Atoms With Hooks and Eyes: Thoughts on Humanistic Education, Science, and Western Culture



IT is frequently argued that in our age, governed as it is by science and technology, education should be directed more toward practical ends if it is to serve as a useful preparation for life. This argument raises once more the question of the relationship between humanistic education and contemporary science. I cannot treat this question in any fundamental way, since I am not an educator and have given the matter too little thought. But I can attempt to draw some conclusions from my own experiences, for I myself am a product of a German Gymnasium, that stronghold of the classical education.

The advocates of the humanistic ideal rightly point out that our entire cultural life, all our actions, thoughts, and feelings, are rooted in the intellectual substance of the Occident, the beginnings of which are to be found in classical antiquity: in Greek art, Greek poetry, and Greek philosophy. Subsequently transmuted by Christianity, this Greek spirit culminated at the close of the Middle Ages in a magnificent union of Christian faith with the intellectual freedom of antiquity; the world was conceived as God’s even as the voyages of discovery and the development of science and technology were thoroughly reshaping it. Thus, in every realm of modern life we necessarily encounter intellectual structures which had their origins in classical antiquily or in Christianity. So it can be urged in favor of humanistic education that it is good to know these structures, even though many of their aspects may not be directly necessary for modern life.

It is secondly stressed that the whole force of our Western culture derives from the close connection between asking questions of principle and taking practical action. In practical action other peoples and other cultural areas have been just as experienced as the Greeks. But Greek thought from the very first was distinguished from that of other peoples by precisely this ability to translate a problem into one of principle, thereby arriving at answers that imposed order upon the colorful multiplicity of experience. Out of this bond between theoretical questions and practical action arose, at the beginning of the Renaissance, modern science and technology. Anyone who studies Greek philosophy encounters at every step of the way this gift for putting questions of principle; reading the Greeks, therefore, enables one to exercise the most powerful intellectual tool that Occidental thought has produced. To this extent we can certainly say that humanistic studies teach us something enormously useful.

Finally, it is rightly maintained that a study of classical antiquity leads us to a standard of value which rates spiritual-intellectual values higher than material values. Here, of course, our contemporaries might argue that modern times prove that forces of matter are stronger than any forces of mind, and that it is therefore anachronistic to attempt to teach our children a greater esteem for intellectual than for material values.

In this connection I recall a conversation I had some thirty years ago in our schoolyard. At that time revolutionary struggles were going on in Munich; the heart of the city was still occupied by Communists. I was seventeen, and along with my schoolmates was assigned to auxiliary duty with a military unit whose headquarters was in the theological seminary opposite our Gymnasium. There was frequent though not particularly violent firing in the street. Every noon we fetched our lunch from a field kitchen in the yard of the seminary. One day we became invoked in a discussion with a theology student on the question of whether this struggle in Munich was in truth meaningful. One of our group took the stand that questions of power could not be decided by intellectual means, by speechmaking and writing; the real decision between us and the others could only be determined by force, he declared.

Thereupon the theology student replied that the very question of who “we” and who “the others” were obviously depended upon a purely intellectual decision, and that probably a good deal would be gained if this decision were made somewhat more intelligently than was usually the case. We could find no good reply to this argument. Perhaps it might not be so bad if we were to teach youth not to despise the values of the mind.

But to return to my subject, which is the relationship between science and humanistic education^— most schoolboys stumble into the realm of technology by beginning to play with various types of apparatus. Being given a Christmas present of a mechanical nature, playing with other boys, or learning something in school, they become interested in handling and building small machines. During my first five school years I engaged in such play with great eagerness. Probably it would have remained only play and would never have led me to real science if another experience had not intervened. In school we were taught the elements of geometry. At first it seemed to me a thoroughly dry subject; triangles and squares stirred my imagination far less than flowers and verse. But suddenly I saw that general propositions could be stated about these structures, that certain consequences could not only be recognized from the figures, but could also be proved mathematically.

This idea — that mathematics had a relationship to things that could be seen and experienced — struck me as extraordinarily remarkable and exciting. I had one of those rare insights that sometimes come to us in connection with the subjects we learn in school, when a subject which has entered our field of vision suddenly begins to glow with its own light; at first the image is obscure and vague, but it grows steadily brighter until at last the light it radiates fills a larger space in our consciousness, extends to other subjects, and finally becomes an integral part of our own life.

That was what happened to me with the insight that mathematics applies to things in our experience: an insight that, my teachers told me, had already been perceived by Pythagoras and Euclid. I began trying to find applications for mathematics myself, and found this playing with mathematics and direct observation at least as amusing as other games. Later the field of geometry ceased to satisfy me. Through books I discovered that the science of physics had developed methods for studying mathematically the behavior of the machines I was constantly rigging up. From popular-education books and similar rather elementary texts I began learning the mathematics required to describe physical laws — primarily the differential and integral calculus. The achievements of Newton and his successors seemed to me the direct continuation of the work of Greek mathematicians and philosophers; they were in fact one and the same thing, and it would not have entered my head to view the science and technology of our age as belonging to a fundamentally different world from the philosophy of Pythagoras or Euclid.


AT BOTTOM, instinctively and with a schoolboy’s ignorance I had stumbled upon a basic trait of Occidental thought: the connection I have already mentioned between practical action and theoretical questions. Mathematics is, as it were, the language in which questions can be asked and answered fundamentally, but the questions themselves have reference to processes in the practical, material world. So, for example, geometry served the purpose of measuring agricultural land.

As a result of this experience, my interest as a student ran more toward mathematics than toward physical science or apparatus; it was only in the two upper forms at school that I turned back to physical science. That, curiously enough, was the result of a chance encounter with modern physics.

At the time we were using a quite commendable physics textbook which, however, naturally treated the most modern developments in physics in a rather gingerly fashion. Nevertheless, the last pages of the book contained some discussion of atoms, and I distinctly remember a diagram which showed a sizable aggregation of atoms. The diagram was intended to represent the state of a gas. There were several groups of atoms, and within the groups the atoms were connected by hooks and eyes which were probably meant to symbolize the chemical affinities. The text also stated that in the view of Greek philosophers atoms constituted the smallest indivisible building blocks of matter.

Every time I saw it, this diagram stirred me to feelings of outrage; I was shocked that anything so stupid could be found between the covers of a textbook of physics. For I thought: If the atoms are such crudely tangible structures as this book pretends, if they have so complicated a form that they even possess hooks and eyes, they cannot possibly be the smallest indivisible blocks of matter.

A friend who was far more interested in philosophy than I backed me up in this view. This schoolmate, who had read a number of essays on the atomic theory of the classical philosophers, had also encountered a textbook of modern atomic physics (I believe it was Sommerfeld’s Atomic Structure and Spectral Lines) and had seen graphic drawings of atoms. They had led him to the firm conviction that all of modern atomic physics must be wrong, and he tried to win me to this view. In those days we formed judgments much more quickly and certainly than we do now. I agreed with my friend that graphic representations of atoms must necessarily be wrong, but I held that the fault lay with those who drew the pictures.

In any case, I was left with the desire to become more closely acquainted with the real fundamentals of atomic physics, and here another accident played into my hands. At this time we had just begun reading a Platonic dialogue in school. But instruction was highly irregular because of the unrest in Munich. We boys had very little to do as military auxiliaries; in fact, we were far more in danger of loafing than of overworking ourselves. However, we had to be ready for duty at night.

It was a warm summer, that June of 1919, and in the early mornings especially we had practically no duties. The result was that shortly after dawn I frequently resorted to the roof of the theological seminary to lie in the sun and read, or sit with my feet dangling over the rim of the roof and watch the Ludwigstrasse come to life. On one such occasion I decided to take a volume of Plato up to the roof with me, and to read something beside the dialogues we were studying in class, despite my relatively limited knowledge of Greek. I hit upon the Timaeus, and here for the first time I encountered Greek atomic philosophy at first hand. Reading the dialogue, I understood the basic ideas of atomic theory much more clearly than I had before. I thought that I could at least halfway understand the reasons which had prompted Greek philosophers to assume the existence of those smallest indivisible building blocks of matter. The thesis Plato maintained in the Timaeus, that atoms are regular bodies, still did not seem altogether sensible to me, but I was pleased to see that at least his atoms had no hooks and eyes. In any case, I became convinced there and then that a scientist could scarcely work in modern atomic physics without a knowledge of Greek natural philosophy, and I reflected that the person who had drawn that picture of the atom should have boned up on his Plato before he set about making drawings.

Thus, without quite knowing how, I had become acquainted with one of the great ideas of Greek natural philosophy, an idea which forms the bridge between antiquity and the modern age, and one whose full power has unfolded only since the Renaissance. This movement in Greek philosophy, the atomic doctrine of Leucippus and Democritus, is generally referred to as materialism. Historically that is a correct appellation, but one that can easily be misunderstood nowadays because the word materialism acquired during the nineteenth century a special connotation which by no means accords with the development of Greek natural philosophy. This misinterpretation of the classical atomic theory can be avoided if we remember that the first modern scholar to revive the atomic theory was the seventeenth-century theologian and philosopher Gassendi. He surely did not intend to place it in opposition to the tenets of Christianity. For Democritus, moreover, atoms were the letters with which the events of the universe were written, but not its content. Nineteenth-century materialism, on the other hand, developed out of ideas of quite a different sort, ideas characteristic of the modern age whose roots are to be found in the post-Cartesian division of the world into material and spiritual realities.


THE great river of science and technology which nourishes our epoch consequently springs from two sources, both of which lie within the territory of classical philosophy, and although other tributaries have since enlarged the fructifying stream, the original sources can still be recognized plainly. In this sense science, too, can profit from humanistic education. To be sure, those who urge more practical training for youth may always object that knowledge of the intellectual and spiritual fundaments is not too essential for practical life. On the contrary, they would say, time is better spent on the subjects of more practical value for modern life: modern languages, technical studies, business administration, and arithmetical skills. These will enable a person to meet the demands of life, while humanistic education is more or less an adornment, a luxury which can be afforded only by those few whom fate has spared the more difficult phases of the struggle for existence.

Perhaps that is true for many people who later in life will engage in purely practical activities and who have no ambition to contribute to shaping the intellectual structure of our era. But anyone who will not be content so to limit himself, anyone who wishes to get to the bottom of things in any subject, be it technology or medicine or what have you, will sooner or later come upon these sources in classical antiquity. And he will find it extremely helpful for his own work if he has learned from the Greeks to think in terms of fundamentals, to ask questions of principles. The work of Max Planck, I believe, clearly reveals the influence and enrichment of a humanistic background. Perhaps I may cite another of my own experiences, which occurred some three years after the end of my Gymnasium days. I was then attending the University of Gottingen, and happened to discuss with a fellow student the problem which had troubled me at secondary school: whether atoms could be represented graphically. This problem was obviously linked with the phenomena of spectroscopy, for which at that time no explanation could be offered. My friend defended the graphic representations and declared that the solution was simple: all we had to do was to construct, with the aid of modern technology, a microscope with enormous powers of resolution — one that operated with gamma rays instead of ordinary light, for example. Then we would be able to see the form of an atom — and that, he thought, would certainly remove my scruples about graphic representations.

This idea disturbed me deeply. I was afraid this imaginary microscope would make visible after all the hooks and eyes of my physics textbook, and I would therefore be forced to ponder the apparent contradiction between this (imaginary) experiment and the basic ideas of Greek philosophy. In this situation the training we had received in school — in thinking in terms of principles—proved a tremendous help to me. It made me resist accepting partial, sham solutions. Moreover, what knowledge I had by then acquired of Greek natural philosophy also came to my rescue.

In discussing the value of humanistic education today, we can scarcely object that the relationship of natural philosophy to modern atomic physics is an exceptional case and that in other respects science, technology, or medicine, rarely touches upon questions of principle. That would be wrong if only because many scientific disciplines are now closely tied to atomic physics and consequently lead back to similar fundamental questions. The structure of chemistry stands upon the foundation of atomic physics; modern astronomy is intimately connected with it and could scarcely make any progress without constant reference to atomic physics; and bridges between biology and atomic physics are already beginning to be built. In the last several decades the connections among the various sciences have become far more evident than they were in the past. At many such nodes the signs of their common origin are recognizable, and that common origin is, ultimately, the thinking of classical antiquity.

In making this remark I have almost returned to my starting point. Western culture began with the close connection between questions of principle and practical action which was the great achievement of the Greeks. And upon that relationship the whole force of our culture rests to this day. Almost all progress can still be derived from it, and in this sense affirmation of humanistic education is also simply an affirmation of the West and its creative cultural forces.

But — have we still the right to make such an affirmation in view of the frightful losses of power and prestige the West has suffered during the past few decades? One might comment that here is no question of right, but solely of desire. The entire activity of the West did not originate from a theoretical conception which provided our forefathers with their justification for acting. Far from it. In the beginning there stood, as there always does in such cases, faith. I do not mean by that only the Christian faith in a God-given meaningful world, but simply the faith in our task in this world. Having faith does not, of course, mean thinking this or that true; having faith always means: This is my choice; on this I will stake my existence! When Columbus set out on his first voyage to the West, he believed that the earth was round and small enough to be circumnavigated. He not only thought this theoretically correct; he staked his existence on it. We may, with Freyer, the historian, revise the old formula, Credo, ut intellegam — “I believe in order to understand,” into Credo, ut agam; ago, ut intellegam — “I believe in order to act; I act in order to understand.” This formula applies not only to the first circumnavigations of the globe; it applies equally well to all the science of the West, and probably to the whole mission of the West. It embraces humanistic culture and science. And let us not be excessively modest: one half of the contemporary world, the West, has acquired incomparable power by giving utmost weight to one idea of Western culture: the control and exploitation of the forces of nature by science. The other half of the world, the East, is held together by belief in the dogmas of a European philosopher and political economist. No one knows what the future will bring, nor what intellectual forces will govern the world; but we can only begin by believing in something and desiring some outcome.

We want intellectual life to flourish here again. Here in Europe we want to see continuance of the development of ideas that change the face of the world. We are staking our existence upon the faith that even as we recall our origins, and once more find our way back to a harmonious interplay of the various forces on our continent, we shall also be able to shape the external conditions of European life more happily than we have done in the past fifty years. We want our youth, in spite of all outward confusions, to grow up in the intellectual atmosphere of the West, to drink from those sources of strength on which our continent has lived for more than two thousand years. The details of that striving are of secondary importance. Whether we adhere to the traditional humanistic Gymnasium or to some other type of schooling is not the decisive factor. What really matters above everything else is our desire to affirm the culture of the West!

Translated by Richard and Clara Winston