Article: Du Châtelet on the Need for Mathematics in Physics

Aaron Wells, postdoctoral researcher at the Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists, on his work on Émilie du Châtelet at the Center and his new article.

I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Center. My work here focuses on preparing an online critical edition of an early manuscript version of Emilie Du Châtelet’s main philosophical work, the Institutions de Physique. This so-called ‘Paris Manuscript’ contains many different versions of the material that eventually found its way into the published Institutions; all of these versions will eventually be available in the online edition, along with critical apparatus and a concise commentary. These days I am also doing research on Du Châtelet’s account of magnitude–broadly related to the topic of this newly published paper–and on the role of first principles in her Institutions.

– Aaron Wells


Aaron Wells: Du Châtelet on the Need for Mathematics in Physics

There is a tension in Emilie Du Châtelet’s thought on mathematics. The objects of mathematics are ideal or fictional entities; nevertheless, mathematics is presented as indispensable for an account of the physical world. After outlining Du Châtelet’s position, and showing how she departs from Christian Wolff’s pessimism about Newtonian mathematical physics, I show that the tension in her position is only apparent. Du Châtelet has a worked-out defense of the explanatory and epistemic need for mathematical objects, consistent with their metaphysical non-fundamentality. I conclude by sketching how Du Châtelet’s conception of mathematical indispensability differs interestingly from many contemporary approaches.


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