Helmholtz's early empiricism and the Erhaltung der Kraft

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Abstract:

Hermann Helmholtz has often been understood to have started research under the influence of Kant, and then to have made a transition to a later mature empiricist phase. Without claiming that in 1847 Helmholtz held the same positions that he later espoused, I suggest that already in his 1847 'Uber die Erhaltung der Kraft' one may find important aspects of his later empiricism. I highlight the ways in which, from early on, Helmholtz turned Kant to use in developing an empirical program of inquiry into possible basic natural causes. To that end, I indicate how, throughout his arguments, Helmholtz employed, sometimes explicitly, but often tacitly, an empiricist logic, one that ran contrary to any form of transcendental deduction, and even to all a priori knowledge. Instead of deriving aspects about the ultimate constituents of nature, Helmholtz aimed to define the proper project for physical natural science. The first part of the paper describes the context of discussion in which Helmholtz entered. The bulk of the paper then analyzes Helmholtz's arguments in order to make space between (1) Kantian, and other, deductions of characteristics that must be true of nature and (2) Helmholtz's delineation of empirically determinable characteristics of presumed ultimate elements of nature, ones that he meant to be specified and delimited through future experimental research. The paper highlights that throughout his discussion Helmholtz meant to define the proper project for physical natural science, a project rife with empiricist aspects.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00033790903430806

Affiliations: Max Planck Institute for History of Science, Berlin, Germany,Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Berlin, Germany

Publication date: January 1, 2010

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