Drawing the line between kinematics and dynamics in special relativity

Michel Janssen

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65 Scopus citations


Special relativity is preferable to those parts of Lorentz's classical ether theory it replaced because it shows that various phenomena that were given a dynamical explanation in Lorentz's theory are actually kinematical. In his book, Physical Relativity, Harvey Brown challenges this orthodox view. I defend it. The phenomena usually discussed in this context in the philosophical literature are length contraction and time dilation. I consider three other phenomena in the same class, each of which played a role in the early reception of special relativity in the physics literature: the Fresnel drag effect, the velocity dependence of electron mass, and the torques on a moving capacitor in the Trouton-Noble experiment. I offer historical sketches of how Lorentz's dynamical explanations of these phenomena came to be replaced by their now standard kinematical explanations. I then take up the philosophical challenge posed by the work of Harvey Brown and Oliver Pooley and clarify how those kinematical explanations work. In the process, I draw attention to the broader importance of the kinematics-dynamics distinction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)26-52
Number of pages27
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B - Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2009


  • Classical electron models
  • Inference to the best explanation
  • Kinematics
  • Lorentz invariance
  • Minkowski space-time
  • Trouton-Noble experiment


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