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Hermann von Helmholtz: Excerpts from a Speech Given on the Occasion of his Appointment as Pro-Rector at the University of Heidelberg (1862)

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I have all the more reason to discuss the connections between the different disciplines here, because my own field falls under the heading of the natural sciences, which in recent times are often accused of going off in their own direction and becoming alien to those sciences which are connected to each other through common historical and philological studies. This contrast has been evident for a long time and appears to me to have developed under the influence of Hegelian philosophy, or at least it became clear because of Hegel. For at the end of the last century, under the influence of Kantian thought, such a division was not pronounced; Kant's philosophy shared a grounding with the natural sciences, which is best shown by Kant's own work in the natural sciences, especially his cosmogonic hypothesis – based largely on Newton's law of gravity – which later earned wide recognition when proposed by Laplace. Kant's critical philosophy was only concerned with examining the sources and legitimacy of our knowledge, measuring individual disciplines for their intellectual work. According to his philosophy, a proposition which pure thought finds to be a priori can only be a rule for the method of thought, but not have any positive and real content. The philosophy of identity was bolder. It started from the hypothesis that the real world, nature and human life, were the result of the thought of a creative spirit, which was considered to be similar to the human mind [Geist] in its essence. Consequently, the human mind seemed to be able to retrace the thoughts of the creator and find them again through its own inner activity, without being guided by external experiences. In this sense, the philosophy of identity sought to construct a priori the essential results of the other sciences. This could more or less succeed in the areas of religion, law, government, art, and history – in those disciplines whose object of study is essentially based upon psychology and are thus fittingly grouped under the heading of the "humanistic disciplines" [Geisteswissenschaften]. State, church, art, language – all exist to satisfy certain human needs. Whenever external obstacles, forces of nature, chance, and competition from other people interfere, in the end the efforts of the human spirit, all doggedly pursuing the same goal, will overtake the chaotic impediments and achieve victory. Based on an exact understanding of the human mind, namely when the philosopher has before him a wide spectrum of empirical data to which he can attach his abstractions, it would not be impossible under these conditions to predict a priori the path of human development in relation to the above-mentioned circumstances. Hegel, too, was greatly bolstered in his attempts to solve this question by the thinkers and poets of the ages immediately preceding his own, whose deep philosophical observations into history and science he generally only needed to organize and connect in order to create an impressive system with many surprising insights. Thus Hegel succeeded in creating great enthusiasm among the majority of the intellectuals of his day, generating wild hopes of solving the deepest mysteries of human life, all the more because the coherence of his system was cloaked in a remarkably abstract language which was probably understood by few of his admirers.

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