Physics as a Form of Life

  • Paolo PalmieriEmail author
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 429)


In the Crisis of the European Sciences Husserl raised a fascinating question, namely (broadly paraphrasing), why is it that the axioms of mathematical physics are not self-evident despite the evidence and clarity that is gained through the deductive processes that flow from them? In this chapter, I hope to illuminate Husserl’s foundational question by pursuing the idea that physics is a form of life. This idea should not be taken in a naive metaphorical sense but quite literally. The meaning of life must not be restricted to a biological definition but should be construed broadly as a manifold phenomenon appearing in historical contexts and linguistic frameworks. I will argue that nature manifests certain of her aspects to us, but that in her totality (including ourselves as observers of nature), crucially, she resists our insight. This being hidden of the totality nature, or her desire or necessity to hide herself, explains why the axioms of mathematical physics must appear to our intuition as obscure, according as Husserl noted. It is because they point us to nature as a totality, or put in another way, because nature cannot know herself in her totality. A phenomenologically oriented physics is grounded in diverse mathematical styles that evolve in history and are ultimately rooted in natural languages and in the life-worlds of the physicists. From this phenomenological viewpoint physics is not concerned with truth in the sense of a psychophysical parallelism (the conformity of mind and reality). Indeed, axioms cannot be true in this psychophysical sense given their unintelligibility and unobservability. Rather physics is a form of life coming to be in history and language.



I am grateful to my colleague John Norton for many casual conversations, failed jokes, and insightful platitudes on the parasitic nature of quantum mechanics.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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