Alberto Vanzo writes…
I have been wondering recently when German thinkers ceased considering physics as a part of philosophy and whether this may be related to the demise of experimental philosophy in late eighteenth-century Germany. I think that this may have well been the case. My hypothesis is that experimental philosophy declined as the result of the influence of Kantian and post-Kantian idealism and that the distinction between physics and philosophy gained foot in the 1830s and the 1840s as a reaction to post-Kantian idealism. In this post, I would like to expand on this suggestion and ask you for comments and pointers for further research.
As is well-known, physics was generally regarded as a part of philosophy in the early modern age. This is true for most early modern German writers, including several German experimental philosophers who, in the 1770s and 1780s, attempted to develop their systems on the basis of experiments and observations and eschewed hypotheses and a priori speculations. They held that the whole of philosophy relied on the same method as physics.
In the last two decades of the eighteenth century, Kantian and post-Kantian philosophies came to dominate the philosophical scene and eclipsed the German tradition of experimental philosophy. Kant vindicated a metaphysics based on a priori reasonings rather than observations and experiments. Kant held that we can discover some features of the natural world a priori. He distinguished this a priori, metaphysical study of nature from empirical, experimental physics, which he regarded as a part of philosophy too. However, at the end of the Critique of Pure Reason he introduced a narrow notion of philosophy that includes only a priori disciplines and excludes empirical physics from the domain of philosophy:
- Thus the metaphysics of nature as well as morals, but above all the preparatory (propaedeutic) critique of reason that dares to fly with its own wings, alone constitute that which we can call philosophy in a genuine sense. (A850/B878)
Early-day Kantians agreed with Kant that experimental physics was part of philosophy in the broad sense, but not of philosophy in the narrow sense. However, many of their pronouncements imply that physics (tacitly identified with experimental physics) is not part of philosophy (tacitly identified with Kant’s narrow notion of philosophy). For instance, the Kantian Johann Gottlieb Buhle wrote that, when seventeenth-century writers used the expression “Cartesian philosophy”, they were often thinking “about his physics and cosmogony rather than about his philosophy in the proper sense”. With statements like this, Kant and his disciplines promoted a division of labour between the a priori inquiries of philosophers and the a posteriori research of physicists.
Did German authors start distinguishing between physics and philosophy once the Neo-Kantians started spreading Kant’s outlook in the 1860s, as Richard Rorty claimed? I believe that several German authors started distinguishing physics from philosophy much earlier, in the 1830s or 1840s. One of the most important events in the German intellectual scene between Kant’s death in 1804 and the 1840s was the rise and decline of post-Kantian idealism. Post-Kantian idealists like Schelling and Hegel pursued an approach to the study of nature that was heavily influenced by their own philosophical speculations (Schelling, for instance, founded a Journal for Speculative Physics). I believe that the tendency to distinguish physics from philosophy spread as a reaction to the attitude of post-Kantian idealists towards physics. The entry “Physik” published in the Brockhaus Conversations-Lexicon in 1833, two years after Hegel’s death, states:
- philosophy, at least in Germany, has again attempted to gain influence on physics. However, after all attempts to found physics from this side [i.e. on philosophy] proved unfruitful, only very few physicists, and actually not the most thorough ones, still believe that they could replace the secure footing that mathematics made possible to give [to physics] with the still very shaky concepts of philosophy. Hence, even if the so-called dynamical conception of physics that is related to this philosophical point of view still survives in some speculations, nevertheless we must admit that now only the mechanical point of view is influential and valid in real-life physics [im Leben der Physik].
Although suggestive, this single quote is hardly sufficient to prove my hypothesis that German authors started distinguishing physics from philosophy as a reaction to the post-Kantian idealistic tendencies that had in turn eclipsed experimental philosophy. Do you think that this view is persuasive? Also, when did physics stop being regarded as a part of philosophy in Great Britain and France? I would be grateful for any comments and suggestions.