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Absolute Space and Relativity

Absolute Space And Relativity

The loss of the concrete is substantially a spiritual disease. With the thinning out of faith into a reverential attitude toward symbols, the meaning of the symbols themselves is thinned out to propositions the truth of which has to be demonstrated by rea­son. As a residuum of reality there remains only the structure and content of consciousness, that is, of a self no longer open toward transcendental reality. This general pneumo-pathological state, which in itself may occur and has occurred in other periods of history, receives its specific coloration as a result of the coincident rise of mathematical physics.

A new world-filling reality, emerging from Galilean and Cartesian physics and systematized in Newto­nian mechanics, is ready to substitute for God and his creation. The new science, on principle, is a science only of phenomenal nature; that the edifice of science could assume ontological functions is a result of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

This fallacy becomes the vehicle of the trend toward materialism in the sense of a worldview wherein all realms of being are reduced to the one and true reality of matter. The pathos of this view, insofar as it is carried by the new science itself, is expressed in the anecdote of Napoleon and Laplace: when questioned by Napoleon whether, in­deed, he had not mentioned God in his Mécanique céleste, Laplace answered proudly, “I have no use for this hypothesis!” The mech­anism of matter extends infinitely, and God has been squeezed out of his world.

When the issue is stated in such bald language, it seems almost unbelievable that the movement of enlightened scientism could have the strength and duration that it actually had and still has, and that it should have taken the work of generations of thinkers to dissolve such crude mistakes of thought. We do not intend to diminish this impression. Reading the literature of this movement is an ordeal to the infidel and causes him the same exasperation as the reading of Marxist or National Socialist literature.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the authors are particularly deficient in intellectual capacity. Their inability to handle elemen­tary speculative problems rather illustrates that there is no limit to intellectual disorder once the nosos of the spirit has corroded the personality of the thinker.

The One Serious Theoretical Problem

Nevertheless, the situation is not quite as bad as it looks at first sight. There is one real and very serious theoretical problem involved in the position of enlightened scientism. Even though this problem was too peripheral to be of great concern to spiritualist thinkers, as long as it remained un­solved it greatly strengthened the position of those who for other reasons were inclined toward adopting the scientistic creed. We are speaking of the problem of absolute space that was built into the foundations of modern science through Newton’s Principia and that has found its full and satisfactory solution only through Einstein’s theory of relativity.

We must discuss this problem for two reasons. In the first place, it was Berkeley’s starting point for his recovery of the concrete. Beyond this restricted importance in the English quest for the con­crete, however, it has an importance for understanding the impact of enlightened scientism on the Western scene that can hardly be exaggerated.

The Newtonian theory of absolute space lent a sem­blance of justification to the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Without this piece of Newtonian doctrine scientistic materialism, with its ramifications in the Encyclopedist movement, in utili­tarianism and positivism, in the sociology of Comte and Mill, in Marxism, and so forth, would have had little ground to stand on. The belief that science is the key to the understanding of nature in an ontological sense has entered as a decisive ingredient into every one of our political mass movements—liberalism, Progressivism, Darwinism, Communism, and National Socialism. The historical root of this belief is the Newtonian theory of space.

Relativity from Copernicus and Bruno to Leibniz

The problem of absolute and relative space does not begin with Newton. It begins with Copernicus and his assumption that the sun is at the center of our planetary system. In the theory of Copernicus we could discern a tendency toward making the sun the ontologi­cally real center of the system, but the predominant motivation was still the simplification of the mathematical description of planetary movements. The problems of scientific description and of ontology were clearly distinguished. We have seen in an earlier part of this study that the issue was well understood in the sixteenth century and that it was carried to its systematic solution before the century’s end.43

Copernicus justified the revolutionary shift of his system of coordinates from the earth to the sun by explaining the relativity of movement. He made it clear that the “real” movement of two bodies that are moved relative to each other is in no way affected by the assumption that one or the other is the origin of the coor­dinates that are used for the description of the movement. Bodin, in his late work, saw the point with equal clearness and drew the conclusion that one might as well shift the coordinates back to the earth. Astronomers might prefer the sun as a center because the assumption allowed for a simpler mathematical description. He, as a philosopher of politics and nature, preferred the earth as a center for reasons of his own. Relativity must be taken seriously. If the theory of space as an absolute extension around the earth is a fallacy, the theory of space as an absolute extension around the sun is no less a fallacy.

Giordano Bruno’s Solution

Gior­dano Bruno had given the systematic elaboration of the problem. Space is phenomenally infinite because this infinity is a projection of the form of the human mind. Ontologically; in the mind of God, the universe is One and the celestial worlds are embraced by this Oneness. The celestial worlds are not embraced as by a space, but they in their turn embrace this Oneness as every part of the soul embraces the soul.

The empirical analysis of space, as well as the transcendental analysis in the Kantian sense, touches only certain aspects of the total problem. Cosmological specula­tion is the theoretical instrument for its complete formulation. This solution of Bruno needs elaboration and reformulation, but in principle it can hardly be improved.

On the level of empir­ical science it has been carried out and confirmed by the the­ory of relativity through the assumption of an unbounded, curved space that runs back into itself.44 As far as the Copernican prob­lem is concerned, Bruno drew the conclusion that an infinitely closed space has no absolute center. Its center is everywhere and nowhere, and the choice of the place for the origin of coordinates is arbitrary.

Leibniz and the Logic of Physics

The correctness of the relativistic formulation impressed itself on the contemporaries of Newton. Leibniz developed the problem perhaps furthest in the course of his phoronomic studies. Geometry as the logic of mathematics should be supplemented by phoronomy, a general theory of motion, as the logic of physics.

The first principle of motion, however, is that the movement of a body can be observed only in relation to another body, which is assumed to be resting. Movement is a mutual and inevitable shift of position of material parts. In any system of bodies in relative movement with respect to each other we can chose one of the bodies as being at rest and refer the movement of the other to the coordinates originating in the “resting” body.

Such choice of a resting body for the purpose of description Leibniz calls a “hypothesis.” One of these hypotheses may render a simpler description than the other, but its simplic­ity does not make the hypothesis “truer.” On principle, all such hypotheses are “equivalent.” The “general law of equivalence” is Leibniz’s formulation of the problem of relativity.45

The meaning Leibniz attached to this principle may be gathered from the fact that he wrote a memorandum on this question with the intention of inducing the Curia to admit the Copernican system. He argued that from the point of view of logic there is no opposition between the Copernican and the Ptolemaic systems. The choice of heliocentric or geocentric coordinates is equivalent, and the greater descriptive simplicity of the Copernican system does not imply the proposition that the movements as described by it are real in an ontological sense.46

Galileo and the Inquisition

At the time the trend toward a theory of relativity, however, could not fully unfold because the various aspects of the problem were not yet sufficiently clarified by philosophical analysis. These various aspects are (1) the objectivity of science, its “truth” that is rooted in its method; (2) the empirical view of the world that results from the application of the method to the partial phenomena of the external world; and (3) the speculative interpretation of the cosmos that ex­presses the relation of man to the totality of his world experience.

In the physics of the seventeenth century these elements still formed an undifferentiated compound. The speculative element was not yet completely eliminated from the method, and, as a consequence, the empirical results carried implications that properly belonged to the speculative sphere. This historically inevitable, but nevertheless unfortunate, transi­tional state of the problem led to the much misunderstood conflict of Galileo with the Inquisition. The crucial question concerned the kind of “truth” that should be attributed to the Copernican system.

Cardinal Bellarmine suggested a solution to Galileo that substantially was the solution that Leibniz advanced in the pre­viously mentioned memorandum. Galileo admitted that it was not the same thing to show that with the Copernican hypothe­sis phenomenal problems could be solved, and to prove that the hypothesis was true in nature. Nevertheless, he continues, a sys­tem is false if it does not account for all the phenomena, and a system is true if it accounts for them in the most satisfactory manner. “For one cannot and must not search for a higher truth in a proposition of science than that it accounts for all the particular phenomena.”47

The situation is both fascinating and revealing: the representative of the Inquisition is willing to settle for relativity, but the physicist has absolutist hesitations. The reasons of Galileo’s hesitation are clear. They are contained in his formulation that one must not look for a higher truth in a proposition than its adequacy for the interpre­tation of phenomena. He has understood that the truth of science rests in the objectivity of its method. The Copernican interpreta­tion is, therefore, “true” because it accounts for the phenomena in the most satisfactory manner.

Moreover, he is quite right in his enunciation that one must not look for a higher truth in a scientific proposition. The adequacy of interpretation is all the truth there is in science, and hence the Copernican theory is true, while the Ptolemaic is false. What he is apparently not able to grasp (and in this respect he is the forerunner of generations of physicists) is the possibility that the interpretation of nature cannot be exhausted by a science of phenomena.

The Finite Scope of Empirical Science

While, indeed, there is no more truth in science than he can find in it, there is plenty of truth beyond the science of phenomena. The view of nature that emerges from the application of scientific methods to phenomena certainly is true, but it is the correlate of the methods that have been applied and no more than that. The problem of the absoluteness of space is not a problem in empirical science, so that the methodical and empirical truth of the Copernican system does not so much as touch it.

Hence the curious distribution of roles in the conflict. Cardinal Bellarmine apparently understood that the absoluteness that was his concern had nothing to do with empirical science; any theory in science was bearable as long as it did not raise claims that would pull the earth from under the feet of man who, indeed, is the center of the world of the religious and metaphysical symbols that he creates. The interest the church had in the Ptolomaic system did not fundamentally concern its validity as a scientific theory of the planetary world. The religious interest touched the validity of a symbolism that originates in the experience of the human soul and its spiritual destiny as the center of the cosmic drama. Since souls are embodied and the bodies are located on the earth, the cosmos has its symbolic center in the scene of its climactic drama.

The shift of the spatial center becomes an attack on the experience of the spiritual drama if the shift is construed as the displacement of the “real” center in the symbolic sense. While Bellarmine’s instinct in these matters was sure, his analysis of the problem did not go far enough to convince Galileo. His suggestion of a settlement in terms of two hypotheses neither of which would have a bearing on reality reduces the problems of speculation and of science to the same level. It does not differentiate between the realms of religious symbolization and metaphysical speculation on the one side, and the realm of empirical science on the other side. That the beautiful Copernican theory should be no more than a “hypothesis” could hardly be made palatable to an enthusiastic scientist unless it could be made clear to him at the same time that the function of science for the interpretation of the world is in principle limited.

Galileo in his turn did not differentiate the components of the problem any better than Bellarmine, and, moreover, he was at a disadvantage because he did not even have the cardinal’s instinct for the problem. His enthusiasm for the new science, which unfolded its potentialities under his hands and those of his contemporaries, sustained his indulgence in the belief that now a “true” system of the world had been found, and it was destined to supersede the old one. In this respect again, Galileo is the forerunner of generations of physicists who indulged in the fallacy that the advancement of science could affect the truth of metaphysics and religious symbolization. The error of Galileo, which stands at the beginning of the scientistic movement, is the same error that lies at the bottom of the evolutionist creed movement in the wake of Darwin.

Newton’s Assumption of Absolute Space

On occasion of Galileo’s conflict with the Inquisition the issue of absolutism versus relativity became clear as far as the general problems of the truth of science and of the truth of speculation and religious symbolization are concerned. These general problems were formidable. Nevertheless, they might have been cleared up quickly, and they were cleared up in principle by Leibniz.

The obsta­cle to a rapid advancement toward a theory of relativity in physics arose from the internal problems of the new science. This obstacle was present already in Galileo’s theory of motion, but it became fully visible only with Newton’s formulation of the general law of gravitation and the consequent elaboration of a general theory of physics in the Principia Mathematica.48

Newton found it necessary to assume the existence of absolute space and of absolute motion.  In the Scholium to Definition VIII he defines: “Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always similar and immovable. Relative space is some movable dimension or measure of the absolute spaces; which our senses determine by its position to bodies; and which is commonly taken for immovable space.”

A bit further on in the Scholium he explains the reason for his assumption:

“Because the parts of space cannot be seen, or distinguished from one another by our senses, therefore in their stead we use sensible measures of them. For from the positions and distances of things from any body considered as immovable, we define all places; and then with respect to such places, we estimate all motions, considering bodies as transferred from some of those places into others.”

And so, instead of absolute places and motions, we use relative ones; and that without any inconvenience in common affairs; but in philosophical disquisitions, we ought to abstract from our senses, and consider things themselves, distinct from what are only sensible measures of them. For it may be that there is no body really at rest, to which the places and motions of others may be referred.

Absolute Space as a Device to Explain Rest

Newton envisages absolute space as an absolute order of “places”; this order of places is a “primary” system to which motion ultimately can be referred. Only “translations out of those places” are truly absolute motions. Since, however, these absolute places cannot be observed by the senses, the ques­tion arises as to what purpose we should assume their existence? This delicate question Newton covers by his vague reference to the “philosophical disquisitions” that make such deeds necessary.

Embarking on such philosophical disquisition, Newton finds that rest and motion, absolute and relative, can be distinguished by their properties, causes, and effects. “It is a property of rest, that bodies really at rest do rest in respect to one another.” This definition of rest holds good in spite of the fact that such absolutely resting bodies, if they exist at all, may be found only in the region of the fixed stars, or even beyond that region, whereas absolute rest cannot be determined “from the positions of bodies in our region.”

While empirical observation does not show any bodies at absolute rest, Newton nevertheless introduces this concept. Here we have tracked down the first serious reason that would induce a physicist to make the assumption of absolute space: he needs the assumption for the purpose of defining rest. And he needs this concept in order to maintain the first law of motion that “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.” Without the assumption of absolute space no meaning can be given to the notion of absolute rest, and absolute rest seemed to Newton, as it did to Galileo, a fundamental experience that could not be dispensed with in the formulation of the first law of motion.

The second reason for Newton’s assumption of absolute space was his belief that he could observe cases of motion without change of place. Absolute motion in this sense had to be distinguished from relative motion. The criterion for this distinction is given through observations with regard to centrifugal forces. “The effects which distinguish absolute from relative motion are, the forces receding from the axis of circular motion. For there are no such forces in a circular motion purely relative, but in a true and absolute circular motion, they are greater or less, according to the quantity of the motion.” An important instance of such effects is the polar flattening of the earth due to centrifugal forces.

Newton’s Religious Motives: The Influence of Henry More

In the face of such difficulties the theoretically indicated course would have been to revise the fundamental definitions and to drop the concepts of absolute rest and absolute motion. This is the course that was actually followed by Ernst Mach in the second half of the nineteenth century. Newton, however, did not contemplate this possibility. His insistence on absolute space seems to have been fortified by motives that appeared more clearly in the Scholium Generale, which he attached to the second edition of the Principia, of 1713, as well as in the additions to the second edition of his Optics. These additions reveal how strongly Newton’s theory of absolute space was influenced by Henry More, the Cambridge Pla­tonist (1614-1687).

More’s metaphysics of space arises at the intersection of his Neoplatonic mysticism with his interest in the new Cartesian physics. He was not satisfied with Descartes’s identification of extension and matter that would have materialized space; nor was he satisfied with a subjectivist analysis that would have defined space as the concept of a relation between bodies, that is, with the analysis of the Hobbesian type. He recognized that distance is a relation between bodies, but he insisted that this relation has a basis: “The basis of this relation is something real.”49 Spatial extension reaches to infinity, has existed from eternity, and will exist into eternity; and it exists independent of our thought.

Since extension is a “real attribute,” a subject for this attribute must exist. This subject cannot be found in the corporeal world of our observations, with its limited and discrete extensions. The real subject of absolute space, as well as of absolute time, can only be the divine substance that manifests its own infinity in the double infinity of absolute space and time. More is explicit on the religious motivation of his assumption. He intends to bring God back into the world through the same gate through which Cartesian philosophy tried to shut him out from it.50

More’s metaphysics of space held a double appeal for Newton. More’s mysticism struck a responsive chord in Newton the mystic. His anti-Cartesianism was an important support to Newton the physicist. In the Optics Newton gave the most concise formula­tion of his own position. From the phenomena of nature it follows that “there exists an incorporeal Being, living, intelligent and om­nipresent.” This Being uses space “as it were as its sensorium”; and by this sensorium it “sees all things intimately in themselves and perceives them throughout, and in its presence embraces all things present in it.” The sentient and thinking principle within us, on the other hand, can perceive only the images of things by means of its sensoriolum, its little sensorium.51

A Material Space Eliminates the Need for God

The position of the second edition of the Principia does not differ from that in the Optics. Let us quote only a passage that will communicate the pathos of Newton:

“As a blind man has no idea of colors, so have we no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things. He is utterly void of all body and bodily figure, and can therefore neither be seen, nor heard, nor touched; nor ought he to be worshiped under the representation of any corporeal thing . . . .”

“We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes; we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion: for we adore him as his servants; and a god without dominion, providence and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature. Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing . . . .”

“And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy”.52

The passages from More and Newton reveal the connection be­tween the new science and the problems of freethinking.

The Carte­sian materialization of extension would fill the infinity of space in the universe with matter and its mechanism. There would be no mystery left in the existence of the cosmos. Into its remotest recesses the universe would be known as a configuration of matter, and God, indeed, would be shut out from his creation. If the nature revealed by the new science was the nature of the cosmos, there was, indeed, no use for the “hypothesis” of God. More’s device for counteracting this tendency through positing the divine sub­stance as the fundamentum of spatial extension was ingenuous but fraught with dangers.

For a short while the device could serve as an argument against atheists and materialists in the literature that tried to prove the existence of God. The very science that at first seemed a danger to religion now furnished the most convincing proof of God. The most important treatise that used this argument was written by Newton’s friend Samuel Clarke.53 The joy, as could be expected, did not last long. The attempt to save God by science soon ran into pantheistic difficulties. An omnipresent God who was the spiritual substance underlying phenomenal extension was a bit too present in the world to retain at the same time his “dominion” as the transcendental Lord of creation.

Worse, however, than these difficulties, which dragged on in a long and dreary debate, was the fact that men of a less religious temper simply did not care about the divine substance underlying absolute space. The intellectuals who absorbed the Newtonian system, in particular after its popular­ization through Voltaire, were satisfied with Newton’s recognition of absolute space and could dispense with his religious motivation. The system of the Principia was complete with the first edition; the Scholium Generale of the second edition added nothing to empiri­cal physics.

Here was a system of the world, legitimated by the ge­nius of the man whose name at this time carried more authority in the intellectual world than anybody else’s. And this system showed the world as consisting of nothing but matter obeying a uniform law. The theory of absolute space sealed this system ontologically against God, and by virtue of this character, the Newtonian system became socially effective. The well-intentioned theory of absolute space had resulted in precisely the disorder it had intended to avert.

Berkeley’s Psychological Criticism of Newton

The genius of Newton lay in the field of mathematics and physics. When he let his thought wander beyond this province, the results were of doubtful quality.   The Principia was the great cornerstone for the edifice of science that was to be erected in the following cen­turies, but the definitions and theoretical excursions in the scholia could only arouse the vehement criticism of philosophers.   In par­ticular Newton exposed himself to criticism with his proud decla­ration of autonomy for the new science.   Physics could go its course, as it actually did, conscientiously applying the well-established methods to observed phenomena, without regard for the debates of metaphysi­cians. The Scholium Generale had announced the precept hypotheses non fingo: “whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechan­ical, have no place in experimental philosophy.”   The assumption of absolute space was a glaring contradiction to this declaration; certainly this fundamental “hypothesis” was not deduced from the phenomena.

We shall not be surprised, therefore, when now we turn to Berkeley and his criticism of Newton’s theory, to find some pungent remarks concerning the boundaries between physics and metaphysics.   In his De Motu (1721) Berkeley writes:

“For the rest, it would be convenient, setting aside that it is a well established custom, to distinguish between sciences in such a manner that each is well circumscribed by its proper boundaries. The philosopher of nature should remain entirely with his experiments, his laws of motion, his mechanical principles and the conclusions derived therefrom; if he has something to say on other matters, he should relate what is accepted in the respective higher science.”

The con­text leaves hardly a doubt that the remarks about the philosophus naturalis are meant to put Newton in his place.54   Berkeley’s criticism of Newton’s theory moves on two planes. With regard to the method of physics he returns to the principle of relativity. A body can be recognized as moving only in relation to another body that is relatively at rest. The idea of absolute motion is incompatible with the conditions of experience. Motion can be measured only by things given to the senses. Since absolute space is not given to the senses, it cannot be used for the distinction of different types of motion. The conception of an absolute motion is impossible.55

Relativity and Human Psychology

Moreover, in empirical science we do not need such a conception. All that we need is a system of reference that permits us to distinguish between bodies that are relatively at rest or in motion. And such a system we have given in the heaven of the fixed stars. We do not need the assumption of an absolute space for the formulation of the laws of motion because they are valid if we use the fixed stars as the system at rest instead of absolute space.56   The laws of motion are generalizations from observations and no more. We must “distinguish between mathematical hypotheses and the nature of things.” Motion belongs to the world of senses, and we must be satisfied with relative measurements.57

Berkeley’s second approach to the problem lies on the way of a psychological analysis of the illusions that lead to the assumption of absolute space. The idea of a space without a content is empty, it is a merum nihil.58 We are deceived, however, into the assumption because in speculating on the problem of space we subtract all bodies but forget to subtract our own.   If we imagine space emptied of all content we still have an experience of space because we have the experience of our body and of the movements of its members. The experience in itself is not deceptive, but what we experience is the relative space defined by the parts of our body.

The attribution of absoluteness to this space is a fallacy.59   The meaning of the somewhat brief passages in De Motu becomes clearer through the more discursive analysis in the Principles of Human Knowledge. As far as the observation of moving bodies is concerned, says Berkeley in the Principles, we never can observe anything but bodies moving relatively to each other. The physicist is such an observer of moving bodies, and hence in physics nothing can be admitted but a concept of relative motion. Nevertheless, we not only observe motion, we can also experience it:

“Now, I ask any one whether, in his sense of motion as he walks along the streets, the stones he passes over may be said to move, because they change distance with his feet? To me it appears that though motion includes a relation of one thing to another, yet it is not necessary that each term of the relation be denominated from it.”60

Berkeley, thus, recognizes the experience of absolute motion, but he considers it impermissible to inject this experience into mathematical physics. The laws of science can only describe the observed motions, and observed motions are relative.

Absolute Motion: True for People and for Physics?

Knowingly or unknowingly, Berkeley has touched with this argu­ment on one of the actual historical roots of the Newtonian concep­tion of absolute space. In his correspondence with Descartes, Henry More had advanced the experience of absolute rest and motion as an argument against Descartes’s radical concept of “reciprocal” move­ment: “When I am sitting quietly, and another man who moves away, let us say a thousand steps, becomes red in his face and fa­tigued, while I who am sitting do not become red-faced and fatigued, it certainly is he who has moved, while I have been at rest during the time.”61 More used the experience of absolute motion as an argument against relativity. This double use to which the argument could be put (for or against relativity) indicates the insufficient differentiation of problems that characterizes the state of theory at this period.

It indicates also, however, that the problem of absolute motion has its complexities. Berkeley was of course right when he protested against the injection of experienced absolute motion into the description of observed relative motion. Nevertheless, we are faced with the fact that there are some bodies in the universe, namely human bodies, who know when they are in absolute motion and when at absolute rest. One may eject absolute motion from physics, but the problem will reappear on the level of speculation, and with it there will reappear the problem of absolute space. The difficulties that Galileo had with the Inquisition appear now on the level of a conflict between the relative motion of physics and the analysis of the experience of absolute motion. The relativity of motion in science does not abolish the problem of an absolute order of the universe that is revealed and centered in the experience of man.

The complexity of the problem showed itself in the opposite use that Berkeley and More could make of the argument from absolute motion. It shows itself, furthermore, in the opposition of purpose between the two thinkers. More wanted absolute space to serve as the immaterial, divine fundamentum of infinite phenomenal space in order to save the existence of God. Berkeley wants to get rid of absolute space for precisely the same purpose. The chief advantage that arises from the elimination of absolute space “is that we are freed from the dangerous dilemma . . . . of thinking either that Real Space is God, or else that there is something beside God which is eternal, uncreated, infinite, indivisible, immutable. Both which may justly be thought pernicious and absurd notions.”62

Berkeley has achieved his purpose of saving God by disentangling him from the space of physics–but this saving action does not solve the problem of space. His psychological analysis has led us a good step deeper into the problem. It has brought the distinction between generalizations from observed phenomena in physics and the realm of human experience, but it has left the problem of absolute space more or less where it was before.

The Deadlock: Fitting the Philosophy to the Physics

A psychological analysis of the Berkeleyan type can dispose of the concept of absolute space as a merum nihil, it can trace the idea to its origin in the experience of the body, it can show the fallacy of hypostatizing this experience into an objective quality of phenomenal space, and–what is most important for Berkeley–it can by such effective criticism clear the way for the philosophia prima. It cannot, however, persuade a physicist to consider his problem solved.   When Galileo discovered the law of motion he did not consider a body at rest in relation to the fixed stars. He considered it absolutely at rest. The laws of science are meant to be valid absolutely. As a follower of Newton expressed it:

“From the observation of nature we all know that there is motion, that a body in motion perseveres in that state, till by the action or influence of some power it be necessitated to change it, that it is not in relative or apparent motion in which it perseveres in consequence of its inertia, but in real and absolute space.”63

If we assume with Descartes that the place of a body is determined by its relation to the bodies in its neighborhood, the law of motion would have to announce that a body on which no external force is applied cannot change its position with regard to the surrounding bodies. This law is absurd because obviously the relative position can be changed by applying forces to the surrounding bodies.

In brief: the criticism of the philosophers, as Berkeley did with Newton, is not constructive. As far as physics is concerned, the only result will be that the physicists will have to put them in their place. And this is what actually happened through Leonhard Euler in his Réflexions sur l’espace et le temps (1748). The philosophers were told that the certainty of the laws of mechanics must be the starting point of the inquiry. Any criticism that is in conflict with those principles must be rejected, however conclusive in itself it may be. The metaphysical principles must be chosen in such a manner that they will be compatible with physics.

The physicists and their philosophical critics had come to a dead­lock. It was a deadlock with rather grave consequences. If we take Euler’s demand seriously and generalize it, we arrive at the rule that every time an empirical scientist makes a mess of his fundamental concepts–which is a rather ordinary occurrence–the philosophers would be faced by the alternative of either clearing up the mess for him, or of henceforth talking nonsense in epistemology and meta­physics.

The demand has a touch of the burlesque. Nevertheless, it could be imposed with a measure of success. The graveness of the situation may be gathered from the fact that even Kant submitted to it, after some vacillation, at least to the extent of recognizing the Faktum der Wissenschaft including Newton’s absolute space.64 Be­fore we elaborate, however, on this curiosity of our intellectual civ­ilization, we must briefly outline the further differentiation of the problem of absolute space and the solution toward which it tended.

Leibniz Solves the Problem in Principle

The differentiation of the problem [of absolute space] was, on principle, achieved by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. We have reflected already on his general relativistic posi­tion; we have now to add the principal points of his differentiating analysis. First of all, he located the crucial point of the difficulty by dif­ferentiating between geometry and phoronomy on the one side and mechanics on the other. The relativity of position and motion is indisputable as long as we deal with them as “purely mathe­matical” problems.

Nature, however, does not offer the spectacle of abstractly shoving bodies that change their relative positions chaotically. It offers the spectacle of a calculable order in the relative movements. This order in the movements cannot be explained within the realm of geometry. For the purpose of its interpretation we have to go beyond the purely mathematical principles and intro­duce a “metaphysical” principle. “Whether we call this principle Form, or Entelechy, or Force, is irrelevant as long as we remember that only the notion of forces will express it intelligibly.”65 This step of clarification impressed even the physicists to a certain ex­tent, because Euler adopted the relativistic conception of space and motion at least for the phoronomic part of his last presentation of the Newtonian system, the Theoria Motus of 1765, though in the part on dynamics he reverted to the Newtonian position.66

Moreover, by localizing the difficulty in the theory of dynamics, Leibniz correctly marked the direction in which the solution had to be sought and ultimately was found, that is, the geometrization of physics. That the new physics should be constructed as a science of extension had been the great idea of Descartes. However, it proved impossible to carry out the idea in the system. Descartes’s Principia show the famous break between the theory of “reciprocal” motion in the geometrical part of the work and the quiet adoption of the law of motion in its conventional form, with its absolute implications, in the part on mechanics.

Leibniz arrived at his own theory of forces through the critique of Descartes’s Principia. His new dynamics is supposed to solve the problem that was left open by the geometrical approach of Descartes. Within empirical physics, the problem of rel­ativity was ultimately solved, indeed, by transforming the crucial problem of “force” into a geometrical problem.67 The localization of the difficulty is the first step toward a solu­tion, but it is not the solution itself. At first sight, the introduction of the “metaphysical” principle of force seems to inject the absolute problem into theory rather than to eliminate it.

Let us be clear, therefore, first about the point that in the language of Leibniz the term metaphysics is wider in content than in modern usage. Metaphysics is for him the general science of principles, exclusive of mathematics and geometry only.68 The principles of physics as a science of phenomena (such as the category of causation) belong to metaphysics in this sense. Hence the introduction of force is immediately followed by the differentiation into vis primitiva and vis derivativa, that is, into force in the sense of an inherent quality of substance and force in the phenomenal sense.

Primitive force (whether active or passive) is substantial force, and its problems belong to metaphysics in the narrower sense. This primitive force belongs among the “general causes” that “are insufficient for the explanation of phenomena.” Derivative force arises “as it were through a limitation of primitive force through the interaction (conflictus) of bodies in various ways.”69

Leibniz, Phenomenal Force, and Relative Space

The differentiation of primitive and derivative force, and in particular the definition of phenomenal force, is the decisive achievement of Leibniz. The problem of absoluteness is eliminated through the definition of phenomenal force as force in relation to other forces. Phenomenal force is relative force by definition; and only this phenomenal force is the object of physics. Force has no meaning beyond the meaning that is contained in the differential equations of physics. The laws of nature refer to derivative forces and their phenomena only. 70

In order to avoid all misunderstandings Leibniz adds explicitly that the Entia Mathematica (that is, the meanings contained in an equation) cannot be found really in nature; “they are only the instruments of abstract and exact calculation.”71 We have now gained a concept of phenomenal nature as a field of relative forces, the actions of which are described in the differential equations of physics. The ideas of space and time used in science refer to this phenomenal nature.

The third step in Leibniz’s analysis is the clarification of the ideas of space and time. His most mature formulation of this problem is to be found in the correspondence with Clarke, which was an indirect correspondence with Newton because the latter collaborated with Clarke in the answers. The problem of space runs through the whole correspondence. A first formulation is the following:

“I have stressed more than once that I consider space something purely relative, just as time; it is an order of coexistences, just as time is an order of successions. For space signifies, in terms of possibility, an order of things that exist at the same time, insofar as they exist together, without determining their particular way of existing.”72


“One says that space does not depend on the position (situation) of bodies. I answer: it is quite true that it does not depend on this or that position of bod­ies; nevertheless, it is the order which makes bodies positionable (situables) and by which they have a position among themselves when they exist together; just as time is this order with regard to successive position.”73

And finally: “I have shown that space is nothing but an order of the existence of things, which is to be noted in their simultaneity.”74

Space as an Ideal Form

Space and time of physics, thus, are not qualities of reality; they are orders that the mind applies to the interpretation of phenomena. The problem of absolute space cannot arise if space is understood as an ideal form that constitutes the order of phenomena. This solution not only eliminates the Newtonian problem of absolute space critically, it also gives a positive answer to the question of “objectivity” in science. We do not have to search for the “absolute” validity of propositions in an absolute reality because the objectivity of science has its source in the order of the mind. This is the solution that was further developed by the transcen­dental critique of Kant into the theory of the noetic function as an autonomous source of knowledge.

At the time, however, its significance and finality were hardly understood. To the formula­tions of Leibniz came the pained answer of Clarke (and behind him of Newton): “I do not understand the meaning of the words: An order, or a position, which makes the bodies positionable. To me this seems to say that the position is the cause of the position.”75 This complaint carries us beyond the theoretical discussion into the human situation. The complaint was sincere: Clarke and Newton did not understand. As far as the physicists are concerned, this was the end of the debate for the next century and a half.

The Problem of the Rotating Star

Several aspects of the problem had been differentiated by Leibniz, which led to the insight that the concepts of absolute space and absolute motion were inadmissible in physics. The next task would have been the reformulation of the Newtonian definitions and of the first law of motion in such a manner that they would have become compatible with the logic of science. This reforming work, however, did not get under way for more than a century.

The principal cause of the stagnation was the fact that deficiencies in the theoretical structure did not impair the advancement of science. An internal incentive to revise the fundamental concepts of physics arose only in the second half of the nineteenth century with empirical observations such as those of the Michelson-Morley experiment [1887: first strong evidence in favor of relativity–ed.]. Besides indifference, there was positive resistance to a revision. The motive for this resistance was formulated by Clarke in his Fifth Replie to Leibniz:

“One maintains that motion implies of necessity a relative change of position in one body with regard to other bodies, but one does not show how one could avoid the absurd consequence of this assumption: that the movability of a body depends on the existence of other bodies, or that a body which exists alone would be incapable of movement, or that the parts of a rotating body (as for instance the sun) would lose their centrifugal force if all external, surrounding matter were annihilated.”76

We do not know the answer of Leibniz to this argument, for the death of the philosopher brought an end to the correspondence. But, as we shall see presently, we can form a fairly good idea of what it would have been. Anyway, at the time this argument remained unanswered, and it remained one of the great motives of resistance against a revision of the Newtonian theory.

Ernst Mach

The argument still was alive in 1870 in Carl Neumann’s treatise on the Newtonian theory.77 In almost the same words as Clarke, Neumann put the case of the rotating star that had assumed the shape of an ellipsoid. If we imagine all other bodies removed from the universe, then the rotating star would have to be at rest according to the relativistic theory. Its centrifugal forces would disappear and its body would become spherical in shape. “This insufferable contradiction can be avoided only if we drop the definition of motion as relative, and if we conceive the motion of a material point as something absolute.”78

In response to this argument at last came the answer of a physicist, Ernst Mach:

“There is no profit in making a senseless assumption for the purpose of avoiding a contradiction. Moreover, in a mental experiment only nonessential circumstances may be modified. That the existence of the surrounding material world is without influence, however, must not be assumed a priori. If, therefore, the hypothetical elimination of the material world leads to contradictions, we have to consider this result as proving the importance of the relativity of motion.”79

The answer is excellent in its firmness and intention but is lack­ing somewhat in theoretical precision. There is a serious unclearness in Mach’s answer insofar as it does not define the criteria for the “essentiality” or “nonessentiality” of circumstances that may or may not be modified in a mental experiment.

Supplying Mach’s Omission

But we can repair the lack of precision of 1901 by a return to the theoretical culture of 1715. The correspondence with Clarke was ended, as we have said, through the death of Leibniz, but we can construct the answer that Leibniz could have given to Clarke’s argument. For Leibniz the relativity in physics is not a relativity of space and time only. Relativity extends also to the vis derivative, that is, to phenomenal force. Force is not exempted from phenomenality and relativity. Hence, the physical phenomenon as a whole, in all of its aspects, must be conceived as part of a field of phenomenal relations.

Rela­tivity is not an appurtenance of objects that exist in themselves but is part of the logical structure of a science of phenomena. Hence it is impermissible to isolate a phenomenon and ask what properties, for instance, a rotating star would have “in itself” after the relational field in which it is a phenomenon is abolished. An experiment can and must abstract from concrete, physical circumstances in order to isolate that part of the total phenomenon that can be mathematized and expressed in a law of science. It cannot, however, abstract from the logic of science and still remain scientific. The argument from the body that rotates in absolute motion makes precisely this epistemological mistake. With the clarification of the mistake the problem of absolute motion disappears.80

Science, Power, and Magic

The further development of the problem of relativity from Mach to Einstein belongs in the history of science; it is not our concern in a history of political ideas. We can proceed now to an appraisal of the results of our analysis, and we shall begin this appraisal with a few reflections on the relation between power and the advancement of science. These general reflections will then be followed by a description of the pattern of ideas that emerges from our analysis.

The advancement of the science for which Newton is the great, representative genius has profoundly affected the political and eco­nomic structure of the Western world. Let us list the principal features of this change: the ramification of science into technology; the industrialization of production; the increase of population; the higher population capacity of an industrialized economy; the trans­formation of an agricultural into an urban society. Then there is the rise of new social groups, that is, of the industrial proletariat, white-collar em­ployees, and an intellectual proletariat;  the concentration of wealth and the rise of the managerial class; the ever increasing numbers of men who depend for their economic existence on decisions be­yond their influence.

Further: the dependence of national power on a highly developed industrial apparatus; the dependence of the industrial apparatus on the political accessibility of markets and raw materi­als; the power premium on industrialization; the political decline of nations that do not possess the raw materials, or the population figure, or the territorial expansion that is necessary for the effective utilization of industrial technology; the corresponding political as­cendancy of nations who possess these factors;

And finally: the helplessness of agricultural, in particular of Oriental, civilizations against the economic and political penetration by industrialized civilizations; the rise in the standard of living as a result of industrialization; the political tensions in the Western world as a consequence of differences in the degree of industrialization possible in the various national states; the further increase in the standard of living in some of the industrialized societies because of a ruthless exploitation of the industrial power premium in foreign relations; and so forth. This enumeration is far from exhaustive, but it is sufficiently long to make it clear that the advancement of science after 1700 is the most important single factor in changing the structure of power and wealth on the global scene.

Science and Power

In order to understand the interrelation of power and science fully, we must, furthermore, consider that science is not simply the cause of the enumerated effects. Rather we must speak of an interaction between science and environmental changes. The “use­fulness” of science for the increase of power and wealth was quickly seen and has become a strong incentive for putting the means of power and wealth at the disposition of scientists for their further pursuit of knowledge.

More subtly, the advancement of science itself is today unthinkable without the laboratory equipment that presupposes a technology of production that, in its turn, is unthink­able without previous advancements in science. This interrelation between science and power has become so decisive in international politics that, in the wake of modern wars, the conqueror resorts to such measures as prohibition of research, destruction of laboratory equipment, wholesale abduction of scientists into a more or less gilded slavery, and deindustrialization of the conquered nation.

The strict rationality of the procedure, without regard to human or civ­ilizational values, resembles closely the procedure of the most ra­tional of conquerors, Genghis Khan. When the Mongols conquered a country they took the skilled craftsmen and the shapely women for their personal use and let the rest of the people perish. The advancement of science and the rationality of politics have become interwoven in a social process that, in the retrospect of a more distant future, will probably appear as the greatest power orgy in the history of mankind. We must recognize the atmosphere of power in which the ad­vancement of science moves, because there are certain peculiarities incidental to the process that otherwise would appear as sheer lunacy.

The Reach of Utilitarian Rationality

The source of these apparent lunacies is the utilitarian rationality of science. The idea of power through science has a rational core. If we have knowledge of causal relations we can form means-end relations, and if we have the means we can achieve the end. Hence, knowledge in this sense is eminently useful. This rational, utilitarian core in itself is of necessity to be found in all human existence, both personal and social. Utilitarian rationality determines a segment of life in primitive as well as in high civ­ilizations, and in itself it is not the specific determinant of any particular society.

Under the impact of the modern advancement of science, however, this core has acquired the characteristics of a cancerous growth. The rational-utilitarian segment is expanding in our civilization so strongly that the social realization of other values is noticeably weakened. This expansion is carried by the mass creed that the utilitarian dominion over nature through sci­ence should and will become the exclusive preoccupation of man as well as the exclusive determinant for the structure of society.

In the nineteenth century this idea of utilitarian exclusiveness crystallized in the belief that the domination of man over man would ultimately be replaced by the dominion of man over na­ture, and that the government of men will be replaced by the administration of things. At this point we have to beware of the error into which critics of the totalitarian movements have fallen so frequently: the error that an idea is politically unimportant because philosophically it is stark nonsense.

The idea that structure and problems of human existence can be superseded in historical society by the utilitarian segment of existence is certainly and plainly a piece of nonsense. It is equivalent to the idea that the nature of man can be abolished without abolishing man, or that spiritual order can be removed from existence without disordering existence. Any attempt at its realization can lead nowhere but to the self-destruction of a society.

The Flight of Magic Imagination

Nevertheless, the fact that the idea is nonsensical has not in the least prevented its becoming the inspiration of the strongest political movement of our age. Here we can see in the raw the fascination of power that exudes from the new science: it is so overwhelming that it eclipses an awareness of the elementary problems of human existence. Science becomes an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man. This humanly destructive obsession is to be found not only in the totalitarian movements in the narrower sense. We find it in the same manner in the so-called liberal or progressive movements. Here it assumes the form of the belief that the rather obvious calamities that accompany the age of science must be cured by more science.

We have gained dominion over nature through science. In order to avoid the misuse of this power (runs the argument) we must now gain control over our social environment through a corresponding advancement of social science. Scientists of more social prestige than human wisdom stand before large audiences and tell them in full seriousness that social scientists will have to come around and, in emulation of the natural scientists, will have to do their share so that the perfect society can be realized. No suspicion seems ever to have stirred in such brains that the effects of natural science, both beneficial and destructive, are a result not of the genius of scientists but of the objective structure of the realm of phenomena, which permits the introduction of human action into the chain of cause and effect once the law of the chain has been discovered.

There is no suspicion that this objective structure does not prevail in the realm of substance, that no wisdom of a Plato could prevent the suicide of Athens and no climactic synthesis of a Saint Thomas could forestall the end of imperial Christianity. The knowledge of phenomena certainly is the key to their utilitarian mastery, but the understanding of human substance is not the key to the mastery of society and history. The expansion of the will to power from the realm of phenomena to that of substance, or the attempt to operate in the realm of substance pragmatically as if it were the realm of phenomena–that is the definition of magic. The interrelation of science and power, and the consequent cancerous growth of the utilitarian segment of existence, has injected a strong element of magic culture into modern civilization.

The tendency to narrow the field of human experience to the area of reason, science, and pragmatic action, the tendency to overvalue this area in relation to the bios theoretikos and the life of the spirit, the tendency to make it the exclusive preoccupation of man, the tendency to make it socially preponder­ant through economic pressure in the so-called free societies and through violence in totalitarian communities–all these tendencies are part of a cultural process that is dominated by a flight of magic imagination, that is, by the idea of operating on the substance of man through the instrument of a pragmatically planning will.

We have ventured the suggestion that in retrospect the age of science will appear as the greatest power orgy in the history of mankind. We are now venturing the suggestion that at the bottom of this orgy the historian will find a gigantic outburst of magic imagination after the breakdown of the intellectual and spiritual form of medieval high civilization. The climax of this outburst is the magic dream of creating the Superman, the man-made Being that will succeed the sorry creature of God’s making. This is the great dream that appears first imaginatively in the works of Condorcet, Comte, Marx, and Nietzsche, and later pragmatically in the Communist and National Socialist movements.81 In the present context we had to give a preliminary sketch of its nature in order to sharpen our awareness of the political importance of the patterns of thought that were forming at the opening of the eighteenth century.

The Pathos of Science and the Spiritual Eunuchs

We have spoken metaphorically of the cancerous growth of the rational-utilitarian segment in modern civilization. We now must go beyond the metaphor and indicate the concrete sentiments and ideas that determine this growth in its formative stage.The sudden and disproportionate expansion of one single element in a total structure at the expense of other elements presupposes a serious disturbance of a previously existing balance.We have amply discussed the nature of the disturbance already under such titles as the disorientation of existence through weakening or loss of faith, and we have seen the disturbance expressing itself in such symptoms as Locke’s “primitivization” of intellectual culture.

The sentiments and attitudes that appeared on the occasion of the discussion of the problem of absolute space are further specific symptoms of primitivization in the wake of a general existential disorientation. The absolutism of a Galileo or a Newton cannot be labeled and shelved as a theoretical mistake to be corrected in the future. The attribution of “absoluteness” to the new science expresses the will of finding an absolute orientation of human ex­istence through intramundane experience, and the correlate to this new will is the unwillingness to orient existence through openness toward transcendental reality. The new science assumes the func­tion of a new order of existence.

In his “Ode to Newton” (printed in the first edition of the Principia) Edmund Halley celebrated the achievement of his hero by placing it higher than the civilizing work of the sages and founders of antiquity: what is an ancient lawgiver (presumably a Moses or Lycurgus) who orders nothing more important than human society beside the man who discovers the order of the heavenly polity? Even if we make due allowance for conventions and clichés, and discount the generally hyperbolic tone of the ode, there will still remain the sentiment that a discovery concerning the order of phenomena is an event of the same rank, if not of a higher one, than a new spiritual insight. Intimately related to the sentiment of absoluteness is the pathos of autonomy and self-reliance that animates the advancement of science.

Exactness of mathematical form and verification through experiment become self-sufficient standards of truth. A scientist need not look left or right in his pursuit of knowledge as long as he abides by his standards, and no extraneous speculation can affect the truth of a proposition in science. The Newtonian hypotheses non fingo has become the proud expression of this pathos. At this point we touch on one of the most important sources of the mod­ern existential disorder. If this pathos expressed nothing but the peculiar methodological situation of the exact sciences, it would be perfectly legitimate. Unfortunately, however, it has come to express a good deal more.

Destruction Through the Pathos of Science

The expansion of meaning is achieved through a process that we may call the transfer of pathos from a special pursuit to the existence of man. Science as an evolving system of knowledge is the result of an occupation of human beings. If the pathos of science is transferred from the occupation to the existence of the man who is engaged in it, such transfer may result in a serious warping of the individual personality, and if this transfer of pathos from science to the scientist becomes a model that is imitated on a socially relevant scale, it will result in far-reaching civilizational destruction.

As a matter of fact, this transfer and its social imitation have occurred on such a scale in our civilization that the destructive effects defy repair in any visible future. Let us briefly characterize the attitudes and ideas through which this work of destruction is effected:

(1) The transfer of pathos from science to existence expresses itself concretely in the growth of the belief that human existence can be oriented in an absolute sense through the truth of science. If this belief is justified, then it becomes unnecessary to cultivate knowledge beyond science.

As a consequence of this belief, the pre­occupation with science and the possession of scientific knowledge has come to legitimate ignorance with regard to all problems that lie beyond a science of phenomena. The spreading of the belief has had the result that the magnificent advancement of science in Western civilization is paralleled by an unspeakable advancement of mass ignorance with regard to the problems that are existentially the important ones.

(2) Such mass ignorance would be bad enough in itself. Even so, mere ignorance could be repaired by learning. Scientistic ignorance becomes a civilizational disaster because the substantial ordering of existence cannot be achieved through the acquisition of knowledge in the phenomenal sense. It requires the formation of personality in an educational process, and this process requires institutions.

Once the scientistic pathos has penetrated into the educational institu­tions of a society, it has become a social force that cannot easily be broken, if it can be broken at all. The problem, therefore, is no longer one of mere ignorance. If belief in the self-sufficient ordering of existence through science is socially entrenched, it becomes a force that actively prevents the cultivation of human substance and corrodes the surviving elements of the cultural tradition still further. The spiritual desire, in the Platonic sense, must be very strong in a young man of our time in order to overcome the obstacles that social pressure puts in the way of its cultivation.

A Society Run by Spiritual Eunuchs

Moreover, with regard to the cultivation of substance men are gifted differently (gifted in the Pauline sense of endowment with spiritual charismata). The active carriers of the scientistic pathos will be the men who are deficient in such gifts, and the penetration of society with the scientistic pathos creates an environment that favors the social success of the deficient human types. Hence, the advancement of science and the growth of the rational-utilitarian factor are accompanied by a restratification of society that hitherto seems to have escaped attention because it cannot be expressed in terms of social classes. Restratification through the social prestige and success of the deficient types must be expressed in terms of human substance.

We shall use the term spiritual eunuchism for the designation of personality traits that make a man a likely victim of scientistic pathos, as well as for the designation of the traits that a society acquires when this human type gains social ascendancy. For the further elaboration of this problem the reader should refer to the analysis of the great prototype of the spiritual eunuch, Auguste Comte, in Part Nine of this study.82 For the present let us say only that the nineteenth century has hardly a parallel in the history of mankind as a period of rapid transformation of a civilization through the eunuch type, preparing for the spiritual anarchy of the twentieth century.

Aggressive Dilettantism

(3) A further trait connected with the transfer of pathos is the rise of aggressive dilettantism in philosophical matters. Again, this is not a question of simple ignorance or dilettantism that may occur at any time.

The new and dangerous element is the readiness of the dilettante to impose his ignorance as a standard on others. Clarke’s “I do not understand” in answer to Leibniz’s exposition of the problems of time and space is the ominous symptom of the new attitude. He really does not understand—and that settles the argument in his favor.

What the scientistic dilettante cannot understand must not be proposed in discussion of a problem. Comte has made this postulate one of the formal dogmas of the scientistic creed. The Letters of Clarke, in his correspondence with Leibniz, are in general a document of first importance for understanding the new atmosphere. There are sections in Clarke’s Letters that move on a technical level of philosophizing that would have made a stu­dent in the Academy raise his eyebrows with amused contempt.83 And again, even aggressive dilettantism would be comparatively harmless unless it were at the same time socially successful.

The Damage Done by Newton

The theoretical dilettantism of the great scientist is socially ef­fective; the argument of the great philosopher is socially ineffec­tive. What Leibniz had to say in his correspondence with Clarke was socially of no visible importance. It did not even noticeably affect the course of theoretical physics. What Newton had to say in his definitions of space affected the formation of political ideas immeasurably. The social success of Newton’s theory of absolute space is the first great instance of successful dilettantic theories, advanced either by scientists themselves or (after the transfer of the pathos of science on a relevant scale) by the great spiritual eunuchs of the nineteenth century.

Without the prestige effect of scientism, such major intellectual scandals as the social success of Positivism, or Darwinian evolutionism, or Marxism would be unthinkable. In conclusion, let us mention the pattern of the civilizational schism that begins to emerge on the occasion of the debate on absolute space. The problem of the schism becomes apparent in the situation that we termed the “deadlock.” The clarification of the problems of space and motion does not induce the physi­cists to revise their fundamental theoretical concepts. Science goes on as if nothing had happened, and Euler even demands that the philosophers adapt their speculation to the confusion of physics. At the time, such a demand could be only partially successful.

Marginalizing the Life of the Spirit

The spiritual and philosophical tradition of Western civilization did not break down at the first blast of a physicist in the eighteenth century. Instead, a situation developed in which the later schismatic break was performed because the philosophers continued their specula­tion and simply circumvented the problem of physics. We have seen that Berkeley analyzed space and motion critically to the point from which he could safely embark on his own philosophia prima, and we have seen that Kant accepted the state of physics and then went off in the direction of his transcendental critique. The schism was already a fact in the eighteenth century, but the fact remained more or less below the threshold of consciousness. That a break between the ascendant scientistic and utilitarian segment of civilization and the spiritual and intellectual tradition had actually occurred became fully conscious only with Schelling, and by that time, the spiritualist was already on the defensive.84

In the course of the half century after Schelling the conflict was decided in favor of scientism, and the spiritual eunuchs became the socially effective formers of ideas for the masses. With the politically effective organization of these masses in the totalitar­ian movements, the schism assumed the external forms of social suppression and physical extermination of the continuators of the tradition. That in the end, through Einstein, the foundations of physics were revised in conformance with the position of Leibniz is an important event in the history of science, but it has, for the mo­ment at least, no visible social or political importance. The damage of scientism is done. As a philosophical friend put it aptly, the insane have succeeded in locking the sane in the asylum.85  From this asylum no physical escape is possible.

As a consequence of the interlocking of science and social power, the political tenta­cles of scientistic civilization reach into every nook and corner of an industrialized society, and with increasing effectiveness they stretch over the whole globe. There exist only differences, though very important ones, in the various regions of the global asylum with regard to the possibility of personal escape into the freedom of the spirit. What is left is hope–but hope should not obscure the realistic insight that we who are living today shall never experience freedom of the spirit in society.



43. See vol. V, Religion and the Rise of Modernity, chap. 5.

44. See Albert Einstein, Ueber die spezielle und allgemeine Relativitätstheorie, 3d enl. ed. (Braunschweig: Vieweg, 1918), §§ 30-32. English edition: Relativity: The Special and General Theory, trans.Robert W. Lawson (New York: Holt, 1920).

45. See Leibniz’s letter to Huyghens of June 12/22 1694, in G. W. Leibniz, Haupt-schriften zur Grundlegung der Philosophie, ed. Ernst Cassirer, 3 vols. (Leipzig: Meiner,1903-1915), 1:243 ff. See, in the same volume, Cassirer’s introduction to the correspondence between Leibniz and Clarke, 108 ff.

46. For Leibniz’s intention in writing the memorandum see his letter to Huyghens of September 4/14, 1696, in ibid., 244 f. The memorandum itself is published in Leibnizens mathematische Schriften, ed. C. L. Gerhardt, 7 vols. (Berlin: Asher, 1848-1863), 6:144 ff. For comment on the question see Cassirer’s previously quoted introduction to the Leibniz-Clarke controversy in Haupschriften,109.

47. “‘È vero che non è istesso il nostrare che con la mobilità della terra e stabilità del sole si salvano 1’apparenze, e il dimostrare che tali ipotesi in natura sien real-mente vere, ma è ben altrotanto e più vero, che se con 1’altro sistema communemente ricevuto non si può rendere ragione di tali apparenze quello è indubitamente falso, siccome è chiaro che questo che si accommoda benissimo può esser vero, nè altra maggior verità si può e si deve ricercar in una posizione che il risponder a tutte le particolari apparenze”

(It is true that it is not the same to demonstrate that with the earth’s mobility and sun’s stability appearances can be saved, and to demonstrate that such hypotheses are really true in nature;however, it is even truer, that since it is impossible to explain such appearances with [the aid of] the commonly received system, that system is unquestionably false; since it is clear that, because this one which accommodates itself very well [to appearances] may be true, no other major truth can and must be sought in a position that can respond to all the particular ap­pearances).

Galileo’s letter in Berti, Capernico e le vicende del sistema copernicano in Italia (Rome, 1876), 130; quoted in Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, 3d ed., 3 vols. (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1922), 1:410. With regard to the historical materials I am following Cassirer in this question; I cannot agree with him, however, with regard to their interpretation.

48. The following quotations from Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia are taken from Florian Cajori’s English edition, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946), 6 ff.

49. Henry More, Enchiridium Metaphysicum sive de Rebus Incorporeis, pt. I, chap. VIII, sec. 5; quoted in Cassirer, Erkenntnisproblem, 2:443.

50. More, Enchiridium Metaphysicum, pt. I, chap. VIII, secs. 6-7; quoted in ibid., 2:444.

51. Newton, Optice, Latin edition of 1740, Quaestio XVIII; quoted in ibid., 2:447.

52. Principia, Scholium Generale, in Mathematical Principles of Natural Philos­ophy, ed. Cajori, 545 f.

53. Samuel Clarke, A Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God (London: Botham, 1705/6).

54. Berkeley, De Motu §42, in A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop, eds., The Works of George Berkeley, 9 vols. (London: Nelson, 1948-1957), 4:42.

55. De Motu §63, in ibid., 4:49.

56. De Motu §64, in ibid.

57. De Motu §66, in ibid., 4:49-50.

58. De Motu §§53-54, in ibid., 4:45-46. The argument of these paragraphs is substantially the same as that of Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), §§116-17. Principles is vol. 2 of ibid.

59. De Motu §55, in ibid., 4:46.

60. Principles §113.

61. Henry More, “Letter to Descartes,” March 5, 1649, in Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Cerf, 1903), 5:312 f. The argument is directed against Descartes’s Principia Philosophiae, pt. II, art. 29. For Descartes’s answer see his “Letter to More,” April 15, 1649, in Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. Adam and Tannery, 5:345 ff. On More’s argument against Descartes see Henri Bergson, Matière et mémoire, 24th ed. (Paris: Alcan, 1928), 215, and the same author’s Durée et simultanéité: À propos de la théorie d’Einstein, 2d enl. ed. (Paris: Alcan, 1923), 37. For an elaborate analysis of the relation between the experience of motion (in the sense of More and Berkeley) and the experience of space, as well as of the relation between experienced space and the space of geometry, see Henri Poincaré, La science et 1’hypothèse (Paris: Flammarion, 1908), pt. II, “L’Espace.” English edition: Science and Hypothesis, trans. J. Larmor (New York: Dover, 1952).

62. Principles §117.

63. Colin Maclaurin, An Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophical Discoveries (London, 1748), II.i.§9; quoted in Cassirer, Erkenntnisproblem, 2:478. Maclaurin’s book was printed for the author’s children by A. Millar and J. Nourse. A facsimile reprint is available (New York: Johnson Reprints, 1968).

64. Kant had made a very successful attack on the problem of absolute and relative motion in his early work M.Immanuel Kants’ Neuer Lehrbegriff der Bewegung und Ruhe und der damit verknüpften Folgerungen in den ersten Gründen der Naturwis-senschaft (1758). He attacked the crucial point by eliminating the concept of inertia and reformulating the first law of motion. He surrendered, however, this hopeful start and, in subsequent works, bowed to the authority of Euler. After 1770 the prob­lem lost interest for him because the epistemologically relevant part could be solved through his critical philosophy. On the position of Kant see Ernst Cassirer, Zur Einstein’schen Relativitätstheories, Erkenntnistheoretische Betrachtungen (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1921), chap. V, “Der Raum- und Zeitbegriff der kritischen Idealismus und die Relativitätstheorie.”

65. Leibniz, Specimen Dynamicum (1695), in Opera Omnia, ed. L. Dutens, 6 vols. (Geneva: Tournes, 1768), 3:321.

66. See on this episode Cassirer, Erkenntnisproblem, 2:482 ff.

67. For the problem that arises in the transition from the mathematical treatment of motion to the physical, see Bergson, Matière et mémoire, 214 ff. Matière et mémoire was written before Einstein; the state of the problem at that time was still substantially the same as at the time of Leibniz. See for instance Bergson’s excellent formulation of the problem on 215: “Descartes traite du mouvement en physicien après 1’avoir défini en géomètre. Tout mouvement est relatif pour le géomètre: cela signifie seulement, a notre sens, qu’il n’y a pas de symbole mathématique capable d’exprimer que ce soit le mobile plutôt que les axes ou les points auxquels on le rapporte.”

(Descartes deals with movement as a physicist after having defined it as a geometer. For the geometer, every movement is relative: in our sense that means only that there is no mathematical symbol capable of expressing what a body in motion is, rather than the axes or the coordinates to which it corresponds).

These pages of Bergson practically adopt the position of Leibniz’s Specimen Dynamicum as far as the differentiation of the problems is concerned; his solution, however, is not the Leibnizian theory of force but a pragmatic theory of motion on the line of the Berkeleyan analysis.

After Einstein, the problem of physics comes into clearer view for Bergson; on the historical line from the attempted geometrical physics of Descartes to the realized geometrical physics of Einstein see his Durée et simultanéité: Á propos de la théorie d’Einstein, chap. 2, “La relativité complète.”

On Einstein’s own position see his Relativity. The geometrization of force in Einstein’s theory is succinctly formulated by Sir Arthur S. Eddington in The Nature of the Physical World, Gifford Lectures 1927 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 133: “Einstein’s law of gravitation controls a geometrical quantity curvature in contrast to Newton’s law which controls a mechanical quantity force.”

68. See for the definition of terms in this sense §1 of the Third Letter of Leibniz to Clarke, Recueil de lettres entre Leibniz et Clarke, in Opera Omnia, ed. Dutens, 2:120. See also the footnote of Cassirer on this question in Leibniz, Hauptschriften, ed. Cassirer, 1:133.

69. Specimen Dynamicum, in Opera omnia, ed. Dutens, 3:316.

70. Ibid., 3:317.

71. Ibid., 3:318.

72. Leibniz’s Third Letter §4, in ibid., 2:121.

73. Leibniz’s Fourth Letter §41, in ibid., 2:132 f.

74. Leibniz’s Fifth Letter §29, in ibid., 2:148. The position of Leibniz at the time of his correspondence with Clarke does not differ materially from his earlier position. For variant formulations see the Bemerkungen zum allgemeinen Teil der Kartesischen Prinzipien, of 1692, in particular the remarks on Descartes’s Principia 11.8-19, in fine (Leibniz, Hauptschriften, ed. Cassirer, 1:307 f.); and Gegen Descartes, of 1702 (ibid., 1:330-33).

75. Clarke, Fourth Replie §41, in Leibniz, Opera omnia, ed. Dutens, 2:140.

76. Clarke, Fifth Replie §§ 26-32, in ibid., 2:174.

77. Carl Neumann, Über die Principien der Galilei-Newton’schen Theorie (Leip­zig: Teubner, 1870).

78. Ibid., 27 f.

79. Ernst Mach, Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwicklung, 4th rev. and enl. ed. (Leipzig: Teubner, 1901), 290 f.

80. In this construction of Leibniz’s answer I am reproducing substantially Cassirer’s construction in his n. 158 to the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence; see Leibniz, Hauptschriften, ed. Cassirer, 1:219-21. I have toned down only the neo-Kantian terminology of Cassirer, which somewhat veils the original strength of Leibniz’s position.

81. For the historically and theoretically detailed exposition of this problem the reader should refer to Part Nine of this study, “The Crisis.” See vol. VIII, Crisis and the Apocalypse of Man.

82. See ibid., chap. 3. In the chapter on Comte the reader will also find a closer analysis of the relation between spiritual eunuchism and the utilitarian will to power.

83. In order to measure the technical enormity of the performance, the reader should, for instance, compare Clarke’s argument concerning space and time (in Third Replie §4) with the corresponding treatment of the problem in Plato’s Timaeus or Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Leibniz’s answer to this section of Clarke’s argument (in Fourth Letter §§14-16) is in no way original but simply represents the tradition of philosophical craftsmanship.

84. For Schelling’s position with regard to this problem the reader should refer to The History of Political Ideas, vol. VII, Part Eight, chap. 2.

85. The scientistic-utilitarian dream of transforming society into a prison without possibility of escape begins to take shape after the middle of the eighteenth century. For the beginnings of this dream, the reader should refer to the chapter on Helvetius in vol. VIII, Crisis and the Apocalypse of Man, chap. 1.


This excerpt is from Revolution and the New Science (Volume VI): History of Political Ideas (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 24) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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