Conventional Wisdom and the Plane Truth: On Reichenbach's Conventionality of Geometry

Dissertation, The Johns Hopkins University (2000)


Hans Reichenbach is one of the central figures in the debate concerning the epistemology of geometry. Reichenbach's mature geometric conventionalism, the view that there is no fact of the matter concerning a geometry of physical space, as expressed in The Philosophy of Space and Time is generally considered to be the view's most important formulation. This thesis re-interprets Reichenbach's later view in light of its broader context in Reichenbach's writings. The re-interpreted view is then shown to be immune from the standard objections leveled against Reichenbach in the current literature. ;Reichenbach's epistemology of geometry in his first book, Theory of Relativity and A Priori Knowledge is expressly non-conventional. Reichenbach's argument is explicitly empiricist. Yet in his second book, Axiomatization of the Theory of Relativity, he is unabashedly conventionalist in his geometric epistemology. A central question in Reichenbach scholarship is to explain the shift in his view from empiricism to conventionalism that occurs between his first two books. ;The received view of Reichenbach's later conventionalism is that it stands in line with the views of Moritz Schlick, Albert Einstein, and Henri Poincare. Advocates of the received view therefore propose explanations in which Reichenbach is influenced by one of these figures and thereby abandons his previously held results. ;The foundation of this view is wrong. Reichenbach's mature geometric conventionalism is not that of Schlick, Einstein, and Poincare which is theory-independent, but is a theory-specific doctrine which arises from the "method of scientific analysis" which is sketched, but unfulfilled in Theory of Relativity and A Priori Knowledge. This mistake throws all of the standard explanations into error. ;When previously untranslated works from the period 1921--1922 are considered, the true birth of Reichenbach's theory-specific geometric conventionality comes into focus. Different sorts of conventional arguments present themselves for Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, a result inconsisent with the standard view. ;Since the standard objections to Reichenbach are formulated against the standard interpretation of Reichenbach, this new theory-specific conventionalist doctrine finds itself unharmed by these arguments. The objections of Hilary Putnam and Clark Glymour are examined in detail

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Steve Gimbel
Gettysburg College

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