(from German) considerssomehypothesis,theory,
orprinciplefor the purpose of thinkingthrough its consequences. Given the structure of the experiment, it mayor may not be possible to actually perform it, and, in the case that it ispossible for it to be performed, there need be no intention of any kind toactually perform the experiment in question. The common goal of athought experiment is to explore the potential consequences of theprinciple in question.Famous examples of thought experiments includeSchrödinger's cat,illustratingquantum indeterminacythrough the manipulation of aperfectly sealed environment and a tiny bit of radioactivesubstance, andMaxwell's demon, in which a supernatural being is instructed to attemptto violate thesecond law of thermodynamics.OriginJohann Witt-Hansen established thatHans Christian Ørstedwas the firstto use the Latin-German mixed term
(lit. thoughtexperiment) circa 1812.
Ørsted was also the first to use its entirelyGerman equivalent,
, in 1820.Much later,Ernst Machused the term
in a differentway, to denote exclusively the
conduct of a
experimentthat would be subsequently performed as a
real physical experiment
Physical and mental experimentation could then beconstrasted: Mach asked his students to provide him with explanationswhenever the results from their subsequent, real, physical experimentdiffered from those of their prior, imaginary experiment.