Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science

Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science

Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science

Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth-Century Science


Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) was a polymath of dazzling intellectual range and energy. Renowned for his co-discovery of the second law of thermodynamics and his invention of the ophthalmoscope, Helmholtz also made many other contributions to physiology, physical theory, philosophy of science and mathematics, and aesthetic thought. During the late nineteenth century, Helmholtz was revered as a scientist-sage--much like Albert Einstein in this century.

David Cahan has assembled an outstanding group of European and North American historians of science and philosophy for this intellectual biography of Helmholtz, the first ever to critically assess both his published and unpublished writings. It represents a significant contribution not only to Helmholtz scholarship but also to the history of nineteenth-century science and philosophy in general.


David Cahan

Historians of modern science, philosophy, and cultural history have long recognized that Hermann von Helmholtz played a leading role in European cultural life during the second half of the nineteenth century. Helmholtz’s genius profoundly altered his principal scientific disciplines of physiology and physics, and influenced the related disciplines of medicine, mathematics, physical chemistry, psychology, and meteorology. Philosophy and the fine arts of painting and music were also affected by his work. His views on science and society were listened to and solicited by ministers of state, and late in his career he participated in the interactions of science and industry.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Helmholtz’s thinking was the ability to link findings within a given cognitive domain or between two or more domains. Although he helped shape several disciplines, his abiding intellectual interests were transdisciplinary in nature: what most engaged him were general problems of energy transformation, human perception, understanding nature as a mechanical system, and the foundations and limits of science itself. Moreover, his scientific work occasioned and, to some extent was also contoured by, his articulation of epistemological views and a philosophy of science and mathematics; even the nature of aesthetic experience and the place and role of science in society came within his cognitive purview. in May 1871, shortly after assuming his new position as professor of

Acknowledgments: I thank Jed Buchwald, Richard L. Kremer, R. Steven Turner, and (especially) Jean Axelrad Cahan for their comments on an earlier version of this Introduction.

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