Bridgman, Percy William (1882–1962)

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An American physicist and professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Harvard, Percy William Bridgman was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1946 for his work on the properties of matter under extremely high pressures. He wrote at length on the philosophical implications of the discoveries of modern physics, particularly Albert Einstein's revolutionary special theory of relativity, and on the analysis of scientific concepts. To Bridgman it seemed that Einstein's theory arose chiefly from the application of sound conceptual analysis based on what Bridgman called the "operational point of view." In his opinion, Einstein had not shown "something new about nature"he was "merely bringing to light implications already contained in the physical operations used in measuring time." Bridgman held that analysis shows that there exists no answer to the question of what we should do, what operations we could perform, in order to determine whether or not two distant events occurred simultaneously. Therefore, it is meaningless to speak of the two events as having or not having occurred simultaneously.

According to Bridgman, then, Einstein's work dramatically highlighted an important feature of scientific methodology, the determination to link all scientific concepts to experimental procedures. From the operationalist views implicit in the practices of working scientists, we should learn to undertake a rigorous analysis of all scientific concepts, cleansing science of operationally undefinable elements.

Bridgman disclaimed all intention of founding a new philosophical school, yet his name has become linked inseparably with operationalism. Many scientists have hailed Bridgman's ideas as indispensable to the correct understanding of modern science, and some, particularly psychologists, have urged the inauguration of an extensive program of analysis of scientific concepts along the lines laid down by Bridgman. Others have regarded Bridgman's philosophy as not only wrong, but also harmfulif it were imposed on science, it could stifle creative inquiry. Bridgman later claimed that each concept need not be completely definable in terms of performable instrumental operations, but that it is sufficient that a concept should be one "indirectly making connection with instrumental operations."

The controversy over operationalism diverted attention from Bridgman's numerous other ideas, many of which are original and provocative. Perhaps the most interesting is his view that discoveries in physics may help us to deal with problems in quite different domains. In his opinion, the great achievements in physics are discoveries of new ways in which our minds can master problems, discoveries about our conceptual makeup.

Through relativity physics, we have learned how apparent contradictions may arise through inadvertently admitting into science meaningless propositions that cannot stand up to operational analysis. Similarly, in human affairs seemingly irreconcilable demands of different groups may be eliminated by showing that some of the basic tenets on which the demands rest are meaningless. The methodology of the social sciences no doubt can learn much from the methodology of physics, but Bridgman's suggestion as to how human conflicts may be resolved will strike many as overly optimistic and somewhat naive.

See also Einstein, Albert; Operationalism; Philosophy of Physics; Relativity Theory.


works by bridgman

The Logic of Modern Physics. New York: Macmillan, 1927.

The Nature of Physical Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1936.

Reflections of a Physicist. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

The Nature of Some of Our Physical Concepts. New York: Philosophical Library, 1952.

secondary sources

Cornelius, B. A. Operationalism. Springfield, IL, 1955.

Frank, Philipp. The Validation of Scientific Theories. Boston: Beacon, 1957.

G. Schlesinger (1967)

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Bridgman, Percy William (1882–1962)

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