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Helmholtz, Hermann von (1821–94)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 02, 2023, from

Article Summary

In physiology, physics, mathematics, aesthetic theory and epistemology, Helmholtz intervened, and innovated. He contributed to the physiology of perception through work on the central nervous system, followed by work on optics and acoustics. He invented instruments, such as the opthalmoscope and introduced the mathematical principle of the conservation of energy to physics. For geometry, Helmholtz elaborated on the concept of an n-dimensional manifold. He secured the influence of the ‘Berlin physics’, introduced Faraday and Maxwell to Germany, refined the theory of electrodynamics and reflected on the role of discrete entities in physics. Having become the most influential representative of German science and its uncontested spokesperson, he repeated the importance of the connection between education and research and the necessity not to separate the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) from the social sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). This monumental body of work is experiencing a revival of interest today as historians of both science and culture consider it in a new light. But the question remains of how to characterize what we might call ‘the Helmholtz effect’ in philosophy. Why was Helmholtz equally influential not only on Cassirer, Husserl, Schlick, Meyerson and Freud, but also on the principal founders of contemporary physics; Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg? To grasp this, we must understand the constant interaction between science and philosophy which characterized, even permitted, the extraordinary developments in mathematics, physics and physiology in Germany at that time. Here the connection between Helmholtz and Kant is fundamental, since ‘the Helmholtz effect’ transformed the Kantian heritage. Helmholtz did not write a systematic philosophical work, but in redefining fundamental epistemological concepts and constructing a large part of the conceptual structure in which both philosophy and relativistic and quantum physics developed during the early twentieth century, he modified the very problems of epistemology.

Citing this article:
Chevalley, Catherine. Helmholtz, Hermann von (1821–94), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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