Hamilton, Hamiltonian Mechanics, and Causation

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


I show how Sir William Rowan Hamilton’s philosophical commitments led him to a causal interpretation of classical mechanics. I argue that Hamilton’s metaphysics of causation was injected into his dynamics by way of a causal interpretation of force. I then detail how forces are indispensable to both Hamilton’s formulation of classical mechanics and what we now call Hamiltonian mechanics (i.e., the modern formulation). On this point, my efforts primarily consist of showing that the contemporary orthodox interpretation of potential energy is the interpretation found in Hamilton’s work. Hamilton called the potential energy function the “force-function” because he believed that it represents forces at work in the world. Various non-historical arguments for this orthodox interpretation of potential energy are provided, and matters are concluded by showing that in classical Hamiltonian mechanics, facts about the potential energies of systems are grounded in facts about forces. Thus, if one can tolerate the view that forces are causes of motion, then Hamilton provides one with a road map for transporting causation into one of the most mathematically sophisticated formulations of classical mechanics, viz., Hamiltonian mechanics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalFoundations of Science
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • Causation
  • Force
  • Hamilton
  • Hamiltonian mechanics
  • Potential energy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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