Science and Hypothesis excerpts

What follows are excerpts from the book Science and Hypothesis by Henri Poincaré, translated (1905) from La Science et l’hypothèse (1902).

p.xxiii The latter [definitions or conventions] are to be met with especially in mathematics and in the sciences to which it is applied. From them, indeed, the sciences derive their rigour; such conventions are the result of the unrestricted activity of the mind, which in this domain recognises no obstacle. For here the mind may affirm because it lays down its own laws; but let us clearly understand that while these laws are imposed on our science, which otherwise could not exist, they are not imposed on Nature. Are they then arbitrary? No; for if they were, they would not be fertile. Experience leaves us our freedom of choice, but it guides us by helping us to discern the most convenient path to follow.

p.xxv Space is another framework which we impose on the world. Whence are the first principles of geometry derived? Are they imposed on us by logic? Lobatschewsky, by inventing non-Euclidean geometries, has shown that this is not the case. Is space revealed to us by our senses? No; for the space revealed to us by our senses is absolutely different from the space of geometry. Is geometry derived from experience? Careful discussion will give the answer—no! We therefore conclude that the principles of geometry are only conventions; but these conventions are not arbitrary, and if transported into another world (which I shall call the non-Euclidean world, and which I shall endeavour to describe), we shall find ourselves compelled to adopt more of them.

p.xxvi In mechanics we shall be led to analogous conclusions, and we shall see that the principles of this science, although more directly based on experience, still share the conventional character of the geometrical postulates.

p.4 We have confined ourselves to bringing together one or other of two purely conventional definitions, and we have verified their identity; nothing new has been learned. Verification differs from proof precisely because it is analytical, and because it leads to nothing. It leads to nothing because the conclusion is nothing but the premisses translated into another language. A real proof, on the other hand, is fruitful, because the conclusion is in a sense more general than the premisses.

p.20 Mathematicians do not study objects, but the relations between objects; to them it is a matter of indifference if these objects are replaced by others, provided that the relations do not change. Matter does not engage their attention, they are interested by form alone.

p.50 The geometrical axioms are therefore neither synthetic à priori intuitions nor experimental facts. They are conventions. Our choice among all possible conventions is guided by experimental facts; but it remains free, and is only limited by the necessity of avoiding every contradiction, and thus it is that postulates may remain rigorously true even when the experimental laws which have determined their adoption are only approximate. In other words, the axioms of geometry (I do not speak of those of arithmetic) are only definitions in disguise. What, then, are we to think of the question: Is Euclidean geometry true? It has no meaning.

p.70 Experiment guides us in this choice, which it does not impose on us. It tells us not what is the truest, but what is the most convenient geometry.


6. Experiments only teach us the relations of bodies to one another. They do not and cannot give us the relations of bodies and space, nor the mutual relations of the different parts of space.

p.84 Hence, experiments have reference not to space but to bodies.


1. There is no absolute space, and we only conceive of relative motion; and yet in most cases mechanical facts are enunciated as if there is an absolute space to which they can be referred.

2. There is no absolute time. When we say that two periods are equal, the statement has no meaning, and can only acquire a meaning by a convention.

3. Not only have we no direct intuition of the equality of two periods, but we have not even direct intuition of the simultaneity of two events occurring in two different places. I have explained this in an article entitled “Mesure du Temps.”

4. Finally, is not our Euclidean geometry in itself only a kind of convention of language? Mechanical facts might be enunciated with reference to a non-Euclidean space which would be less convenient but quite as legitimate as our ordinary space; the enunciation would become more complicated, but it still would be possible.

p.91 Provisionally, then, we shall admit absolute time and Euclidean geometry.

p.98 When we say force is the cause of motion, we are talking metaphysics; and this definition, if we had to be content with it, would be absolutely fruitless, would lead to absolutely nothing. For a definition to be of any use it must tell us how to measure force; and that is quite sufficient, for it is by no means necessary to tell what force is in itself, nor whether it is the cause or the effect of motion.

p.100 Thus we are compelled to bring into our definition of the equality of two forces the principle of the equality of action and reaction; hence this principle can no longer be regarded as an experimental law but only as a definition.

p.103 There is no escape from the following definition, which is only a confession of failure: Masses are co-efficients which it is found convenient to introduce into calculations.

p.104 The principles of dynamics appeared to us first as experimental truths, but we have been compelled to use them as definitions. It is by definition that force is equal to the product of the mass and the acceleration; this is a principle which is henceforth beyond the reach of any future experiment.

p.105 Thus is explained how experiment may serve as a basis for the principles of mechanics, and yet will never invalidate them.

p.106 The important thing is not to know what force is, but how to measure it.

p.110 We see that we end with an experiment which is very particular, and as a matter of fact very crude, and we start with a perfectly general law, perfectly precise, the truth of which we regard as absolute. We have, so to speak, freely conferred this certainty on it by looking upon it as a convention.

Are the laws of acceleration and of the composition of forces only arbitrary conventions? Conventions, yes; arbitrary, no—they would be so if we lost sight of the experiments which led the founders of the science to adopt them, and which, imperfect as they were, were sufficient to justify their adoption. It is well from time to time to let our attention dwell on the experimental origin of these conventions.

p.117 And hence this affirmation: “the earth turns round,” has no meaning, since it cannot be verified by experiment; since such an experiment not only cannot be realised or even dreamed of by the most daring Jules Verne, but cannot even be conceived of without contradiction; or, in other words, these two propositions, “the earth turns round,” and, “it is more convenient to suppose that the earth turns round,” have one and the same meaning. There is nothing more in one than in the other. Perhaps they will not be content with this, and may find it surprising that among all the hypotheses, or rather all the conventions, that can be made on this subject there is one which is more convenient than the rest?

p.130 Among all possible generalisations we must choose, and we cannot but choose the simplest.

p.132 In every particular case we clearly see what energy is, and we can give it at least a provisory definition; but it is impossible to find a general definition of it.

p.136 The principles of mechanics are therefore presented to us under two different aspects. On the one hand, there are truths founded on experiment, and verified approximately as far as almost isolated systems are concerned; on the other hand, there are postulates applicable to the whole of the universe and regarded as rigorously true. If these postulates possess a generality and a certainty which falsify the experimental truths from which they were deduced, it is because they reduce in final analysis to a simple convention that we have a right to make, because we are certain beforehand that no experiment can contradict it. This convention, however, is not absolutely arbitrary; it is not the child of our caprice. We admit it because certain experiments have shown us that it will be convenient, and thus is explained how experiment has built up the principles of mechanics, and why, moreover, it cannot reverse them.

p.137 Conventional and general principles are the natural and direct generalisations of experimental and particular principles. Let it not be said that I am thus tracing artificial frontiers between the sciences; that I am separating by a barrier geometry properly so called from the study of solid bodies. I might just as well raise a barrier between experimental mechanics and the conventional mechanics of general principles. Who does not see, in fact, that by separating these two sciences we mutilate both, and that what will remain of the conventional mechanics when it is isolated will be but very little, and can in no way be compared with that grand body of doctrine which is called geometry.

p.138 Principles are conventions and definitions in disguise. They are, however, deduced from experimental laws, and these laws have, so to speak, been erected into principles to which our mind attributes an absolute value. Some philosophers have generalised far too much. They have thought that the principles were the whole of science, and therefore that the whole of science was conventional. This paradoxical doctrine, which is called Nominalism, cannot stand examination.