Cassirer’s Philosophy of Science, Duhem’s Holism, and Goethe

Massimo Ferrari

University of Turin

One of the most neglected aspects of Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of science is the holistic interpretation of scientific theories, which seems to be quite close to Pierre Duhem’s insights. Although Cassirer never denies the crucial importance of the “transcendental method” (i.e., the typical methodological procedure of Marbourg Neo-Kantianism) in order to investigate a priori conditions of possibility of scientific knowledge, his epistemological assumptions are significantly influenced by three main themes that Duhem elaborates in his book The aim and structure of physical theory (1906) – a book, that has nothing to do with the heritage of transcendental philosophy. First of all, Cassirer underlines the symbolic character of scientific knowledge: according to both Duhem and Cassirer, empirical facts must be put in symbolic, mathematical form in order to be suitable for scientific reasoning; and, therefore, “bare” facts are understandable only within a theoretical framework. Secondly, Cassirer shares Duhem’s famous argument against the role of experimentum crucis by scientific explanation and he makes it clear that physical theories are properly a whole, which cannot be compared with empirical data in a ‘one to one’ relationship. Finally, Cassirer emphasizes similarly to Duhem that physical measurements and physical instruments are founded on theoretical assumptions, and therefore the Neo-Kantian Marbourg philosopher is a supporter of the “theory-ladenness” of scientific experience. According to Cassirer, Einstein’s general theory of relativity represents an extraordinary confirmation of such a holistic, Duhemian (but also, broadly speaking, Kantian) account of modern physics. Put in a broad historical context, Cassirer’s holism is connected with another author too, which emerges as a kind of Muse already in Substance and Function (1910). Along his whole intellectual life, Cassirer was deeply indebted to Goethe and it would be hard to understand his main reflections on the relationship between theory and experience without referring to Goethe’s scientific writings and, in particular, to his famous motto, according to which «the highest thing would be to comprehend that everything factual is already theory». So Goethe’s heritage represents a very important background for Cassirer’s philosophy of science and lies at the core of further developments of his own interpretation of physical theories. To be sure, this kind of holism is a highly interesting case study for contemporary history of philosophy of science. Long before Quine’s famous paper, Duhemian arguments in favour of holistic accounts of scientific theories were well known in early XXth century philosophy of science. So, for example, the young Otto Neurath was well acquainted with Duhem; and though his point of view appears very different from the Cassirer’s one, it is nevertheless noteworthy that both Cassirer and Neurath consider Goethe as a very influential source for a philosophy of science engaged with the dynamics of scientific theories. The Duhem-Goethe connection requires in this respect a more detailed inquiry by historians of philosophy of science.