Building upon work by Mary Hesse (1974), this paper aims to show that a single method of investigation lies behind Maxwell’s use of physical analogies in his major scientific works before the Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Key to understanding the operation of this method is to recognize that Maxwell’s physical analogies are intended to possess an ‘inductive’ function in addition to an ‘illustrative’ one. That is to say, they not only serve to clarify the equations proposed for an unfamiliar domain with a working interpretation drawn from a more familiar science, but can also be sources of defeasible yet relatively strong arguments from features of the more familiar domain to features of the less. Compared with the reconstructions by Achinstein (1991), Siegel (1991), Harman (1998) and others, which postulate a discontinuity in Maxwell’s approach to physical analogy, the account defended in this paper i) makes sense of the continuity in Maxwell’s remarks on scientific methodology, ii) explains his quest for a “mathematical classification of physical quantities” and iii) offers a new and more plausible interpretation of the debated episode of the introduction of the displacement current in Maxwell’s “On Physical Lines of Forces”.
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