Friday, 11  Sept. 2015 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

Daniela Helbig, University of Sydney

‘Scientific description versus ordinary experience? On Eddington’s philosophy of physics’

In his philosophical writings, the astronomer and physicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington famously dramatised the difference between the world described by the physical sciences, and the world as commonly experienced. These dramatisations have polarised Eddington’s readers. While some criticised them on moral grounds as “dangerously misleading” (L. Susan Stebbing), others appreciated his sense of genuine philosophical problems in asking about the sciences’ “direct signification for the real world” (Hans Reichenbach). Walter Benjamin referred to one such passage of Eddington’s as “describing the experience of the modern city-dweller like no other”. In this paper, I argue that Eddington’s polarising passages are the result of his problematic attempt to investigate the meaning of matter in terms of the theory of relativity, an attempt that became the foundation for his later and more general philosophy of science.  The unresolved tensions within this attempt are singled out by Walter Benjamin’s reading of Eddington’s passages, which suggests that scientific descriptions of reality do indeed undermine ordinary experience to the extent that both are linguistically articulated.


Daniela Helbig teaches in the Unit for the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. Her main area of research is the history and philosophy of 20th century technoscience; she also takes a keen interest in linguistics and the theory and practice of linguistics.