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Book Review Daniela Wuensch УThe Path of Science in the Labyrinth of Cultures Seven Main Tasks of the History of ScienceФ Termessos Gttingen 2008 ISBN 978-3-938016-10-7 124 pp. (in German) EUR 19

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Ann. Phys. (Leipzig) 17, No. 11, 911 – 912 (2008) / DOI 10.1002/andp.200810316
Book Review
Daniela Wuensch, “The Path of Science in the Labyrinth of Cultures: Seven Main Tasks of
the History of Science”, Termessos, Göttingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-938016-10-7,
124 pp. (in German), EUR 19.95
Tobias Jung∗
Philosophisch-Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät, Universität Augsburg, 86135 Augsburg, Germany
Published online 24 July 2008
Key words History of science.
PACS 01.30.Vv
The current status of the history of science at German universities is marked by a cancellation of positions,
termination of professorships and a lack of integration into courses of study in the natural sciences and the
humanities. Against this background, Daniela Wuensch, historian of science who has successfully proven
herself in publications on the works of, among others, David Hilbert and Theodor Kaluza, now addresses
the problem of self-image in her field: What are the basic questions and problems that must be confronted
by the history of science? What significance can the history of science have for other academic disciplines?
In order to answer these questions, the author does not simply string together the more than twenty
numerous problems she has identified as of possible interest, but rather develops the main issues from the
question of embedding occidental culture, including exact science as an integral part of it, in world culture.
In so doing, she formulates the role of the discipline of the history of science as an integrative force unifying
the academic landscape, which is fragmented into various specialized studies in the natural sciences and
humanities. This involves nothing less than resolving the “two cultures” (Charles Percy Snow) by a theory of
culture that takes both the natural sciences and the humanities equally into account. Such a comprehensive
concept would seem indispensable in order to even attempt to answer the constituent question in the history
of science as to “why the successful exact sciences were able to develop only in Western cultures” (p. 22).
Daniela Wuensch expertly outlines the currently most important arguments with respect to this fundamental
question, all of which prove wanting. The emergence of Western exact science cannot be simply explained
by the role of Christianity, be it in its Catholic or Protestant form.
Proceeding from her fundamental question, the author unfolds the important issues which the history of
science must address, elucidating their inner coherence in the course of her argumentation. An explanation
for the development of exact science in Western culture as opposed to other advanced cultures like China
or India is proposed in a first step by identifying the distinguishing features of occidental science.
Following the arguments of Alexandre Koyré, Daniela Wuensch points out convincingly that the decisive
difference between the cultures lies neither in the performance of experiments nor in the social milieu but in
the mathematization of physics. Initially her thesis may not appear to be new; however, after a closer look,
the scope of her argument becomes clear: “Mathematization does not only mean applying mathematics
to natural laws, but solving the most important problem of a science in mathematical language” (p. 25),
whereby mathematics takes on an epistemological meaning. Only through mathematics does physics become
a science; in the words of Immanuel Kant (Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, AVIII): “I maintain,
however, that in every special doctrine of nature only so much science proper can be found as there is
mathematics in it.”
© 2008 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
Book Review
For physics, the problem of motion is constitutive, in the author’s opinion. Although she does mention
the appearance of problems of motion in the framework of Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, a more
in-depth account here would have been preferable. Galileo then solves the problem of motion and thereby
makes physics into a “mature science” (p. 43). This leads directly to the question (p. 31): “Why was the
problem of motion not solved by the scientists of ancient Greece?”
Contemporary attempts to explain the appearance and development of occidental science on the basis
of a cultural context are strongly rebuffed by Daniela Wuensch, whereby her objective criticism is comprehensible. The author formulates the compelling thesis against contextualism that: “The exact sciences
possess an independent character in the framework of culture, raising them above the culture of their time
and lending them a universality which makes it possible for them to be adopted – in altered form – by other
cultures” (p. 34).
The epistemological significance of mathematics in the development of physics raises the question
of the connection between mathematics and physics anew. I would consider the claim that, “as a result
of mathematization, new segments of mathematics gain a physical reality” (p. 53), exemplified by the
Minkowski 4-dimensional spacetime manifold, extremely problematic from a philosophical viewpoint, but
nevertheless most tantalizing.
The investigation of why Galileo considered mathematics a “real, epistemological resource” (p. 48),
points, contrary to the latent, still animate standpoint of logical empiricism, to the influence that philosophy
exerts on physics. This results, as the author correctly observes, in the challenge to the historian of science
to show “in how far and by which mechanisms those ideas which physicists developed while dealing
with philosophy contributed to progress in physics” (p. 60). The question as to whether this “progress in
physics” takes place at all is still a topic of fierce debate among historians of science. The proponents of a
continuous advancement in science are pitted against various schools of thought envisioning a succession
of “scientific revolutions” at work. Here Daniela Wuensch calls for a “new theory of scientific revolutions,”
suited to “uniting the natural sciences and the humanities” (p. 68), whereby in my opinion, Carl Friedrich
von Weizsäcker’s concept of levels and crises furnishes an integrating element.
Finally, the history of science must not remain anchored in the past, even if it could contribute to unifying
the academic disciplines as outlined here in the guise of a research program. For this reason, the author
questions the future of occidental science: Will it demonstrate its universal character by being taken up and
further developed productively by other cultures? Or will major progress remain limited to the Western
World? Here we return to the weighty question posed at the beginning about embedding exact science in
world culture.
In my view, one can hardly overestimate Daniela Wuensch’s efforts at putting forward a unified project
for the history of science and delegating an integrative role to it for various disciplines. Her very readable
presentation of the important questions offers enrichment to both experts and lay persons alike. For students
of related fields wishing to extend their horizons beyond their own discipline, this book should be considered
recommended reading. It would definitely be advantageous to have the book available in English so as to
reach a much larger audience. In a lecture held in 1900, the mathematician David Hilbert, so revered by
Daniela Wuensch, managed to present 23 basic mathematical problems und thus furnish the next half century
with a research program. One can only hope that the book reviewed here will be similarly successful.
© 2008 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
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