Review of "Die Moderne Energetik in ihrer Bedeutung für die Erkenntnisskritik," by Kurd Lasswitz

Die moderne Energetik in ihrer Bedeutung für die Erkenntnisskritik. Kurd Lasswitz. Philo. Mon., XXIX. Hefte 1-4.

The author adds in these articles another chapter to his history of modern atomism [1]. He had reached in his history the conclusion that physics find in the kinetic atomism an ideal carrier for its details.

The development of the theory of energy, especially that which it has received at the hands of Professor Ostwald of Leipzig, obliges him to at least restate this proposition if he is to justify if in the face of this most modern theory.

Herr Lasswitz prefaces his discussion by a deduction of the concepts of quantity and quality based on a chapter of Dr. Natorp's Logik. Starting from the manifoldness and unity which are the fundamental aspects of all phenomena of nature, the author defines quantity as that property of things by which they may exhibit a difference without a change of the unit — the difference of magnitude. From the standpoint of quantity the possibility of comparison of things consists only in their manifoldness, in so far as multiplicity may be without difference. Quality, on the other hand, is that property which involves a difference of units — every quality is a law of the formation of a magnitude. In virtue of the property of quantity things differ only so far as they can be brought under a single unit; in virtue of quality, things differ in so far as they must be brought under different units. The three categories of quantity are unity, plurality and totality, in which the third category is result of combination of the other two.

Corresponding to these we have three categories of quality — identity, difference and variability. These depend upon the fact that every qualitative phenomenon is a continuous one in nature. To obtain therefore a condition which shall be identical with itself, we must have recourse to the infinitesimal concept. But even when asserting this as identical and therefore different from other states or conditions, we must define it by the law of the change from one state to another.

Color as a qualitative condition of things must be studied in the spectrum where it is a continuous phenomenon, continuous by changing from the most saturated red to violet. If by the infinitesimal concept we fix one portion as identical, we can define it only in terms of the law of change, as ordinarily expressed in the number of vibrations. This gives us variability as the concept of quality, by which it can be treated as a magnitude and so become an object of study for physics. States made up of like units and units constructed upon the concept of variability form the subject-matter of physics. This gives the phenomena of nature as categorically determined, but does not give it as actually existing. This element which involves the objective existence of a state or condition is energy. This is first defined as that magnitude in virtue of which equivalence exists among the 'forces of nature.' The three categories of relation which are postulated as involving existence are those of substance, causality and system.

The author finds the reality of the category of substance in the conservation of energy, i.e., in the fundamental unity which must be posited as underlying all the manifoldness of the natural phenomena. The reality of the law of causality is identified with the law of the compensation of intensities which the theory of energy postulates as the law of all change. Two factors determine the amount of energy (Energiemenge) in any spatial configuration — its so-called capacity and its intensity. Given a number of energies — that of mass, of warmth, of electricity — any one spatial configuration may have relatively varying capacities for each or they may (as in may cases) be equal for a number. The intensity of this energy, however, may be in a state of constant change with the spatial configuration or between different spatial configurations or bodies. The heat may equalize itself throughout a single body or it may be received from another. On the other hand, the differences of intensities in different portions of a body may be compensated by different forms of energy. The condition, then, of any change will be that there be present uncompensated differences of intensity. The relative spatial positions of these differences and their varying intensities will determine the temporal order in which change shall take place. This law of theory of energy, therefore, expresses the reality in the relation of cause and effect.

The general interrelations of the energies, the laws in accordance with which they are exchanged and compensate each other, and the fundamental principles of their action, give us in the third place an interrelation between the different objects whose substantial and temporal reality are given by the laws of energy, which the author expresses by the relation of system. The unified groups of objects which exist in the world — its organisms and systems — express this third relation; and by the the whole concept of reality is exhausted.

Instead, then, of the reduction of all the phenomena of nature in terms of mechanical physics, this theory of energy places the different energies upon an equality with each other — expresses each as a quantitative state or condition by the mathematical law of its process. The roundabout methods by which light and heat and electricity are reduced to facts about molecular motion or energy can be dropped, and the mathematically stated facts of each can be brought into correlation with each other by means of the principles of conservation and compensation. In the places of the mechanical unit, the gram, comes the erg, i.e., double the energy which a gram of weight possesses when it moves with the velocity of a centimeter in a second.

There are two difficulties which beset physics, in the light of which Lasswitz discusses this theory. The first is the imputation against

(213) modern molecular physics that it arbitrarily reads all other sensations into those of touch, or contact. This imputation the author has strenuously denied in his history of atomism, and welcomes the theory of energy because it shows so clearly that no sensation is hid at the basis of the statements of physics, but that this science is a rationalization of the phenomena of nature in abstract terms — terms that abstract from all qualitative expressions except in so far as these can be found in the law of their changes or processes. On the other hand, the author is confident that the reduction of all energies to the terms of a single one will be a necessary development in the theory of energy, and that this will be the energy of mass as a molecular formation. The aim of physics to seek a unified statement of the world will drive the theory of energy into this. But the means for this expression which this theory offers, i.e., the terms of energies expressed in the formulae of their laws of change, with the unity of the conservation of energy substituted for that of an underlying substance, he finds superior to those of the mechanical physics which hold the field to-day. The second difficulty is that of the expression of sensation in terms of motion; and here Lasswitz finds also that the theory of energy has removed inconsistencies that could not be avoided by mechanical physics. In the first place physics at once assumes the function of stating the phenomena of nature in abstract terms — those of the rational judgment— not in terms of an extra-existent substance which is read in terms of sensations of touch.

In the second place the unity of its determinizations are those of the objectified subject. They are the laws of the content of consciousness abstracted from the ego at its centre. The fundamental inadequacy of the expression of sensation in motion is due to the abstract terms of the science. The question whether, wherever in nature unity in a system is found, we must suppose an ego also, the author leaves undecided.

George H. Mead
University of Michigan.


  1. Geschichte der modernen Atomistic, K. Lasswitz, Hamburg, 1891.

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