Helmholtz, Perception and Progress Naturalized

Herman von Helmholtz, whose name so often conjures images of thermodynamics, electricity or heat death, was also the teacher of of Heinrich Hertz, friend of Lord Kelvin and a major figure in 19th century physics. Despite his proclivity for the physical sciences, though, Helmholtz began his career as a doctor, and during that time invented the ophthalmoscope, for examining the human eye. This beginning is noteworthy, considering Helmholtz’s life-long interest in Neo-Kantian thought and the nature of human perception. When combined with his views on thermodynamics these interests present an unusual picture of progress in human life.

In looking at his philosophy of science it is possible to see an implicit consequence of Helmholtz’s understanding of force, law and knowledge. It suggests a notion of progress, which can be understood as a force produced in an analogous fashion to those produced by steam or wind, but acting on human knowledge as mediated through the senses.

According to Helmholtz, the underlying unity of phenomena is what makes them knowable, for knowledge consist of establishing laws encapsulating isolated facts. Yet it can only do this when there is something common underlying those individual facts. In nature, this commonality is made possible by the law of conservation of force. In light of the impossibility of perpetual motion and second law of thermodynamics; however, this same commonality could allow for a definite direction to the “force” of human knowing, resulting in progress. Thus an interesting symmetry can be seen between human knowledge and nature in which each acts upon the other in terms of forces largely understood in physical terms.

It seems safe to say that for Helmholtz progress occurs in the world, it is characterized by change, and all changes are ultimately changes of motion. Thus, when considering his deterministic views of nature and the human, progress must in some ways be accounted for in naturalistic terms involving a kind of motion. If not placed in the knowledge deriving capacity of a human actor, and the mirroring that capacity must have with the laws of nature to enable the objectivity and coherence of knowledge, we would be at a loss in attempting to account for a naturalized version of progress in a Helmholtzian framework.

In his popular lectures a symmetry can be seen between knowledge and nature made possible by the commonalities underlying forces. We can only see laws amongst the disparate facts of nature thanks to our perceptions. These perceptions are involuntary. They are rooted in natural processes and the unity of forces that make change both possible as well as comprehensible. This has the consequence that all of human knowledge, its society, arts and sciences, are themselves subject to natural laws acting in ways analogous to the more straightforward laws of the physical sciences. These laws have the power to influence human knowledge, both by acting on it as an external constraint, as well as through their actions produced by our knowledge of them. In considering the impossibility of perpetual motion and the second law of thermodynamics, more than merely making knowledge of nature possible, this approach also weds progress and directionality to knowledge as a consequence of the laws of physics. Thus, in this potential reading of Hemlholtz, progress could be seen as a force acting in a deterministic way on humanity, expanding its reaches until, at its final expiration, it achieves its destiny.

For More Information:

Helmholtz, Hermann von. “On the Aim and Progress of Physical Science” in Science and

Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “On the Conservation of Force” in Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical

Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. Helmholtz’s Treaties on Physiological Optics. Ed and Trans. James P. C. Southall.

Vol 3. The Optical Society of America; Wisconsin, 1925.

—. “On the Interaction of Natural Forces” in Science and Culture: Popular and

Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “On the Origin of the Planetary System” in Science and Culture: Popular and

Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “The Relation of Natural Science to Science in General” in Science and Culture:

Popular and Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press; Chicago, 1995.

Secondary Sources:

Cahan, David. “Helmholtz and the Civilizing Power of Science” in Herman von

Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth Century Science. Ed. David Cahan. University of California Press; Los Angeles, 1993.

Dale, Peter Allan. In Pursuit of a Scientific Culture: Science, Art and Society in the

Victorian Age. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1989.

Oxford-Duden German Dictionary. Ed. W. Scholze-Stubenrecht, J.B. Sykes, et al. Oxford

University Press: Oxford, 2005.

Smith, Crosbie and M. Norton Wise. Energy and Empire: a Biographical Study of Lord

Kelvin. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1989.

Smith, Crosbie. The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in

Victorian Britain. University Of Chicago: Press Chicago, 1999.

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