The Philosophical History of Modern Space-Time Theory

International Interdisciplinary Summer School 2013
with Robert DiSalle, University of Western Ontario

Tuebingen, August 5 - August 9, 2013

Call for Applications

Application deadline: May 20, 2012


We kindly invite graduate students and junior scientists of philosophy, physics and mathematics, to apply for the Forum Scientiarum's International Interdisciplinary Summer School "The philosophical history of modern space-time theory". Candidates from other fields with strong interests in philosophy and/or history of science will be taken into consideration.

The Summer School takes place in Tuebingen (Germany), a classical university town with a charming old town center, from Monday, August 5 to Friday, August 9, 2012.


The evolution of modern space-time theory, since the time of Newton, has always involved interactions between physics and philosophy. The most familiar kind of interaction, in the philosophical literature, has been the ongoing controversy over the metaphysical status of space and time, and in particular the "absolute-relational debate": the question whether space and time are "absolute" entities that exist in their own right, or mere abstractions from observable spatial and temporal relations. From the time of Leibniz's arguments against Newton's theory of "absolute space" and "absolute time," this controversy has been inseparable from the question whether physics can make objective distinctions among states of motion, or must treat all motion as essentially relative. The success of Newton's theory of motion depreciated this controversy for nearly two centuries, but it returned to prominence with Mach's defense of relationalism, and Einstein's subsequent pursuit of a "general theory of relativity." Einstein did not quite fulfill his Machian philosophical aim, but since then the controversy has continued as a kind of inductive metaphysics; absolutism and relationalism are essentially regarded as metaphysical hypotheses, confirmed or not by their agreement with the best current, or possible, physics.

In five lectures, Robert DiSalle will present an alternative philosophical perspective on the history of space-time theory, based on novel historical reconstructions of the key episodes and an original interpretation of the fundamental philosophical issues. In DiSalle's account, the philosophical problem that motivated the development of space-time theory was not, primarily, a question of the metaphysical status of space and time. It was, instead, the more fundamental question, how can any spatial and temporal structures be applied to the physical world? Beginning with Newton, this general question raised more specific questions about the empirical foundations of space-time theory: how is empirical knowledge of spatial and temporal relations possible? What do the laws of physics presuppose about the nature of space and time? How can the invariant features of physical systems be distinguished from merely relative descriptions?

Answers to these questions required, not the defense of metaphysical hypotheses, but the conceptual analysis of the role that the concepts of space and time play in our assumptions about physics, and the role that assumptions about motion and measurement play in our conceptions of space and time. This project of philosophical analysis was taken up, after Newton, by Euler,Kant, Helmholtz, Poincaré, Einstein, Minkowski, Weyl, and others, in an evolving engagement of philosophy with new developments in the foundations of geometry and physics; it made possible the evolution of space-time theory from Newton's conception through non-Euclidean geometry to general relativity, and forms an essential part of the philosophical background to modern physics in general.

This interpretation of the philosophical foundations of space-time theory will also shed light on a more general problem in contemporary philosophy of science, namely, the relation between the abstract mathematical structures of physical theory and the world of our experience. Contemporary puzzles about structure and interpretation are clarified by a better philosophical understanding of how space-time structure became a part of empirical science.


Twenty graduate students and junior scientists from all over the world will have the opportunity to discuss the above questions and many others with Robert DiSalle. Moreover, on a voluntary basis, six participants will have the possibility to present their own work on a topic related to the summer school. The workshop language will be English.

The Lecturer

Robert DiSalle is Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy University of Western Ontario, Canada. His publications include many contributions to the history and philosophy of physics from Newton to the present.  He is the author of the successful monograph Understanding Space-Time. The Philosophical Development of Physics from Newton to Einstein

Application Procedure

To apply for the international summer school, participants need to submit an online application form. Deadline for the complete applications is May 20, 2013. A letter of admission will reach successful applicants via email by May 30, 2013.

There is no program fee. The Forum Scientiarum may provide participants with limited grants for covering part of their travel expenses and will assist participants finding inexpensive accommodation.

For further information please contact:

Marco Giovanelli


zurück zu