Epistemology of a believing historian: Making sense of Duhem's anti-atomism

Klodian Coko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Pierre Duhem's (1861-1916) lifelong opposition to 19th century atomic theories of matter has been traditionally attributed to his conventionalist and/or positivist philosophy of science. Relatively recently, this traditional view position has been challenged by the claim that Duhem's opposition to atomism was due to the precarious state of atomic theories during the beginning of the 20th century. In this paper I present some of the difficulties with both the traditional and the new interpretation of Duhem's opposition to atomism and provide a new framework in which to understand his rejection of atomic hypotheses. I argue that although not positivist, instrumentalist, or conventionalist, Duhem's philosophy of physics was not compatible with belief in unobservable atoms and molecules. The key for understanding Duhem's resistance to atomism during the final phase of his career is the historicist arguments he presented in support of his ideal of physics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-82
Number of pages12
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Atomism
  • Historicism
  • Natural classification
  • Pierre Duhem
  • Realism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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