Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Unity of Physics and Poetry: H. C. ØRsted and the Aesthetics of Force

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Unity of Physics and Poetry: H. C. ØRsted and the Aesthetics of Force

Article excerpt


A new era in the history of science began in the summer of 1820 when Hans Christian Orsted announced his discovery of electromagnetism. In the attempt to understand the conceptual underpinnings of Orsted's discovery, historians have generally believed that he was guided by a steadfast commitment to a force-based ontology inspired by Kant's dynamical theory of matter, which led him, in turn, to conceive of physical phenomena such as electricity, galvanism, magnetism, heat, and light as effects of force-based causes.1 As such, scholars have believed that Orsted pursued his experimental work within a well-defined theoretical framework that provided him with coherent metaphysically grounded explanations of physical phenomena, even if the explanations were ultimately flawed. By approaching the foundations of Orsted's science from this perspective, scholars have therefore naturally assumed that the conceptual term "force" (Kraft) in Orsted's scientific writings functioned as a purely theoretical term, which referred to a well-defined unobservable entity as the underlying ontological and causal ground of physical phenomena.

There have been two prominent dissenting voices regarding both the clarity and directness of Orsted's use of "force" as a theoretical term in his scientific thought. In 1973, Barry Cower argued that Orsted "involved himself in conceptual confusions, particularly with regard to force, which vitiated much of his work."2 For Cower,

Orsted's inability to decide whether forces are peculiar properties of matter or whether they are supra-sensible non-spatial entities causally responsible for the existence of matter shows clearly that the tortuous abstractness of Kantian and post-Kantian metaphysics was capable of defeating even those scientists who believed that a conceptual analysis of the foundations of science was of the utmost importance.3

Thus, in Gower's view, Orsted was undone as a theoretician by an overpowering and implicitly destructive metaphysics. More recently, Kenneth Canevá has also challenged the standard view of the coherence of the conceptual foundations of Orsted's scientific thought. According to Canevá, Orsted's science suffered from theoretical uncertainty as a result of general conceptual confusion and what he has described as ontological wavering and "fudging."4 According to Canevá, Orsted "never succeeded either in settling upon a fixed and coherent terminology or in clearly defining the fundamental concepts that might be captured by consistently deployed terms."5 Thus, in regard specifically to "force," Canevá has asserted that "it is not safe to assume that he ever held clear and unified concepts associated with [it] and related terms."6 In the absence of conceptual and terminological coherence, Orsted therefore never achieved "a clear and consistent formulation" in regard to "the formal relationship among the forces and activities of nature" or in regard "to their ontological status."7

Like the conclusion reached by more sympathetic readers of Orsted, the conclusion drawn by Gower and Canevá that Orsted was a conceptually confused thinker has been based on the assumption that he attempted to employ pure theoretical terms and concepts in his science to provide metaphysically grounded causal explanations of observable phenomena. Gower and Canevá just happen to believe that Orsted wasn't very skilled in doing so. Contrary to other Orsted scholars, though, their work has shown that interpreting Orsted's writings is frequently neither easy nor straightforward, especially in regard to the conceptual terms contained in his works, and most particularly in regard to the term Kraft and its compounds.

Some of the problems encountered by Gower, Canevá, and others in interpreting Orsted's works are the result of reading them within an overly narrow context. For instance, to date there have been very few attempts to understand the conceptual foundations of Orsted's science within a context that extends beyond his reliance on the philosophical thought of Kant and Schelling. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.