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Philosophy of physics

Jeremy Butterfield

The best place to start is with Cushing, J. [1998], Philosophical Concepts in Physics, Cambridge: CUP. But Sklar, L., [1992], Philosophy of Physics, Oxford: OUP is also good. Both cover the three main areas of research in the foundations and philosophy of physics: quantum mechanics, space and time, and thermal physics. Both contain detailed suggestions for further reading; and Cushing engages in detail with the history of physics. Other introductions include:

  • Lange, M., [2002], An Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics, London: Blackwell, is less general, emphasising locality, fields, energy and mass. But it addresses these issues well, and focusses on general philosophical points.
  • Torretti, R., [1999], The Philosophy of Physics, Cambridge: CUP, takes a historical approach and is more general in scope.
  • Davies, P., ed., [1989], The New Physics, Cambridge: CUP, has some helpful introductory articles for those needing background on modern physics.

The state of the art in technical philosophy of physics is represented by: Butterfield, J. and Earman, J. (eds) [2006], Philosophy of Physics, part of the multi-volume Handbook of Philosophy of Science, Elsevier. Two other collections are: Rickles, D. (ed), The Ashgate Companion to Contemporary Philosophy of Physics, Batterman R. (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Physics. Most of the articles in all these books are of course downloadable from the Pittsburgh or Physics e-arXives.

Quantum mechanics

Good introductions avoiding all formalism include: Rae, A., [1986], Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality?, Cambridge: CUP; Maudlin, T., [1994], Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity, Oxford: Blackwell; and Davies, P. and Brown, J. eds. [1986], The Ghost in the Atom, Cambridge: CUP (a collection of interviews).

  • R.I.G. Hughes' The Structure and Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is a good introductory text. For those with little physics background and those whose undergraduate physics did not dwell on the formalism of QM, the first few chapters go through the basics.
  • Another introduction, focussing mainly on the measurement problem, with almost no formalism and a very informal prose-style, is Albert, D., [1992], Quantum Mechanics and Experience, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • J.S. Bell's Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics is the collection of Bell's (great) papers on the philosophy of QM. They vary in difficulty; there is bound to be something in there for you.
  • Wheeler and Zurek's (eds) Quantum Theory and Measurement is a collection of classic papers on the interpretation of quantum mechanics going back to the Einstein-Bohr debate.
  • Specialist books include: M. Redhead, Incompleteness, Nonlocality and Realism [1987]; B. van Fraassen, Quantum Mechanics [1991], J. Bub, Interpreting the Quantum World [1997]; L. Ruetsche, Interpreting Quantum Theories [2011], D. Wallace, The Emergent Multiverse [2012], C. Timpson, Quantum Information Theory and the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics [2013], K. Landsman, The Foundations of Quantum Theory [2017]. The last of these is a magnum opus and is freely downloadable chapter by chapter from Springer.

Space and time

The best overall introduction avoiding all formalism is Sklar, L. [1977] Space, Time, and Spacetime, University of California Press. Much of the philosophical agenda was set by: Reichenbach, H. [1958] Philosophy of Space and Time. An excellent recent anthology is: C. Lehner and M. Janssen (eds), [2014] The Cambridge Companion to Einstein.

  • N. Huggett's (ed.) Space from Zeno to Einstein is a collection of readings from Plato to Einstein. G. Belot et al's (eds) Spacetime is a collection of recent articles.
  • J. Earman's World Enough and Space-Time is the main recent philosophical monograph on absolute versus relational theories of space and time. J. Barbour's The End of Time advocates a Machian perspective.
  • Modern classics include: R. Torretti's Relativity and Geometry, M. Friedman's Foundations of Space-Time Theories, and J Earman's Bangs, Crunches, Whimpers and Shrieks.
  • More recent specialist books, which engage in detail with the history of physics, include: H. Brown, Physical Relativity [2005]; T. Ryckman, The Reign of Relativity [2005]; R. DiSalle, Understanding Space-Time [2006]; D. Malament, Topics in the Foundations of General Relativity and Newtonian Gravitation Theory [2012].

Thermal physics

The best place to start is Sklar, L. [1993] Physics and Chance: Philosophical Issues in the Foundations of Statistical Mechanics, Cambridge: CUP. It both introduces the main topics, and provides detailed bibliographies. Other books include:

  • Reichenbach, H., [1956], The Direction of Time, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
  • Ehrenfest, P., and Ehrenfest, T., [1959], The Conceptual Foundations of the Statistical Approach in Mechanics, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press
  • Emch, G. and Liu, C. [2002], The Logic of Thermo-statistical Physics, Berlin: Springer


Journals specifically devoted to foundations of physics include:

Internet resources

There are four internet resources with very strong listings in the philosophy of physics: