Heisenberg's observability principle

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Werner Heisenberg's 1925 paper ‘Quantum-theoretical re-interpretation of kinematic and mechanical relations’ marks the beginning of quantum mechanics. Heisenberg famously claims that the paper is based on the idea that the new quantum mechanics should be ‘founded exclusively upon relationships between quantities which in principle are observable’. My paper is an attempt to understand this observability principle, and to see whether its employment is philosophically defensible. Against interpretations of ‘observability’ along empiricist or positivist lines I argue that such readings are philosophically unsatisfying. Moreover, a careful comparison of Heisenberg's reinterpretation of classical kinematics with Einstein's argument against absolute simultaneity reveals that the positivist reading does not fit with Heisenberg's strategy in the paper. Instead the appeal to observability should be understood as a specific criticism of the causal inefficacy of orbital electron motion in Bohr's atomic model. I conclude that the tacit philosophical principle behind Heisenberg's argument is not a positivistic connection between observability and meaning, but the idea that a theory should not contain causally idle wheels.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-26
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
Early online date21 Dec 2013
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014


  • quantum mechanics
  • Heisenberg
  • observability
  • positivism
  • Einstein

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