chapter  8
37 Pages

Philosophical reflections on Maxwell’s methodological odyssey

ByGiora Hon, Bernard R. Goldstein

There are several recurring features in these four distinct stations which make it appropriate to speak of an odyssey. However, Maxwell did not design any methodology de novo; rather, he modified existing ones. His creative responses to the works of Faraday as well as those of Thomson, Tait, Rankine, Lagrange, and Hamilton, among others, show him to be an ingenious thinker capable of capitalizing on past achievements in electromagnetism and mechanics, both theoretical and experimental, in unforeseen ways. The integration of past successes with his innovative ideas allowed Maxwell to construct a novel theory of electrodynamics that has stood the test of time. It is extremely difficult to create a new methodology but, unlike theory, once a methodology has been introduced, it is here to stay. Indeed, the versatility that Maxwell displayed in transforming and modifying existing methodologies is astounding. Some of these methodologies have continued to evolve. Our historiography of addressing Maxwell’s contribution to electromagnetism in its entirety and, within this body of scientific work, tracing the transition from station to station yields an overview with a unique vantage point on Maxwell’s motivations in taking this journey. This historiography of methodologies results in insights into the practice of a great scientist. The methodological odyssey we identify as historians and philosophers of science in Maxwell’s electromagnetic studies is neither a metaphor nor a poetical account of his originality; rather, it is a historiographical tool for uncovering the working of a leading scientist in the nineteenth century.