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The Review of Metaphysics

Volume 73, Issue 2, December 2019

Matias Slavov
Pages 335-353

Time as an Empirical Concept in Special Relativity

According to a widespread view, Einstein’s definition of time in his special relativity is founded on the positivist verification principle. The present paper challenges this received outlook. It argues that Einstein’s position on the concept of time, to wit, simultaneity, is best understood as a mitigated version of concept empiricism. He contrasts his position to Newton’s absolutist and Kant’s transcendental arguments, and in part sides with Hume’s and Mach’s empiricist arguments. Nevertheless, Einstein worked out a concept empiricism that is considerably more moderate than what we find in the preceding empiricist tradition and early logical positivism. He did not think that the origin of concepts is in observations, but in conventions, and he also maintained a realist ontology of physical events, which he thought is necessary for his theory. Consequently, his philosophy of time in special relativity is not couched in terms of an antimetaphysical verificationism.