Ostwald, Weber und die 'energetischen Grundlagen' der Kulturwissenschaft

In Gerhard Wagner & Claudius Härpfer (eds.), Max Webers vergessene Zeitgenossen. Studien zur Genese der Wissenschaftslehre. Harrassowitz Verlag. (forthcoming)
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Wilhelm Ostwald’s program of a physical energetics is the attempt at a comprehensive description of nature on the basis of the concept of energy. In his book Energetische Grundlagen der Kulturwissenschaft, first published in 1909, Ostwald applies this conception to the area of culture. His central assumption is that cultural phenomena should be described by the energetic notion of “efficiency relation” (Güteverhältnis). His systematic thesis is that science, when organized according to the Machian “principle of economy,” proves as the highest form of cultural expression, since it instantiates the notion of quality relation most efficiently, that is, “with the lowest energy expenditure.” This view echoes August Comte’s “law of the three stages” and is intended to supply it with a scientific, i.e., energetic foundation. Max Weber regarded Ostwald’s energetic theory of culture as a misguided attempt at an absolutization of the methods of concept formation within the natural sciences. As he wrote in his devastating review essay “’Energetische’ Kulturtheorien” (1909), Ostwald transformed a certain world view (Weltbild) into a scientifically frivolous ideology (Weltanschauung). In particular, Ostwald’s adherence to the Comtean law of three stages and the associated hierarchy of the sciences were criticized by Weber as outdated and completely beside the point. According to Weber, the concepts of the cultural sciences are not at all dependent on natural scientific concepts such as ‘energy.’ In his view, culture cannot be reduced to nature. But exactly this seemed to be the principal aim of Ostwald’s program. In this paper, I will critically investigate Weber’s critique of that program. I shall argue that Ostwald’s assumption of a natural basis of culture can be ‘rescued’ as a methodological device, but that Ostwald’s – thoroughly substantialist – view of energy should be discarded as a metaphysical relict of ancient ‘stuff ontology.’

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Matthias Neuber
University Tübingen


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