The Pursuit of Unity: Kantian Metaphysics, Naturphilosphe and Hans Christian Ørsted’s Discovery of Electromagnetism

Author: Isabella Sweeney

Sub-editor: Molly Lidgerwood

Image credit: Oersted, Hans Christian. Oersted discovers electromagnetism in 1820. Engraving. 1820. Wikimedia Commons.

The landmark discovery of electromagnetism in 1820 by Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted was completely at odds with the then widely held understanding that magnetism and electricity were two entirely unrelated phenomena. Since Ørsted’s discovery, an ongoing debate has evolved as to why Ørsted, among his contemporaries, sought to prove such a relationship. The discussion concerning Ørsted’s electromagnetism has primarily addressed two key figures: German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s dynamical philosophy and German Romantic Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, and the respective roles they may have played in influencing Ørsted’s perception of electricity, magnetism, and the nature of chemistry. Here, I argue that Ørsted’s appreciation for Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was largely aesthetic and superficial in contrast to the more seminal influence of Kant’s metaphysics which Ørsted integrated into his own philosophy and provided him with the specific ideas concerning force and unity that set him on the path to discover electromagnetism.

Ørsted’s discovery of electromagnetism arose from a series of lectures he conducted in 1820 on electricity, galvanism, and magnetism during which Ørsted found the electrical current of a galvanic cell caused the movement of a nearby magnetic needle, thus discovering a previously unobserved relationship between electricity and magnetism. Following a subsequent set of experiments to confirm his discovery, Ørsted published a brief four-page account detailing this new force: electromagnetism. Throughout the 18th Century and into the 19th, a number of natural philosophers posited various causes of phenomena such as magnetism and electricity. The most notable feature of these theories is that they considered electricity and magnetism to be entirely independent, meaning a force such as Ørsted’s electromagnetism was inconceivable. Hence, when Ørsted published his discovery it was widely assumed that he had stumbled upon it by chance.

Kant’s conceptualisation of force was integral in establishing a philosophical framework through which Ørsted could begin to investigate a relationship between electricity and magnetism. By the late 18th Century, Kant’s philosophy was spreading through Europe. Despite his Queries in the Opticks, Kant found Isaac Newton’s lack of explanation for the cause of gravity an inexcusable oversight which he attempted to rectify in his Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft (Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science) published in 1786. For Kant, there were two possible approaches to natural science: a mechanical natural philosophy founded in Newton’s atomistic view of matter and a dynamical natural philosophy. Taking issue with Newton, Kant’s proposed dynamical philosophy considered all phenomena the product of two antagonising forces of attraction and repulsion, the empirical concept of matter being inconsequential. Kant described these two forces as Grundkräfte. Keld Nielsen and Hanne Andersen, who portray Ørsted as an eager young Kantian, detail how the proliferation of Kant’s dynamical philosophy in Copenhagen provoked a generational conflict with young students generally gravitating towards Kant’s new ideas. Having moved to Copenhagen for university in 1794, Ørsted was swiftly introduced to this dynamical philosophy and began to refer to it in 1798. Ørsted based his PhD on Kant’s Anfangsgründe and his concept of Grundkräfte. Dan Christensen argues that in reading Ørsted’s thesis his great interest in Kant’s philosophy is clear, particularly in his articulation of force and matter. Christensen proposes that Ørsted adopted Kant’s anti-atomistic view of matter as having no empirical status itself, but as the product of two polar dynamical forces. Further to this, Dutch professor Harry Snelders argues that Ørsted perceived electricity and magnetism to be reiterations of the opposing forces of Kant’s Grundkräfte:

Throughout his literary career, he adhered to the opinion, that the magnetical effects are produced by the same powers as the electrical. He was not so much led to this, by the reasons commonly alleged for this opinion, as by the philosophical principle, that all phenomena are produced by the same original power.

Those who would argue for Kant’s seminal influence on Ørsted would concur that the inspiration for this “philosophical principle” Ørsted describes was Kant’s Grundkräfte and his force orientated metaphysics. While this is difficult to dispute given how explicitly Ørsted refers to an “original power”, there is some disagreement over Ørsted’s comprehension of Kantian philosophy. The argument has been made, most strongly by Barry Gower, that Ørsted did not have a firm grasp on a singular definition of force and was torn between Kant’s Grundkräfte and the complicated nonsensible entities commonly proposed in various subtle fluids theories. Consequently, Gower argues Ørsted was not influenced by Kant more so than any other group of natural philosophers. This argument holds little merit as in examining the quote above from Ørsted himself in 1820, it is evident that however perfectly he understood Kant, the direction of his own philosophy was indeed guided by the central theme of Kantian metaphysics. Further to this, some dispute remains between those who argue in favour of Kant’s impact on Ørsted. Timothy Shanahan describes Kant as a notable figure in Ørsted’s formative years but whose influence somewhat waned throughout his life whereas Snelders is quite forthright in describing the discovery of electromagnetism as the “direct consequence” of Ørsted’s belief in the harmony of all forces which he drew from Kant’s metaphysics.

The distinct lack of effort by historians to situate Ørsted’s discovery of electromagnetism and his relationship to Kant’s philosophy within the broader context of his life severely restricts an evaluation of Kant’s influence on Ørsted’s electromagnetism. Andrew Wilson, one of the few to take the time to consider Ørsted’s early life, holds that it presents a limitation to Kant’s potential influence as much of his focus on unity is reflected in the theological teachings Ørsted received as a child. Born in 1777 Rudkøbing, Denmark, Ørsted grew up amidst the Dutch Golden Age. Ørsted’s wide variety of interests including physics, medicine, art, literature, and poetry can be considered a reflection of the culture at this time, when the disciplines of science and art were more intertwined. Ørsted’s early education was left to two German wigmakers and focused predominantly on religion and languages. Wilson highlights Ørsted’s early interactions with religion, inferring from them that Ørsted’s later interest in science was inextricably linked to the theological teachings on his youth, with science becoming a form of “religious worship”. Following his discovery of electromagnetism Ørsted commented that:

All the rules which one can give for the investigation of nature must spring from the fundamental truth: That all of nature is the revelation of an infinite rational Will, and it is the task of science… to know as much as possible about it.

Ørsted’s interpretation of science can be understood as an interrogation of nature and an investigation of this “infinite rational Will.” It must be emphasised that in accordance with the quotation above, Ørsted saw the relationship between religion and science as maintained by their common factor, nature. However, while Wilson would argue that Kant’s metaphysics attracted Ørsted because it was merely an extension of the theological ideas he absorbed as a child, it is undeniable that Kant provided Ørsted with a more sophisticated and better articulated philosophy with which he could begin to address the electricity and magnetism.  

Occupying a brief space in German history, German Romanticism was an intellectual movement emphasising the importance of nature which is characterised as an “active, dynamic and organic whole.” German philosopher Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was a Romantic approach to science drawing partly on fellow German philosopher Kant’s philosophy as evident in its focus on the polarity of forces and duality in nature. During his 1801-02 tour of Europe Ørsted visited Jena, the centre of German Romanticism, and came into contact with Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. He did this most notably through befriending German physicist Johann Ritter, a Naturphilosoph, with whom he maintained correspondence for the rest of Ritter’s life. He wrote that:

In all productivity and in productivity alone, there is absolute continuity – a statement of importance in the consideration of the whole of nature; inasmuch, for example, as the law that in nature there is no leap, there is continuity of forms in it… is confined to the original productivity of nature, in which certainly there must be continuity.

In an extrapolation of Kant’s metaphysics, Schelling argued nature should be understood as a single, integrated system and moreover, that it could be interrogated solely through drawing on knowledge a priori, presenting a system of entirely speculative physics. Though part of a minority perspective, Robert Stauffer resolutely maintains that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was the primary motivator in Ørsted’s discovery of electromagnetism. Granted, Schelling’s focus on the “absolute continuity” of nature and the concept of unity is perhaps more explicit than Kant’s, however unlike Kant’s Anfangsgründe, there is a distinct lack of clear engagement by Ørsted with the finer points of Naturphilosophie beyond his interactions with Ritter. Involving himself only with the vague outlines of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, it is difficult to declare Ørsted a Naturphilosoph or that the philosophy held particular significance for him. Moreover, having declared empirical science “a mongrel notion,” Schelling’s commitment to speculative physics is entirely at odds with Ørsted’s discovery of electromagnetism.

Drawing all conclusions a priori, Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is too incongruous in its philosophy with Ørsted’s commitment to empirical investigation to have significantly influenced his discovery of electromagnetism. In an examination of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, John Esposito supports the argument that Schelling’s denunciation of empirical investigation would have deterred Ørsted from taking on Schelling’s philosophy as he was a keen supporter of rigorous experimentation. Ørsted’s affinity for experimentation is well documented; having first gained experience working as a pharmacist in his father’s apothecary he went on to win prizes at university in which praise was specifically given for his meticulous experimentation. Furthermore, Shanahan, in keeping with his argument supporting the influence of Kant, maintains that Ørsted’s early interactions with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason shaped the entirety of his subsequent approach to science. In the appendices of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant highlights that ideas only hold merit insofar as they are based in and applied to what we can possibly experience. Thus, those concepts that move beyond this – ‘transcendental ideas’ – are severely limited as they extend themselves beyond the sensible world. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie a priori is comprised entirely of transcendental ideas. Hence, Ørsted in keeping with Kant’s Critique was most likely skeptical of Schelling’s philosophy notwithstanding his own formative experiences with experiment. Therefore, considering the indisputably significant role that experimentation played in Ørsted’s discovery of electromagnetism, it is doubtful that Ørsted would have arrived where he did in 1820 had he been a Naturphilosoph given Schelling’s disregard for any true devotion to experiment.

Despite Schelling’s dismissal of empirical investigation, a number of historians present a more nuanced perspective proposing that Ørsted as a lover of poetry, art, religion, and nature may have found an aesthetic appeal in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie which corresponded well with his reasoning in seeking a connection between electricity and magnetism. In 1799 Ørsted came across two of Schelling’s works concerning Naturphilosophie and while he criticised Schelling’s “not very rigorous method” of science, he clearly held some affection for the nature of Schelling’s ideas, describing them as “beautiful.” In an unpublished manuscript, Ørsted made the following observation regarding his own philosophy:

Science and art at their highest point meet each other… When the nature of things is presented in the most perfect mode, i.e., for the entire soul, then art and science are merged together.

Esposito holds that the goal of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was an entirely Romantic sentiment to, through the investigation of natural phenomena, reconcile the disciplines of science and art – to “bring about a unity of nature and culture.” Ørsted’s interest in the relationship between art and science was nurtured through his interactions with German Romanticism of which Naturphilosophie was a part. Therefore, it is possible that similar to the aesthetically satisfying idea of art and science converging, Ørsted may have been inspired in this to pursue equally appealing connections in the field of chemistry. The only limitation to this argument may be how significantly Ørsted and Schelling’s respective views overlap. It is difficult to discern the extent to which Naturphilosophie truly imbued Ørsted with a new philosophy aiding in his discovery of electromagnetism or whether Ørsted was drawn to a philosophy characteristic of ideas he already possessed.

Ørsted’s interactions with Kantian metaphysics, specifically Grundkräfte, left Ørsted with a well-established appreciation for the notion that all forces are of a single origin and an interest in apparent opposites which he continued to apply throughout his life and undoubtedly saw reflected in the phenomena of electricity and magnetism. Conversely, as Schelling’s Naturphilosophie contradicted Ørsted’s commitment to empirical investigation it is unlikely he was significantly influenced by Schelling’s work in his discovery. It is possible Ørsted maintained some appreciation for the aesthetics of Naturphilosophie and its desire to elevate science and art together, however, this likely would not have had a notably significant impact on Ørsted’s discovery.

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