[lbo-talk] Boris Hessen, Newtonian physics and modern physics in the former USSR

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sat Apr 22 14:13:07 PDT 2017

Probably at least a few people here have heard of Boris Hessen,- the Soviet physicist and historian and philosopher of science, whose groundbreaking paper, "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia" (https://rtraba.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/v1_hessen.pdf) would have a profound impact on the emergence of the history of science as a distinct academic discipline in the West, following that paper's delivery by Hessen at the Second International Congress of the History of Science in London, as part of a delegation of Soviet scholars and scientists that included Nikolai Bukharin. While many people were influenced by Hessen's paper, it made a strong impact on at least several young British scientists, including J.D. Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, and Joseph Needham,all of whom went on to achieve eminence in their respective scientific specialties while also becoming very influential writers concerning the history and social functions of science, from a Marxist perspective.

Some years ago, I read Loren R. Graham's book, *Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History*. He has a discussion of Hessen and his groundbreaking paper on Newton. What is interesting about Graham's discussion of Hessen, is that he sees Hessen's work on Newton as having been motivated in large degree by his concern with defending modern physics - Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, as developed by de Broglie, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Bohr, from the sustained ideological attacks that these theories were enduring in the Soviet Union at that time. Both relativity and quantum mechanics were being denounced as "idealist" and "bourgeois." Furthermore, the writings of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Bohr along with such people as James Jeans and Arthur Eddington were widely cited by Soviet ideologists in support of their attacks on these two theories as being idealist, since some of these scientists, especially Eddington were in fact quite insistent that the new physics lent support to an idealist metaphysical worldview. In addition, the fact that Einstein explicitly acknowledged drawing upon the ideas of Ernst Mach was cited against relativity, since Lenin after all, had in his book, *Materialism and Empirio-Criticism*, made the philosophies of Ernst Mach and Richard Avernarius the chief targets of criticism.

Most of the Soviet opponents of modern physics championed Newtonian physics as the physics that was most consistent with Marxism and dialectical materialism. Graham reads Hessen as attempting to undercut Soviet criticism of modern physics by attempting to show that Newtonian physics was vulnerable to the same sorts of criticism. Newton himself was the proponent of a highly theological view of the universe. He saw his science as lending support to theism and Christianity. Furthermore, Newton's work was very much tied to the class interests of the rising English bourgeoisie. Yet, despite all this, his science was of genuine and permanent value. Graham takes Hessen as attempting to present a similar case on behalf of relativity and quantum mechanics. Though both theories could and were often given idealist metaphysical interpretations. Such interpretations were not the only ones possible. Both theories could also be given materialist philosophical interpretations too, just as the case with Newtonian physics. Newton himself and many of his disciples were quite pious and they presented theological interpretations of their science, but materialist interpretations of Newtonian physics were possible and those indeed were the ones that were accepted in the Soviet Union. But if Newtonian physics could be interpreted in materialist terms, despite the intention of its founders who were decidedly not materialists, then the same sort of thing could happen to relativity and quantum mechanics. The founders of these theories might not have been materialists, but there was nothing to prevent us from giving these theories materialist interpretations. Now, I find this view of scientific theories and the philosophical interpretations to which they may be given quite similar to the view that the logical empiricist Philipp Frank gave in his writings such as *Modern Science and Its Philosophy*, and *Philosophy of Science: The Link between Philosophy and Science*. There, Frank argued for the importance between distinguishing between the specifically scientific content of theories like Newton's mechanics, Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics and the various assorted metaphysical interpretations that can be provided for any of these theories. In discussing the metaphysical interpretations, Frank emphasized the extent to which such interpretations can support various social and political agenda. He pointed out how the popular mystical interpretations that have been given for quantum mechanics tend to support reactionary political agenda. He also made mention of the Soviet debates over philosophical interpretations of relativity and quantum mechanics. Given that Frank seems to have pretty well informed about developments in Soviet philosophy, I would be very much surprised if own approach to the treatment of metaphysical interpretations of science wasn't influenced by Boris Hessen's work.

Jim Farmelant http://independent.academia.edu/JimFarmelant http://www.foxymath.com Learn or Review Basic Math

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