Thesis ID: CBB001561193

The Doctrine of Description: Gustav Kirchhoff, Classical Physics, and the “Purpose of All Science” in 19th-Century Germany (2008)


Oldham, Kalil T. Swain (Author)

University of California, Berkeley
Carson, Cathryn

Publication Date: 2008
Edition Details: Advisor: Carson, Cathryn
Physical Details: 431 pp.
Language: English

In 1875 Berlin University hired Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (1824-1887) to fill its first chair in theoretical physics. When he introduced his inaugural series of lectures that summer, on mechanics, Kirchhoff argued that physics should avoid seeking causal explanations and limit itself only to simple and accurate descriptions of natural phenomena. He held to this position, a brand of epistemological phenomenalism, until his retirement nearly ten years later. Kirchhoff's 1875 lectures represent a manifestation of the complicated relationship between philosophy and physics, which characterizes the history of nineteenth-century German science. Using Kirchhoff's story as a wedge, this dissertation examines that relationship. Kirchhoff's philosophical and methdological stance foreshadowed a rising tide of ambivalence about claims to absolute truth in the natural sciences. Looking at episodes from the history of classical physics (electrodynamics, physical chemistry, and thermodynamics) and the history of philosophy of science, this dissertation highlights the complex ways in which physics and philosophy intertwined in the nineteenth century. A close-knit group of professors--including Kirchhoff, Hermann von Helmholtz, Emil du Bois-Reymond, Robert Bunsen, and Eduard Zeller--negotiated the boundaries of their particular disciplines as they debated the purpose and limits of scientific inquiry in general. While philosophical reflections by natural scientists were not uncommon, the methodological and epistemological positions developed by Kirchhoff and his colleagues--at Heidelberg and Berlin--are important because they provided a framework for discussions of the foundations of modern theoretical physics. Occurring in the generation after Kirchhoff's, these foundational discussions paved the way for the modern revolutions in physics and their profound philosophical implications. Kirchhoff's decision to divorce the natural sciences from metaphysical notions, therefore, had significant consequences for science and philosophy in the years around the fin de siècle . The audience for this dissertation will include historians of German physics, historians of nineteenth-century science in general, scholars interested in the intersection between the history of science and philosophy, and those interested in the broader interaction between science and culture.


Description Cited in Diss. Abstr. Int. A 69/10 (2009). Pub. no. AAT 3331743.

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Authors & Contributors
Cahan, David L.
James, Frank A. J. L.
Jurkowitz, Edward P.
Darrigol, Olivier
Paretti, Germana
De Palma, Armando
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Ambix: Journal of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry
Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Nuncius: Annali di Storia della Scienza
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Wilhelm Fink Verlag
University of California, Los Angeles
University of Toronto
Harvard University
Edizioni ETS
Philosophy of science
Science and technology, relationships
Science and culture
Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von
Du Bois-Reymond, Emil Heinrich
Kirchhoff, Gustav Robert
Mach, Ernst
Bunsen, Robert Wilhelm von
Grassmann, Hermann Günther
United States
Central Europe: Germany, Austria, Switzerland
19th century
20th century, early
18th century
20th century
Royal Society (Great Britain). European Science Exchange Programme

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