Fragment: Harmonious Triads

“Debates concerning Paganini’s controversial virtuosity raged throughout European bourgeois and aristocratic circles. He himself reportedly started the legend that he had obtained his unparallelled skill from the Devil, continuing a centuries-old trope of violinists’ deals with Satan. His fourth string, which was rumored to be composed of the intestine of his mistress whom he purportedly murdered, elicited wondrous melodic tones. The rumors continued. He supposedly spent twenty years in prison for his murderous deed, accompanied only by his violin. During this time in solitary confinement, he was able to ferret out the secrets of his instrument, inventing a new fingering technique. As fantastic as these tales are, they seem to pale in insignificance to his very real performances. Whenever he broke a string from his passionate and forceful playing, he compensated without missing a beat, by continuing the piece with only three strings. Should another break, he could play with two. Indeed, his coup de grace was his uncanny ability to play an entire piece on only one string.”

Jackson, Myles. (2006) Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians, and Instrument Makers in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 253.

Humboldt’s Lingering Renaissance: Interests and Influences

Few intellects were as expansive and influential as that of the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). The still more famous brother of the famous Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), both served to radically alter the way that science was seen and taught in Germany, and through that, the world. It is a little known fact that in the 19th century, Europeans seeking an advanced degree in science had to go to Germany, and the early system of government funding for science established there was the envy of the scientific world. Thomas Henry Huxley and his group often used Germany as a model for what English science should be, and Alexander von Humboldt, with his expansive, cosmic interest in nature, romantic tendencies, and world traveling adventures, served as a major inspiration for Charles Darwin before the young naturalist decided to go on his voyage on the Beagle. Humboldt’s biogeography was also highly influential in Darwin’s interest in the topic, and thereby was influential in the development of evolutionary theory.

Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his own cosmology, Eureka, to Humboldt, and he lent his name to a score of animal species, most notably the Humboldt Squid, that taloned, intelligent, and vicious cannibal called by the natives of South America “Diablos rojos” Red Devils.

Admired by Goethe, (though less so by Schiller, who is reputed to have said that “Alexander impresses many, particularly when compared to his brother – because he shows off more!”), by Simon Bolivar and Thomas Jefferson, Humboldt was perhaps one of the last of the great Renaissance thinkers who embraced both science and culture with equal interest.

For More Information:

Sachs, Aaron. The Humboldt Current. Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. America: Viking, 2006.

Walls, Laura Dassow. The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander Von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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.

Spitzweg Among the Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie eccentricities and play on popular pastimes embodied in the work of the German artist Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885) remain one of my favorite manifestations of the Romantic critique of daily life in the 19th century.

At once a commentary on all the things people will get into and pride themselves on when their material means increase, while at the same time exhibiting a childish fondness for those very same absurdities, it is hard for me to say if Spitzweg was ultimately laughing at or with his subject matter.

Thought when it comes to the matter, I think I enjoy this ambiguity the most. Whether he is depicting the huddled and seemingly lethargic poet in the above painting, or the bedazzled mineralogist in the grotto shown below, there is a strange admixture of absurd fantasy and gritty realism in these works.

Spitzweg is worth checking out. Most of his paintings are available on Wikipedia and he provides an unparalleled look into the paradoxes of life during the 19th century.

For More Information: