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  • The Kantian Legacy in Nineteenth-Century Science
  • Valia Allori
Michael Friedman and Alfred Nordmann, editors. The Kantian Legacy in Nineteenth-Century Science. Cambridge, MA-London: MIT Press, 2006. Pp. ii + 370. Cloth, $45.00.

The book originates from an international conference held in November 2000 at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. The main conviction of the authors is that not only the development of modern mathematics, foundations of mathematics, and mathematical logic, but also the development of modern scientific thought can be better understood as an evolution from Kant. The main reason for focusing on the nineteenth century is that this will allow us to set aside the question of whether the Kantian analysis has lost its relevance in the context of the twentieth-century scientific revolutions. The thirteen articles in the book explore "the complex and subtle tracing of the multiple intellectual transformations that have led, step by step, from Kant's original scientific situation to the new scientific problems of the twentieth century" (1).

The articles can be grouped in five main focal points of the nineteenth-century scenario. The first three articles explore the Kantian legacy in the origin, development, and growth of Naturphilosophie, and its connection with the nineteenth-century scientific work. In more detail, Frederick Beiser argues that, contrary to a widespread opinion, the transition from Kant to Naturphilosophie arises as a resolution of the Kantian problems. Robert J. Richards discusses the influences of Schelling on Goethe's Kantian dilemmas, and how this affected Goethe's scientific work in biology. The third paper is Michael Friedman's analysis of how Naturphilosophie was crucial in Oersted's experimental work in electromagnetism.

The subsequent two articles focus on a more detailed analysis of the philosophy of science of Frie, recognized as an important figure in the science and mathematics of the time. The idea is that Frie connects the two worlds of Naturphilosophie and neo-Kantianism, so that analyzing his philosophy will provide a better understanding of the transition between the two. In more detail, Frederick Gregory argues that Frie can be seen as extending Kant's connection between philosophy and science, analyzing in particular Frie's views on chemistry. The same line of though is developed by Helmut Pulte, who discusses in addition Frie's views on biology and pure mathematics.

In the third and fourth groups the focus is on neo-Kantianism. First, there is an analysis of scientific thinkers like Helmholtz. Robert DiSalle describes Helmholtz's neo-Kantian empiricism in connection (and in contrast) with Poincaré's conventionalism, while Timothy Lenoir analyses Helmholtz's theory of perception in connection with Kant, discussing the influence of the development of new media technologies on his work.

Then the analysis moves to the Marburg school of philosophy, in particular the philosophy of Cohen, Cassirer, Riehl, and Pierce. Alan Richardson argues that the relations between epistemology and philosophy of science were already discussed by these philosophers. Michael Heidelberger's main idea is that the philosophy of Riehl has been as influential as that of Mach for logical empiricists like Schlick, while Alfred Nordmann discusses the similarities and differences between Riehl, Cohen, and Pierce in connection with Kant.

The last three articles deal with Poincaré's philosophy, mathematics, physics, and the relations among them. Even if Poincaré, contra Helmholtz, never identified himself as a neo-Kantian, like Helmholtz he defended broadly Kantian views. In particular, Janet Folina analyzes and defends Poincaré's arguments for the (Kantian) view that mathematical reasoning is synthetic a priori. Jeremy Gray defends the view that, even given his conventionalism, Poincaré adopted a more intuitive conception than the one of Hilbert. Lastly, Jesper Lüzen compares and contrasts the Kantian, empiricist, and conventionalist tendencies of Hertz and Poincaré.

Like all collection of articles, the book suffers from an inevitable discontinuity of style and sometimes of focus, as well as some repetitiveness. Despite that, it is remarkably comprehensive, complete, clear, deep, and incisive. The literature on Kant is notoriously immense, but I have not seen so far a similarly interesting book on this particular topic, on whose importance I agree with the authors. In fact, as is...


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