour has published a number of important technical results (reconstruction of classical and relativistic dynamics in terms of relational ideas), edited an important book on Mach's Principle, and published another book, The End of Time, which was reviewed in the last issue of this Newsletter. Since The Discovery of Dynamics is valuable for any students of the philosophy of space and time, I should like to remind the reader of its merits, on this occasion.
1. This book is not a mere history of dynamics
Since the author, Julian Barbour, is primarily a theoretical physicist, many historians of science may question the manner of Barbour's treatment of historical materials, ranging from Aristotle to Mach and Einstein. In fact, Barbour quotes (in the new preface) Eric Aiton's severe criticism: "Everything is judged in relation to what the author regards as the correct theory: that is, the explanation accepted today ... The idea of a linear progression towards the modern world view ... has long been abandoned by historians of science" (viii). This may be true to some extent, but I think the word "everything" is clearly an exaggeration, based on Aiton's prejudice or "conceit" as a historian. Historians often denounce "Whig history", but they often use a "double-standard" or ambiguous standard, something like "mine is non-Whiggish but so-and-so's is Whiggish or ideological", the other party saying exactly the same!
Such quibbles aside, I agree with Barbour's judgment that "There are criteria of good science" (ix), and we are interested in "how such good science emerged". If some say that taking this perspective is "Whiggish", I would say it's no sin. Consider the discipline of history itself. Many say "Whig history is a bad history"; so this implies they have the distinction between good history and bad history. And if they want to write "the history of good history", they have to commit themselves to the criteria of good history. Isn't the situation exactly similar to the history of science?
Be that as it may, we have to notice the subtitle of Barbour's book: it clearly announces that this book is written from a Machian point of view, and, as I see it, that's what makes this book valuable. Of course, some historians may complain that such a philosophically-oriented history is "uninteresting"; but to us, philosophers of science and philosophically minded historians, their unphilosophical works are uninteresting, and so let them live and let us live also! Although Barbour relies on many secondary sources as well as on primary sources, it is quite amazing that he covered such a wide spa