Hemsterhuis on Mathematics and Optics

  • M. J. Petry
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 110)


Frans Hemsterhuis (1721–1790) is not often treated very extensively in modern accounts of the history of philosophy, and the great bulk of his work on mathematics and optics is still unpublished. If he is known at all widely outside the Netherlands, it is on account of his influence on German romanticism,1 and more particularly on account of the way in which Goethe reacted to his attempt to define the nature of aesthetic experience. In his first published work, the Lettre sur la Sculpture (1769), he had put forward the proposition, “that it is natural for the soul to desire a large number of ideas in the shortest possible period of time”, and that it is this natural desire which determines our sense of beauty.2 Goethe found that he was unable to accept the idea without translating it into his own terms:

As be expressed it, what is beautiful and agreeable depends upon the facility with which we perceive and grasp the maximum number of ideas in one moment of time. I have to put it another way: what is beautiful depends upon out intuiting the regular of what is alive to the full extent of its activity and perfection; it is this that stimulates us to re-create, when we feel that we too are alive and supremely active. Closely considered, this is simply a matter of two different people giving expression to the same thing.3


Natural Science Aesthetic Experience Objective World Exact Science Infinite Space 
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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht 1985

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  • M. J. Petry

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