Hertz, Heinrich Rudolf (1857–94)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q046-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the existence of radio waves in research between 1887 and 1888, opening the way for Marconi to develop long-distance radio communication. Hertz’s results confirmed Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, and sealed the fate of action-at-a-distance in physics. His theoretical analysis included the famous dictum: ‘Maxwell’s theory is Maxwell’s system of equations’. Hertz also developed a new formulation of Newtonian mechanics using the concepts of mass, length and time, but not force. He presented mechanics as the axiomatic consequence of a single fundamental law: ‘every free system persists in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straightest path’. Hertz’s ideas influenced later philosophers of science but were most important as a source for Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which influenced logical positivism. Hertz’s proposal to eliminate the concept of force in physics was an important contribution to the twentieth-century ideal of a philosophical method that does not solve, but rather dissolves, philosophical problems.

Heinrich Hertz began studies under H. von Helmholtz at Berlin in 1878. At that time there was no general agreement on the nature of electricity or its fundamental laws. For Wilhelm Weber electrical currents were counterflows of positive and negative electric particles, with forces between them depending on both their positions and their motions. F.E. Neumann used potential functions and avoided electrical particles. J.C. Maxwell also used potentials, but believed that motions in a universal ether underlay electricity and magnetism (see Electrodynamics). Helmholtz constructed a synthetic theory that led to all three alternatives as special cases. He believed, with Weber and Neumann against Maxwell, that forces acted instantaneously at a distance. He criticized Weber’s theory on conceptual grounds – it violated conservation of energy – but failed to produce experimental results that would distinguish between the theories.

In 1879 Hertz showed that the ‘inertia’ of electricity was either nonexistent or impossibly small, providing the first strong experimental evidence against Weber’s theory. A later series of experiments (1887–8) made all theories except Maxwell’s untenable. Hertz showed that electrical oscillations in open circuits generated electromagnetic waves in the surrounding space which travelled at the speed of light, and could be refracted, reflected, polarized and diffracted. None of this could be reconciled with forces acting at a distance (Buchwald 1994). Development of Maxwell’s theory led directly to Lorentz’s classical electron theory (from 1892), which was superseded in turn by quantum mechanics and relativity, in the early twentieth century (Jungnickel and McCormmach 1986).

In the last years of his short life Hertz turned his attention to another theory that existed in several different versions: classical mechanics. As it was impossible to distinguish the versions experimentally, Hertz fell back on philosophical analysis, and it is to this work that he owes his main philosophical influence.

In the introduction to his Principles of Mechanics (1894) Hertz compared three ‘representations’: the traditional version of mechanics presented by Newton and refined by Lagrange; the contemporary Energeticist formulation; and Hertz’s own. Each version differed mathematically, and employed different fundamental concepts. Newton and Lagrange employed the concepts of space, time, mass and force. The Energeticists replaced mass and force with the concept of energy. Hertz proposed to eliminate force but to introduce no new concepts. These different representations of mechanics were compared by three standards called by Hertz ‘permissibility’, ‘correctness’ and ‘appropriateness’. In modern terms these requirements might be expressed as logical adequacy, empirical adequacy and perspicuity. Hertz maintained that the mechanics of Newton and Lagrange had yet to be presented in a form that avoided contradictions, and might therefore be impermissible. Energeticist mechanics was either incorrect or inappropriate. To be appropriate a representation should not exclude anything essential (‘distinctness’), and should not include anything inessential (‘simplicity’).

To maximize ‘appropriateness’ it was important to eliminate ‘empty relations’ – concepts with no counterparts in the real world. Examples were the ‘idle wheels’ introduced by Maxwell in his 1862 theory, to allow cells of ether spinning in opposite directions to rotate freely. Equally ‘permissible’, ‘correct’ and ‘distinct’ representations that did not contain a concept showed it to be superfluous. In Hertz’s analysis, ‘force’ was such a concept. This served Wittgenstein as a model for the elimination of signs from language that fail to mirror the world.

Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning (see Wittgenstein, L. §3) extends Hertz’s account of scientific theories as representations to language as a whole. The critical method of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus follows Hertz in attempting to eliminate ‘empty relations’ and to define its domain of inquiry from within. Wittgenstein’s ‘objects’, and the technique used to place awkward questions outside the domain so they need no answers, are also influenced by Hertz (Barker 1980; Hamilton 1994). The account of science in the Tractatus 6.3 covers many issues treated by Hertz in his analysis of mechanics (Barker 1979).

In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein continues Hertz’s programme of conceptual reform based on scrutiny of our mode of representation, developing methods of dissolving philosophical problems by bringing his audience to see that certain linguistic elements do not deserve their accustomed status. Throughout his mature work Wittgenstein refers to concepts that fail philosophical scrutiny as ‘idle wheels’. Thus, Hertz not only provided one of the starting points for philosophy of science, in his account of theory choice, but, through the work of Wittgenstein, Hertz’s call to eliminate force from physics contributed to twentieth-century philosophers’ attempts to dissolve philosophical problems by eliminating conceptual confusions.

Citing this article:
Barker, Peter. Hertz, Heinrich Rudolf (1857–94), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q046-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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