Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Lecture 15.  Electricity?

Mechanical Philosophy (17th c)

In the first half of the seventeenth century, mathematicians and philosophers set to work on an ambitious and sometimes dangerous enterprise.  Their goal?  To reduce the imposing edifice of Aristotle's physics to rubble and erect a "new" philosophy in its place -- one based on mechanical principles. 

Unlike the mechanical principles of Archimedes and Hero of Alexandria which did little more than describe and predict the actions of levers and pulleys and simple collsions, these new mechanical principles were designed to inform and reveal the modus operandi of the universe. 

All of nature could be -- and was -- viewed as a magnificent clockwork.  To better understand any natural phenomenon (the motions of the planets, the behavior of light, the structure and function of an animate being's body...) one simply needed to:

  • figure out a way to take the phenomenon apart
  • expose its hidden "gears," "springs," and "levers"
  • make use of specialized instruments, if necessary, to extend limited human senses
  • observe and analyze the interconnections between all the constituent parts
  • apply mechanical principles to explain how those parts work together.

Ultimately all will be discovered and known.

English mathematician and physicist, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) gave the new philosophy a clear and universal mathematical expression.  According to Newton and his eighteenth century disciples, Reason is immutable (what is true now, has been and will be true for all time) and it is universal (what is true here, is true everywhere; what I see, you will see):

  • all have the capacity to Reason
  • all phenomena (animate and inanimate; individual and collective) are legitimate subjects of reasoned investigation
Reason has one method:  Newton's method--
  • observe specifics (analysis)
  • draw up general principles (synthesis)
  • deduce new phenomena by identifying analogous effects and assigning analogous causes
Newton's Legacy:  Science in the Age of Reason
Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755)
Preface to Spirit of the Laws (1748)
I have first considered mankind; and the result of my thoughts has been, that amidst such an infinite diversity of laws and manners, they were not solely conducted by the caprice of fancy.

I have laid down the first principles, and have found that the particular cases follow naturally from them; that the histories of all nations are only consequences of them; and that every particular law is connected with another law, or depends on some other of a more general extent....

I have not drawn my principles from my prejudices, but from the nature of things.

Jean Lerond d'Alembert (1717-1783)
Elements of Philosophy (1759)
Our century is called ... the century of philosophy par excellence...

The discovery and application of a new method of philosophizing, the kind of enthusiasm which accompanies discoveries, a certain exaltation of ideas which the spectacle of the universe produces in us -- all these causes have brought about a lively fermentation of minds, spreading through nature in all directions like a river which has burst its dams.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
   The Social Contract (1762)
The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family:  and even so the children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation.  As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved....

This common liberty results from the nature of man.  His first law is to provide for his own preservation, his first cares are those which he owes to himself; and, as soon as he reaches years of discretion, he is the sole judge of the proper means of preserving himself, and consequently becomes his own master.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
What is Enlightenment? (1784)
Dare to know!

"Have the courage to use your own reason!"

-- THAT is the motto of the enlightenment. 

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance.  They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. 

It is so comfortable to be a minor.  If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on -- then I have no need to exert myself.  I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me....

This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom ... to make public use of one's reason in all matters.... 

When we ask, Are we now living in an enlightened age? the answer is, No, but we live in an age of enlightenment.

Romanticism (early 19th c)

By the end of the eighteenth century, the drawbacks and limitations of the mechanical philosophy were becoming more visible and its critics more vocal.  For one thing, thinking in purely mechanical terms about every natural phenomenon only ended in frustration.  It was easy enough to see that a stationary body could begin to move after a collision with a moving body, but that body must have acquired its motion in the same way, as did the body with which it collided, and so on and so on and so on...!  This unsatisfying reduction to absurdity generated a sense of despair in those who wanted to explain -- not merely describe -- how the natural world worked.

In addition, investigators tackling the most intriguing scientific puzzles of the day were especially troubled by the mechanical philosophy's weak performance when it came to understanding the cause of action-at-a-distance:  electrical effects, magnetism, radiation of heat and light.

But by the turn of the nineteenth century, even non-scientists were expressing doubts as to the value of viewing the universe as a giant clockwork and the wisdom of relying on Newton's methods to take it apart.  In large part, this backlash grew out of public revulsion over the excesses of the French Revolution (1789-1795) including:   the imposition of a new decimal-based calendar with hundred-minute hours, ten-hour days, and ten-day décades (weeks); the elimination of religious holidays and rites; and, of course, the tens of thousands of executions during the notorious Reign of Terror. 

Were these the natural consequences of Reason run amok?  Those who answered "yes" rejected the utopian, but impersonal, enlightenment agenda.  It was, they argued, high time to return to a more holistic view of nature and society. 

Such sentiments made these self-styled Romantics receptive to ideas being promoted by a new philosophical movement that was then gaining popularity in Germany.  Called Naturphilosophie (nature philosophy) by one of its principal architects, German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854), it offered an appealing alternative to the sterility of the mechanical philosophy.

Naturphilosophen (The Nature Philosophers)
The Naturphilosophen viewed the whole as greater than the sum of its parts.  Nature is not a machine, it is an organic mystery.  To really know the world, they argued, an investigator must first grasp the whole, otherwise any "understanding" of its parts would be meaningless.

  • Vernunft -- reason (intuition, not 18th c reason)
    • direct grasp of knowledge
    • a powerful and integrating force
  • Verstehen -- understanding
    • deliberate and analytical acquisition of knowledge
    • useful but secondary to Vernunft

They defined the aim of proper science as the creative and interactive process by which an investigator becomes attuned to the causes behind the phenomenon under consideration.  Experiment -- what Francis Bacon had called "tormenting nature" -- merely forces nature to behave abnormally and comply with the experimenter's expectations:

  • the questions an experimenter can ask are limited by human imagination
  • the answers an experimenter will accept as "correct" are limited by these questions

Instead of describing a body's motion as the result of an endless chain of simple mechanical collisions, the Naturphilosophen turned to a new model based on the dynamics of positive and negative electricity which they called the Principle of Polarity.  They replaced the mechanists' clockwork with a complex web spun by an array of pairs of opposing electrical forces.  Magnetism, for example, may seem like a unique and distinct natural force, but it's just one of a variety of special effects (like chemical action, light, heat, neurological response and even mechanical action) generated by interacting positive and negative electricity.  Because all forces derive from electricity, they must all be mutually interchangeable.

Naturphilosophie had a wide impact on nineteenth century intellectual development.  Individuals who were influenced by its ideas included German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851). 

Go to:
  • Erewhon (1871) by Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
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