Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Math, Science & Philosophy in Mendelssohn's World

Science had long been connected to the study of philosophy that it took a while to become a separate field of study. Philosophy was an exercise in theoretical logic that had little to do with research or experimentation. Math had a more practical rather than speculative or theoretical application.


Karl Friedrich Gauss had been born a peasant in 1777 whose father thought education was “a passport to Hell.” His mother scrimped to send him to school where he began to excel in math. Not yet 20, a teacher told his mother “he will be the greatest mathematician in Europe.” His work with number theory, imaginary numbers, and infinitesimal calculus transformed mathematics from what it had been in Newton's generation in the late-17th Century. In 1801 he discovered the first asteroid (or planetoid) and mapped its orbit and researched theories of magnetism and electricity, declaring that nothing is science until in can be stated in mathematical terms.


Alexander von Humboldt (see left) was a director of mines who discovered the effects of magnetism on rock deposits, founded a school of mines and improved labor conditions for miners. In 1799, he journeyed to South America studying, among other things, plant and animal life in Venezuela and reached the source of the Amazon River. In Peru, he discovered a current in the Pacific Ocean that is now known as the Humboldt Current, comparable to the Atlantic's Gulf Stream. He discovered that bird-droppings (from all the sea birds along the Peruvian coast) had potential as fertilizer which developed into one of South America's richest exports.

(Charles Darwin's more famous five-year 'round-the-world voyage on the ship, The Beagle, was in 1831. His observations led to the development of his theories on Natural Selection and later on Evolution. Curiously, 2009 is also the observation of Darwin's Bicentennial.)

Back in Europe in 1804, Humboldt's further studies and experiments improved our knowledge of the formation of mountains and how tropical storms develop. On an expedition to the Ural Mountains in Russia, he discovered diamond mines. As a court chamberlain in Berlin, he worked to improve the education system and helped artists and scientists. When he died, he was working on Volume 5 of a compilation of his knowledge which, in an English translation, was almost 2,000 pages long.

When he was in Berlin, Alexander von Humboldt – along with his brother, Wilhelm, a reformer of education who influenced the development of universities in both Germany and the United States – was a regular visitor at the Mendelssohn's Sunday afternoon musicales.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (pronounced HAY-g'l) was just one of many German philosophers in this era. He developed many theories but he is most remembered today for developing the “Hegelian Dialectic,” a process of conversation (as it was originally considered) where an idea (called a thesis) is balanced by its opposite argument (called an antithesis or anti-thesis) to produce a combination of both positive and negative aspects of these ideas (called a synthesis) which might be considered a compromise but becomes a new idea (or thesis) to which one can apply a new antithesis to create a new synthesis and so on.

It is only one of Hegel's many theories, a very small one, at that - and based on several other philosophers, going back to the Greeks. This approach to “dialectics” is a simplification of his ideas.

One of Hegel's followers, Karl Marx, argued that capitalism (thesis) contained the seeds of socialism (antithesis) but he argued that these rival forms of economics must clash with socialism winning out. This however is not a true dialectic – the synthesis would have elements of both capitalism AND socialism which is, basically, the form of economic organization that prevails in much of Western Europe today.

In 1818, Hegel (see illustration above: Hegel lectures to some students) began teaching at the University of Berlin. In 1828, one student who attended his lectures was Felix Mendelssohn. Hegel, too, had been a frequent visitor to the Mendelssohn house, just one of many guests who discussed various issues with fellow guests and their hosts and then listened to the music made by the family's children.

There is a famous story that, at the dinner after the performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the wife of one of Mendelssohn's best friends sat between him and an old man who kept flirting with her. Tired of his boring chatter, she turned to Mendelssohn and asked "Who is this idiot beside me?" "That idiot, " he whispered back to her, "is the great philosopher Hegel."

Hegel's philosophical students curiously formed two opposing schools of thought about their teacher's theories (no synthesis, there). His fame rose and fell with successive generations. When his influence fell in Germany, it rose in England and later in the United States. In early 20th Century France, Hegel became the god-father of Existentialism.

Will Durant concludes his chapter on “The German People” in The Age of Napoleon (Volume 11 of his “History of Civilization”) with this:

“Civilization is a collaboration as well as a rivalry; therefore it is good that each nation has its own culture, government, economy, dress and songs. It has taken many diverse forms of organization and expression to make the European spirit so subtle and diverse, and to make the Euopre of today and endless fascination and an inexhaustible heritage.”

Considering how many people from that Europe of Mendelssohn's age would find their way to a new home in the United States of America, you could say – with or without Hegel's dialectic – basically the same for us.

- Dr. Dick