Wilhelm Ostwald's ‘The Bridge’

Niles R. Holt*

One of the lesser‑known projects of the German physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, a 1909 Nobel laureate and one of the last major scientific figures to oppose atomism, was the creation of an association for the 'organization' of science. Named 'The Bridge', Ostwald's association drew the attention and. explicit approval of a number of European scientists. [1] Among the plethora of 'unity of science' efforts that became prominent during the years preceding the First World War, the Bridge was distinctive for Ostwald's emphasis on the 'international organization' of science as a means of furthering 'scientific effiiciency'. [2] Although its tenure was short—from 1909 to 1914—the Bridge became the centre of a number of projects intended to promote 'scientific efficiency' through 'organization'.

Ostwald, who was professor of physical chemistry at Leipzig from 1887 until 1906, defined 'organization' as 'bringing things so closely together that with given masses of energy the most and best can be applied to necessary human work'. [3] This concept of organization was a logical byproduct of Ostwald's own anti‑atomic theory of Energism. First proclaimed by Ostwald in a lecture at Leipzig in 1887, Energism held that natural processes are essentially transformations of energy. 'Matter', Ostwald declared, 'is only a mirage, which the mind creates to comprehend the workings of energy'. [4] Energy was obviously the only reality in the world. [5] Atoms, ions, and molecules were only mathematical fictions obscuring the workings of energy. From Energism, Ostwald claimed to have derived a 'moral law of science', the energetic imperative: 'Do not waste energy, but transform it into a more useful form.' [6] The 'energetic imperative' became, in turn, the basis for Ostwald's stress on the 'efficient organization' of science.

Ostwald, then, viewed the Bridge as a means of 'organizing', within the scientific community the 'efficiency' demanded by the 'energetic imperative.'  All projects of the Bridge were to be 'applications of the single fundamental idea of organization.' [7] One project of the Bridge—a project to promote Esperanto as the exclusive language of international scientific conferences—resulted from Ostwald's insistence that an auxiliary language would facilitate 'more direct communication' between scientists and eliminate the 'energy waste' involved in translations. Ostwald described still another project—the World Format—as an effort to ‘maximize the efficient use of energy' by standardizing publication formats. The World Format was a standardized format for published scientific reports and abstracts; it even included specific dimensions for the size of paper on which reports were to be printed. Similarly, Ostwald believed that the Bridge would promote 'efficiency' in science by attempting to extend the metric system of weights and measures 'into English speaking countries'. Through such projects as these, the Bridge was to become an 'international union' with the task of 'organizing individual scientific labour into collective labour'. [8]

'Promoting collective labour' also became the rationale for another type of project, one that Ostwald regarded as the 'major activity' of the Bridge: the formation of international institutes for specific fields of science. One institute was described by Ostwald in 1912, when he proposed the formation of an international institute for chemistry to 'organize the labour of all chemists in ways that other international chemical societies do not really approach'. The tasks of the institute would include the standardization of chemical names; the formation of an international atomic weight committee; the creation of a library of 'collected chemical literature', as well as an international register of chemists, chemical concepts, and research; and the introduction of an international chemical nomenclature. [9] He pledged part of his Nobel prize earnings for the project, which he estimated would require 600,000 marks as 'formation capital' and 50,000 marks for 'yearly expenses'. While the institute's headquarters would be located in Europe, 'which has had the greatest chemical development', Ostwald proposed a 'twin institute on the American continent'.

Each of these varied projects of the Bridge was essentially a continuation of Ostwald's own earlier activities as an 'organizer of science'. He described his numerous lecture tours through Germany and the United States between 1887 and 1906 as attempts to build a reputation as a model 'organizer' of physical chemistry, a field that he had helped to found. When he also helped to found the Gesellschaft für Elektrochemie (later the Bunsengesellschaft) in 1894, Ostwald described the society as an effort to organize an 'efficient point of communication' between physics and chemistry. [10] He claimed, similarly, that his motivation for founding and editing the Annals of nature‑philosophy, a journal, and the Classics of the exact sciences, a popular reprint series, was to demonstrate the inefficiency and 'impossibility' of unorganized 'nationalistic' sciences. [11] Even Ostwald's initial interest in Esperanto was the result of his belief, expressed to a linguistic conference at Bern in 1904, that auxiliary languages could serve as 'efficient channels of communication' in the process of organizing science. [12]

For Ostwald, the Bridge thus represented an opportunity to attract the support of his colleagues for projects which had, initially, been largely his own personal projects. Ostwald served as general secretary of the Bridge, and his Leipzig home, 'Landhaus Energie', was the association's headquarters. Yet Ostwald also declined to make public the number of members of the Bridge, stressing instead the scientific eminence of members. Two Nobel laureates and friends of Ostwald were officers of the Bridge: the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, a fellow­pioneer of Ostwald in the field of physical chemistry, and the German bacteriologist E. A. von Behring. Other members of note included the Russian zoologist Elie Metchnikoff, the Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay, and the German political writers Ernst Jackh and Ernst Francke. Although the French mathematician Henri Poincaré became a participant, the Austrian physicist and philosopher of science Ernst Mach declined Ostwald's invitations to become either a member or an officer. [13] Ostwald's idea of an 'international organization' of science gained some attention outside of the scientific community, however: the Russian novelist Maxim Gorki praised Ostwald's 'fertile, productive idea of organization, which will unite the best men of all countries'. [14]

While the Bridge continued as a viable association of scientists until 1914, Ostwald lost much of his interest in its activities during the previous year. He became progressively involved, instead, in the 'organization' of German social and political life through the German Monistic Alliance, founded by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel. Primarily a 'unity of science' movement, the Alliance attracted a membership of nearly 7,000. As president of the Alliance from 1911 until 1915, Ostwald held that both Monism and Energism demanded the reorganization of society and politics in Germany along 'scientific lines'. Under his leadership, the movement became involved in promoting tax and electoral reforms, as well as popularizing eugenic and euthanasic concepts and programmes. [15]

As Ostwald devoted much of his time to Monism, the Bridge languished. The only project that reached completion was the World Format, which Ostwald used as model for a number of Monistic publications. Ostwald attributed the dissolution of the Bridge late in 1914 to a 'poisoned atmosphere' among scientists caused by the First World War. He believed that the possibility of achieving the 'international organization of science' had been greatly diminished during the early months of the war, when Ostwald and other German scientists lost their honorary memberships in the scientific societies of 'enemy' countries. While offering somewhat ambiguous support for the German war effort, Ostwald also declared that war itself was a 'denial' of the principle of organization.’ [16] Following the war, and until his death in 1932, Ostwald abandoned both Monism and his own efforts to promote 'organization,' devoting his research, instead, to attempts to found a new science of colours.


1  Ostwald's most explicit formulations of the purposes of the Bridge came in his two brief booklets, Die Brücke (Munich, 1913), and Die Organisierung der Organisatoren durch die Brücke (Munich, 1914).

2  Like the post‑war Vienna Circle, the pre‑war 'unity of science' efforts were centred in Germanic culture, with the major exception of the British philosopher of science Karl Pearson. Many 'unity of science' efforts arose from the revolt of the German materialistic school of the 1850s against the Hegelian‑tinged 'official philosophy' of state‑controlled German universities. The leading members of the school, Jacob Moleschott (1822‑93) and Karl Vogt (1817‑95), portrayed scientific materialism as a creed of social and political reform in Germany. Similar views were espoused by the two major popularizers of Darwinism in Germany, Ludwig Büchner (1824‑99), the author of Force and matter, and Ernst Haeckel (1834‑ 1919), whose Riddles of the universe become the best‑selling popular scientific book of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The positivist Friedrich Jodl (1849‑1914), professor of philosophy at Prague and later at Vienna, hoped to unify science through an amalgam of 'Darwinism and ethics'. Haeckel and Jodl were prominent members of the German Monistic Alliance, founded in 1906. Ostwald's involvement in the Alliance is referred to later in this article. For a review of international scientific enterprises and conferences during the forty years preceding the First World War, see Brigitte Schröder, 'Charactéristiques des relations scientifiques internationales, 1870‑1914'. Journal of world history, x (1966), 161‑77. The pre‑war 'unity of science' movements furnish a marked contrast to the post‑war Einheitswissenschaft of Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap, who sought a synthesis of mathematical logic and the methods of contemporary physics. See Charles W. Morris (ed.), Otto Neurath and the unity of science movement (Jerusalem, 1966).

3  Wilhelm Ostwald, Monism as the goal of civilization (Hamburg, 1913), p. 32. The concept is also discussed in Ostwald, Die Organisation der Welt (Basel, 1910).

4  Ostwald, Die Überwindung Des wissenschaftlichen Materialismus. Vortrag, gehalten in der dritten allgemeinen Sitzung der Gesellschaft deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte zu Lübeck am 20. September 1895 (Leipzig, 1895), p. 26. Ostwald's thoughts on Energism also appeared as Die Energie und ihre Wandlungen. Antrittsvolesung gehalten am 23. November 1887 in der Aula der Üniversitat Leipzig (Leipzig, 1888), and as 'Studien zur Energetik', Zeitschrift für physikalische Chemie, ix (1892), 563­-78, and x (1892), 363‑8.

5  Ostwald, in a review of W. Wien, 'Über den Begriff der Lokalisierung der Energie', published in the Zeitschrift für physikalische Chemie, ix (1892), 771.

6  Ostwald, 'Der energetische Imperativ', in Annalen der Naturphilosophie, x (1911), 113‑17. See also 'Der energetische Imperativ', Monistische Sonntagspredigten (4 vols., Leipzig, 1911‑14), i. 97‑104, and 'Die wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen der Ethik', ibid., iv. 389‑404.

7  For a more complete explanation of 'scientific efficiency' and Energism, see my article, 'A note on Wilhelm Ostwald's Energism', Isis, lxi (1970), 386‑9.

8  Ostwald, op. cit. (3), pp. 32‑3.

9  Ostwald, Denkschrift über die Grundung eines internationalen Instituts für Chemie (Leipzig, 1912), p. 30.

10  The foundation of the GeselIschaft für Elektrochemie occurred in the same year as the publication of Ostwald's Elektrochemie. Ihre Geschichte und Lehre (Leipzig, 1894).

11  The Klassiker der exakten Wissenschaften, begun in 1889, eventually included more than 195 inexpensive popular editions of classic scientific works. The Annals, which appeared in 14 volumes beginning in 1901, carried the full title of Annalen der Naturphilosophie der Natur und Kulturphilosophie. Several volumes were later reprinted under the title Ein Jahrzehnt Naturphilosophie.

12  Ostwald outlined his views on international auxiliary languages in three pamphlets: Die internationale Hilfssprache und das Esperanto: Vortrag, gehalten am 7. November 1906 in der Aula der Handelshochschule zu Berlin (Berlin, n.d.), Die Weltsprache (no place or date of publication given), and Sprache und Verkehr (Leipzig, 1911). The extent of Ostwald's commitment to the Esperanto project is indicated by a letter in which he wrote to one correspondent: 'I have given up my professorship and all my official duties and am living as a free lance, spending the better part of my time and energy for the propagation of the idea of the international auxiliary languages'; see Ostwald to Charles Norton, 30 December 1906, in William James Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

13  Ostwald to Mach, 24 February 1912, quoted in J. Thiele, 'Naturphilosophie und Monismus um 1900', Philosophia naturalis, x (1967‑8), 305‑6. One of Mach's correspondents, Joseph Petzoldt, wrote to Mach: 'Ostwald shall yet regret his refusal to sign our appeal for the founding of a Society for Positive Philosophy'; see ibid., p. 306. On the membership of the Bridge, see Ostwald, Lebenslinien. Eine Selbstbiographie (3 vols., Berlin, 1926‑7), iii (1927), 299f.

14  Friedrich Herneck, Wissenschaft contra Gottesglauben. Aus den atheistischen Schriften Des grossen Chemikers (Jena, 1960).

15  Ostwald attempted to explain his synthesis of Energism and Monism in Energetische Grundlagen der Kulturwissenschaft (Leipzig, 1909). See also my article, 'Ernst Haeckel's monistic religion', Journal of the history of ideas, xxxii (1971), 265‑80.

16  Ostwald was frequently viewed, outside Germany, as one of the German scientific community's most effective propagandists for the country's war effort; see Harry L. Paul, The sorcerer's apprentice. The French scientist's image of German science, 1840‑1919 (Gainesville, Fla., 1972), p. 30n. Within Germany, and particularly within the monistic movement, he was often regarded as a proponent of pacifism and antimilitarist ideas. Before the war, Ostwald termed pacifism a 'scientific duty' and urged that France should take the initial steps toward reconciliation with Germany; see W. Ostwald (ed.), Frankreich als Friedensbringer (Berlin, 1911). During the war, he distinguished between pacifists who opposed war per se and those who opposed war as a detriment to 'cultural advances'. He identified himself with the latter, which he termed 'cosmopolitan pacifism'; he wrote that 'cosmopolitan pacifists' would attempt to alleviate suffering and to defend Germany against 'lies'. He described his journey to Sweden in the early months of the war as the mission of a Kriegsfreiwilliger (war‑time volunteer) to deny German 'guilt' in the event's that led to the war; see Ostwald, Lebenslinien, op. cit. (13), iii. 344‑5‑ In speeches to German audiences during the autumn of 1914, Ostwald denied that the enemy powers had the destruction of Prussian militarism as their main goal. He added: 'We are not at war with scholars'. He pronounced himself a 'convinced pacifist' and said that he believed that a peaceful settlement was 'still possible'; see Das monistische Jahrhundert, viii (2 November 1914), 620‑4. By contrast, his fellow‑Monist Haeckel replied that he favoured the invasion of the 'British pirate states', the annexation of Eastern Belgium and the 'Baltic provinces', and the forcible German assumption of the 'greater part of the British colonial empire'; see Das monistische Jahrhundert, viii (16 November 1914), 657f. See also Hermann KeIlermann (ed.), Der Krieg der Geister. Eine Auslese deutscher und ausländischer Stimme zur Weltkriege (Weimar, 1915), pp. 28-9, 110‑11, 244‑6, 251‑3. During 1915 Ostwald came under increasing criticism from a small group of fellow‑Monists for publishing 'antimilitarist and pacifist' articles in the journal of the movement. Partly because of such criticism, he resigned as president of the Alliance late in 1915.

* Department of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois 61761, U.S.A.

The author is grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Philosophical Society for supporting portions of the research on which this article is based.

SOURCE: Holt, Niles R. ‘Wilhelm Ostwald's "The Bridge"’, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 10, Part 2, no. 35, July 1977, pp. 146-150.

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