Philosophy of Physics

A guide for the aspiring researcher

This document is written for graduate students who are considering writing a dissertation in philosophy of physics. I hope to give some pointers on how to get up to speed on the relevant background material. The suggested readings on this page are primarily drawn from philosophy and from physics; for background in pure mathematics, see Mathematics for Philosophers of Physics.

There are a number of different ways that one can do philosophy of physics. First, there are philosophers of physics such as David Albert and Tim Maudlin who emphasize the metaphysical implications of physics, and forgo more in depth discussion of foundational (mathematical) issues. Second, there are philosophers of physics such as David Malament who emphasize giving rigorous, mathematically valid proofs of philosophically significant claims. Third, there are philosophers of physics such as John Norton who tightly integrate philosophical issues with historical issues. But these main divisions are not sufficient to describe the richness of the field. For example, John Earman's work is highly technical, but is also centrally concerned with metaphysical and historical issues. (Oliver Pooley maintains a page of philosophy of physics homepages. See also the list compiled by Christian Wüthrich.)

A two-volume Handbook of Philosophy of Physics was published in 2007. These volumes are supposed to give a broad overview of the entire field. However, these volumes give a somewhat slanted view of the field, in that they are less dialectical than many of the journal articles, and they do not include articles by some of the more prominent metaphysically oriented philosophers of physics (e.g. Albert and Maudlin).

Classical Mechanics

Saunders Mac Lane. Geometrical mechanics. Mimeographed notes, University of Chicago 1968. See also his "Mechanics," Chapter 9 of Mathematics: Form and Function.

Michael Spivak. Physics for mathematicians, mechanics I. 2010

Special and General Relativity

Earman, John, World enough and space-time. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (1989) ISBN: 0262050404

Torretti, Roberto, Relativity and geometry. Pergamon Press, Oxford (1983) ISBN: 0080267734

Malament, David B., "Classical general relativity", in Handbook of the Philosophy of Physics, ed Jeremy Butterfield and John Earman (Elsevier: 2007) ISBN: 0444515607

Sklar, Larry, Space, time, and spacetime. University of California Press (1977) ISBN: 0520031741

Norton, John, Philosophy of space and time, pp 179--231 in Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, ed Merilee Salmon et al. (Prentice-Hall; reprinted Hackett: 1992) ISBN: 0872204502

Friedman, Michael, Foundations of space-time theories. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ (1983) ISBN: 0691020396

Malament, David B., "Notes on the foundations of general relativity"

Quantum Mechanics

Albert, David Z., Quantum mechanics and experience. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (1992) ISBN: 0674741129

Dickson, Michael, "Non-relativistic quantum mechanics", in Handbook of the Philosophy of Physics, ed Jeremy Butterfield and John Earman (Elsevier: 2007) ISBN: 0444515607

Redhead, Michael, Incompleteness, nonlocality, and realism. The Clarendon Press Oxford University Press, New York (1990) ISBN: 0198242387

Ruetsche, Laura, "Interpreting quantum theories" in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Science.

Shimony, Abner, "Conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics", in The New Physics 373--95 (1989)

Clifton, Rob, "Introductory notes on the mathematics needed for quantum theory" (1996)

David Wallace's QM reading list

Between Relativity and Quantum Theory (including Bell's Theorem)

Cushing, J.T. and McMullin, E., Philosophical consequences of quantum theory. University of Notre Dame Press (1989) ISBN: 0268015791

Maudlin, Tim, Quantum non-locality and relativity: metaphysical intimations of modern physics. Blackwell (2002) ISBN: 0631232214

Malament, David B., "Notes on Bell's theorem"

Quantum Field Theory

Teller, Paul, An interpretive introduction to quantum field theory. Princeton University Press (1995) ISBN: NIL

Redhead, M.L.G., "Quantum field theory for philosophers", PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1982, 57--99 (1982)

Geroch, Robert, "Notes for special course on particle physics"

Algebraic Quantum Field Theory

AQFT is not a topic, but a collection of tools to reason about the structure of quantum field theories. Consequently, much of the background necessary for AQFT is mathematical: one needs a strong grounding in functional analysis, and more specifically in the theory of operator algebras. AQFT is also increasingly making use of category theory, and so it would help to know some of that as well.

Update 2010: Laura Ruetsche's book on the philosophy of QFT will soon be published by Oxford. This highly recommended book sets its discussion in the context of AQFT.

Other Areas in Philosophy of Physics

There are several other "live" areas in philosophy of physics, perhaps most notably the foundations of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. But due to limitations on my expertise, I omit these from this guide.

Other Resources


One of the best resources on philosophy of physics are PhD dissertations. Some of these you can find online, and most can be bought from Dissertations Express. For example, for quantum field theory, see the dissertations of Nick Huggett (Rutgers), Aristides Arageorgis (Pittsburgh), Doreen Fraser (Pittsburgh), or Hans Halvorson (Pittsburgh). For quantum information theory, get the dissertation of Chris Timpson (Oxford). For time and physics, Craig Callender's (Rutgers) dissertation is an invaluable source. For cosmology, see Chris Smeenk's (Pittsburgh) dissertation. For quantum gravity, get the dissertations of Gordon Belot (Pittsburgh) and Christian Wüthrich (Pittsburgh).

Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Of course, one cannot learn a field merely by reading encyclopedia articles. But the SEP is good for finding further literature to study.

quantum mechanics | space and time | statistical physics


This guide is not complete, even by the standards of my own knowledge. I wrote it on the spur of the moment, to save myself from writing the same email message again to a student who asked for advice. Please do not hesitate to email me to remind me of further resources.

Author: Hans Halvorson

Last updated: Nov 2010