24. July 2008 online,  
Annalen der Physik, Volume 17 Issue 11, Pages 911-912

Book Review: "The Path of Science in the Labyrinth of Cultures: Seven Main Tasks of the History of Science," (in German) by Daniela Wuensch

Termessos, Göttingen 2008,
ISBN 978-3-938016-10-7, 124 pp., Eur 19.95

by Tobias Jung, Universität Augsburg

The current status of the history of science at German universities is marked by a cancellation of positions, termination of professorships and a lack of integration into courses of study in the natural sciences and the humanities. Against this background, Daniela Wuensch, historian of science who has successfully proven herself in publications on the works of, among others, David Hilbert and Theodor Kaluza, now addresses the problem of self-image in her field: What are the basic questions and problems that must be confronted by the history of science? What significance can the history of science have for other academic disciplines?

In order to answer these questions, the author does not simply string together the more than twenty numerous problems she has identified as of possible interest, but rather develops the main issues from the question of embedding occidental culture, including exact science as an integral part of it, in world culture. In so doing, she formulates the role of the discipline of the history of science as an integrative force unifying the academic landscape, which is fragmented into various specialized studies in the natural sciences and humanities. This involves nothing less than resolving the "two cultures" (Charles Percy Snow) by a theory of culture that takes both the natural sciences and the humanities equally into account. Such a comprehensive concept would seem indispensable in order to even attempt to answer the constituent question in the history of science as to "why the successful exact sciences were able to develop only in Western cultures" (p. 22). Daniela Wuensch expertly outlines the currently most important arguments with respect to this fundamental question, all of which prove wanting. The emergence of Western exact science cannot be simply explained by the role of Christianity, be it in its Catholic or Protestant form.

Proceeding from her fundamental question, the author unfolds the important issues which the history of science must address, elucidating their inner coherence in the course of her argumentation. An explanation for the development of exact science in Western culture as opposed to other advanced cultures like China or India is proposed in a first step by identifying the distinguishing features of occidental science.

Following the arguments of Alexandre Koyré, Daniela Wuensch points out convincingly that the decisive difference between the cultures lies neither in the performance of experiments nor in the social milieu but in the mathematization of physics. Initially her thesis may not appear to be new; however, after a closer look, the scope of her argument becomes clear: "Mathematization does not only mean applying mathematics to natural laws, but solving the most important problem of a science in mathematical language" (p. 25), whereby mathematics takes on an epistemological meaning. Only through mathematics does physics become a science; in the words of Immanuel Kant (Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, AVIII): " I maintain, however, that in every special doctrine of nature only so much science proper can be found as there is mathematics in it.

For physics, the problem of motion is constitutive, in the author's opinion. Although she does mention the appearance of problems of motion in the framework of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, a more in-depth account here would have been preferable. Galileo then solves the problem of motion and thereby makes physics into a "mature science" (p. 43). This leads directly to the question (p. 31): "Why was the problem of motion not solved by the scientists of ancient Greece?

Contemporary attempts to explain the appearance and development of occidental science on the basis of a cultural context are strongly rebuffed by Daniela Wuensch, whereby her objective criticism is comprehensible. The author formulates the compelling thesis against contextualism that: "The exact sciences possess an independent character in the framework of culture, raising them above the culture of their time and lending them a universality which makes it possible for them to be adopted – in altered form – by other cultures" (p. 34).

The epistemological significance of mathematics in the development of physics raises the question of the connection between mathematics and physics anew. I would consider the claim that, "as a result of mathematization, new segments of mathematics gain a physical reality" (p. 53), exemplified by the Minkowski 4-dimensional spacetime manifold, extremely problematic from a philosophical viewpoint, but nevertheless most tantalizing.

The investigation of why Galileo considered mathematics a "real, epistemological resource" (p. 48), points, contrary to the latent, still animate standpoint of logical empiricism, to the influence that philosophy exerts on physics. This results, as the author correctly observes, in the challenge to the historian of science to show "in how far and by which mechanisms those ideas which physicists developed while dealing with philosophy contributed to progress in physics" (p. 60). The question as to whether this "progress in physics" takes place at all is still a topic of fierce debate among historians of science. The proponents of a continuous advancement in science are pitted against various schools of thought envisioning a succession of "scientific revolutions" at work. Here Daniela Wuensch calls for a "new theory of scientific revolutions," suited to "uniting the natural sciences and the humanities" (p. 68), whereby in my opinion, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker's concept of levels and crises furnishes an integrating element.

Finally, the history of science must not remain anchored in the past, even if it could contribute to unifying the academic disciplines as outlined here in the guise of a research program. For this reason, the author questions the future of occidental science: Will it demonstrate its universal character by being taken up and further developed productively by other cultures? Or will major progress remain limited to the Western World? Here we return to the weighty question posed at the beginning about embedding exact science in world culture.

In my view, one can hardly overestimate Daniela Wuensch's efforts at putting forward a unified project for the history of science and delegating an integrative role to it for various disciplines. Her very readable presentation of the important questions offers enrichment to both experts and lay persons alike. For students of related fields wishing to extend their horizons beyond their own discipline, this book should be considered recommended reading. It would definitely be advantageous to have the book available in English so as to reach a much larger audience. In a lecture held in 1900, the mathematician David Hilbert, so revered by Daniela Wuensch, managed to present 23 basic mathematical problems und thus furnish the next half century with a research program. One can only hope that the book reviewed here will be similarly successful.

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