Spanning as it does, (at least) four major disciplines, this book represents a unique attempt to systematically push the explanatory and genetic base of a physical theory through deeper and deeper levels of understanding, from physics to ontology and methodology, from here to social philosophy, the investigation finally resting on the base of the historically existing social relations of the time. In keeping with its multidisciplinary approach,1 the style and method of the book is analytical, discursive and historical in turn. I should f add here that it is not the easiest book to read a fact which may have something to do with its being a translation from a German original. The effort is nevertheless rewarding. Perhaps the single most important lesson to be learnt through the study of such a work is that: the age of the specialist is over - or should be.
The subject of the analysis is Newton's theory of space and its connection with other parts of his physics. The method adopted is to contrast the conceptions of Newton with those of his contemporary Leibniz, whose theory, despite some obvious advantages, did not prevail The conclusion' is that although the preconceptions of Newton's theory were philosophical, they were not directly taken from the social philosophy of the time but were based on the prevailing social relations of English society. Thus they were the preconceptions of an entire age.
The argument of the book laid out perspicuously by the author in the introduction, is to show:
(1) That a natural scientific concept was formed on the basis of an 'evident preconception,;
By Gideon Freudenthal; Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 88. D. Reidel publishing Co., 1986
(2) That this preconception is a philosophical concept;
(3) That the philosophical concept found application both in a theory of nature and in a social theory and that it relates to the same philosophical object;
(4) That the specifications of this philosophical concept which cannot be drawn from research in natural sciences, originate in the use of the concept in social theory and not in a preconception based on prescientific (technical) experience of nature;
(5) That these specifications of the philosophical concept can be explained through social relations.
(6) That these specifications of the concept also appeared evident to natural scientists;
(7) That these specifications although they stamped the natural scientific concept, did not destroy its scientific character; that is, were not in contradiction to the empirical results of scientific research." (p3).
Also, as the author notes, the investigation takes "a direction which is reverse of the conjectured sequence of events", that led to the construction of Newton's theory and that accounts not only for its characteristic features, but in large measure for its wide acceptance and success.
At the outset Newton's theory of absolute space is considered. The major presupposition of this theory is that "the material world is composed of equal particles whose essential properties belong to them independently of the existence of a world system" (p.29). The system itself is the result of the aggregation of such individual particles. The concepts of density, mass and motion follow from the basic conception of the atom: extended, hard impenetrable, inert but movable. Despite his theory of monads, the author argues, Leibniz' system was by contrast essentially holistic, his conception of space and motion relative. He next undertakes a comparison of the opposing concepts of science of the two thinkers. Here he forcefully brings out the salience of certain notions in Newton's theory, of which by far the most important is that of God, that have been dismissed by historians of science as extra scientific, as theological decorations and as asides to be referred to in the historical footnotes.
What Freudenthal seeks to show is that God's role in Newton's theory is that of kingpin and not an afterthought. In the absence of any principle of the conservation of momentum which would be inconsistent with the structure of the Newtonian inelastic atoms, how else could the solar system continue but through the periodical intervention of God. Newton of course claimed that he feigned no hypotheses. Thus for him, God was not an hypothesis: he actually deduced the action of God from the phenomenon of the wonderful order of the Cosmos. He said, "And this much concerning God, to discourse of whom from the appearances of things does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy". Space itself is seen as God's Scnsorium. In this matter Newton was at least perfectly consistent.
But he had more serious _ problems with the gravitational principle. In Newton's conception of space as a container, the single particle could be conceived of with all its essential properties intact. Gravity however necessarily requires a system of bodies; Newton was thus forced to introduce distinction between essential and universal properties,1 and inelegance Leibniz' system did not suffer from.
Leibniz' natural philosophy! was in fact inextricably tied to his postulate of the conservation of visa viva - the total living force in the universe. His notion of inertial motion was quite different to the Newtonian notion; he distinguished not between motion and the performance of work but between motion and rest. In this system the "continuance in uniform motion was thus not introduced as an axiom, as it was by Newton, but as a special case of the general law of the conservation of visa viva namely in the hypothetical case in which the free system consists of merely one body" (p. 35). Leibniz declared as inadmissible the idea of God's active intervention in any natural account of the universe. The universe indeed must be likened to a scientist's precision watch rather than the mediaeval clock requiring a governor to make corrections when the clockwork' slowed down. (In this respect Leibniz was clearly the greater mechanist of the two). The author dwells engagingly on these two metaphors with the aid of which one can almost graphically grasp the development of the mechanistic world picture. The question that naturally arises is, how and why Newton's clearly much less convincing theory from the mechanistic point of view (and one might add, from the present day point of view as well) was perceived as totally rational both by him and his contemporaries, whereas Leibniz remained an 'also ran'.
In search of an explanation/Part II of the book examines the philosophical underpinnings of seventeenth century thought mainly with reference to the concept of element, which it has been widely claimed, was increasingly influenced by the notion of mechanical parts. Bacon had himself observed that "the human understanding is infected by the sight of what takes place in the mechanical arts.." (p.79). The notion of an assemblage rather than of an organic unity gave plausibility to the analytic-synthetic method - the method of breaking down into elements and then reconstructing the whole - in both natural and social philosophy.
For, society too was beginning to be viewed as an artifact resulting from the contract of essentially independent autarchic individuals. . Freudenthal undertakes an extensive comparison of Newtonian atomism, Hobbes' selfish political man, Rousseau's autarkical Natural man and Adam Smith's self serving homo economic. Later in the book he seeks to show that, on the other,1 hand, Leibniz in his social philosophy quite consciously set himself off from these social thinkers. Now such connections are not of course original to the author. Marx in his profound analysis of eighteenth and nineteenth century thought and society had much earlier displayed individualistic economic philosophy as the 'valid' representation of the historical rise of the individual, an event that went hand in hand with the break-down of feudalism. And later authors have followed suit Nevertheless this forms the' essential crux of the author's overall argument, and he certainly brings to bear his own insights on otherwise well known material.
Freudenthal examines but rejects the view that the artisan conception can solely account for the images of the Newtonian age. Newton in his physics had himself transcended artisan experience. Indeed Newton's philosophy, concludes the author, is not so much mechanistic as it is bourgeois. To establish this conclusion one must turn to history.
Part HI of the book documents the events as they took place before and after the English Revolution of 1662, culminating in the phenomenon of civil society in England. At the base of this society is the notion of the independent private proprietor. A painstakingly detailed account follows of the struggle that went on in England at this time. The author describes the process of the final defeat of the Levelers who challenged the principle of the enclosures, the principle that finally set the poor 'free' to sell then-lab our power in the open market As Freudenthal concludes "the conception of society as composed of independent individuals and the corresponding conception of the analytic-synthetic method in the social sciences can thus be determined exactly: it is peculiar to bourgeois society and can in this sense be called bourgeois". Nekton’s theory, God and all, was most rational in this bourgeois framework.
The last part of the work, undertakes a comparison of the notion of the physical atom and the social individual as perceived in the thought of the age. This is contrasted with the systemic notions of Leibniz who it must be remembered lived in a Germany where feudalism was still the order of the day. Thus Leibniz* trenchant question quoted at the beginning of the book: "Is there a different logic in London than in Hanover?" receives an unequivocally affirmative answer at the end of the study.
In a concluding Afterword the author draws attention to some larger questions of historiography, of internal vs. external history, of the relation between philosophy and science, of the validity of scientific theories given their rootedness in the social relations of a historical period, questions inevitably thrown up in the course of such a study. Philosophers of science with a predilection for abstract models of rationality would do well to draw on the wealth of ideas in this case study. One may or may not agree with the details of the argument laid out. Of necessity the material used out of such vast literature from such diverse fields, is selective. There may well be another story to be told, other accounts complementing or contradicting the present one of how and why Newton did and Leibniz did not prevail. The message in any case that comes out loud and clear is that any work that seeks to comprehend the nature of science (or any system of thought) and the source of its validity, must first come to grips with the realities of an entire historical epoch.
Scientists, philosophers and historians working on Indian thought systems (mostly of a bygone age) would do well to take a leaf out of Gideon Freudenthal's book. A great deal of research in this field is already under way. But the scholarship still lacks, one might venture to say, the breadth of vision that will reveal the inseparable connection between the theoretical systems, the social philosophies and the social relations of the age in which they were produced.
Nor need this procedure be construed as one of debunking the theories under consideration, but rather as a necessary condition of the fullest appreciation of the intentions and the purposes of their progenitors. To grasp the truly historical nature of criteria of rationality is to grasp the essential in human knowledge.
Author:Dr. Mohini Mullick