Hegel on Mechanistic Models of Light

  • Brigitte Falkenburg
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire Des Idées / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 136)


As is widely known, there was a distinct affinity between Hegel’s concept of light and Goethe’s doctrine of colours. Both stood well apart from the mainstream efforts scientists were making in the opening decades of the nineteenth century to develop a theory of light which would explain the empirical phenomena of diffraction, double refraction and polarization. Newton’s mechanics accounted perfectly for the broad domain of mechanical phenomena, but prior to 1817, the year in which Hegel published the first edition of his Encyclopedia, there was no empirically successful theory of light. There were, instead, two rival theories, one elaborated by Laplace and deriving from the queries appended to Newton’s Opticks, which postulated particles, the other elaborated first by Huygens and then by Euler, which postulated waves. Prior to 1817 neither was generally accepted, although the particle-theory enjoyed greater popularity, since Newtonianism had a good reputation among scientists and its rival gave rise to a number of unresolved problems. In the 1817 Encyclopedia there is no mention of wave-theory, and the particle-theory is sharply criticized. Between 1801 and 1817, however, Young and Fresnel had presented wave-theory in a well-formulated and empirically successful manner. Although their work gave rise to problems in respect of the ether, the medium within which the light-waves were supposed to be propagated, it soon gained general acceptance. In the 1830 edition of the Encyclopedia Hegel comments on the developments that had taken place by adding the following statement to the passage in which he had criticized the Newtonian particles: “all further forms of mediation used in explanation and exposition, such as corpuscles, waves, oscillations etc., as well as fine strands and bundles of rays, are to be removed from this relationship”.1


Physical Theory Theoretical Concept Celestial Body Abstract Notion Empirical Content 
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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

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  • Brigitte Falkenburg

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