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Pierre Duhem: historian of the Christian origin of science.

IT is still possible to find histories of science that describe the achievements of the ancient Greeks and then pass immediately to the Renaissance, with perhaps a brief remark about the absence of any developments worth mentioning in the intervening period. That such slighting of the contributions of the medieval philosophers is no longer acceptable in any work with pretensions to scholarship is mainly due to the work of one man, the French physicist Pierre Duhem.

Duhem was born in Paris in 1861, and studied at the College Stanislaus and the Ecole Normale. While still in his second year, he submitted a doctoral thesis on thermodynamics, which unfortunately contradicted (correctly as it appeared later) a favourite principle of the chemist Berthelot, a powerful figure in the French academic establishment. Not only did Berthelot ensure that the thesis was rejected, but he declared that Duhem would never teach in Paris. It did not take Duhem long to write another thesis of a more mathematical nature that was accepted by different examiners, but his career was permanently blighted by his clash with Berthelot.

In his first thesis Duhem had shown the usefulness of the concept of thermodynamic potential, and he deduced what is now known as the Gibbs-Duhem equation. In the following years he consolidated his scientific reputation, working on the interaction of electric currents, and the theory of saline solutions as well as making a rigorous analysis of the foundations of thermodynamics.

His first academic appointment was to a lectureship in Lille, where he won praise for the excellence of his teaching and his devotion to his students. His lecture notes were so clearly written and logically presented that they were soon published in a series of volumes. His scientific reputation continued to grow, but because of the hostile attitude of the authorities he was not called to Paris. Instead he was obliged to move first to Rennes and then to Bordeaux, where he spent the remainder of his life.

At that time French physics was at a low ebb, lacking the theoreticians to develop general theories and use them to unify the increasing mass of experimental data. Duhem could have been one of the leaders in this work, and indeed felt it to be his patriotic duty, but because of his banishment from Paris he spent much of his life giving advanced lecture courses to largely empty benches.

Many of Duhem's ideas in physics were far in advance of his time, and have some similarities to those of the new physics. He had always been interested in the development of scientific ideas, and read widely in the history of mechanics. He was asked to write a series of articles on this subject, and meticulously followed the story from the Renaissance back to its medieval roots. During these studies he gradually became aware of the continuous development throughout the Middle Ages that culminated in the achievements of Galileo and Newton. He studied in detail the works of Leonardo da Vinci, and found that he obtained many of his ideas from the medieval thinkers. Gradually there opened up before Duhem's astonished eyes the real story of the development of science, so different from the familiar tale of unbroken intellectual darkness between the Greeks and the Renaissance. There was, as the documents he uncovered showed, intense intellectual activity during the Middle Ages, and a leading part was played by the masters of the Paris schools, in particular by Jean Buridan and Nicholas Oresme.

At that time the ideas of the nature of the world were mainly derived from Aristotle. The philosophers of the Parisian schools taught by commenting on his texts. Some of Aristotle's teaching, however, was inconsistent with the Christian faith, and the Parisian philosophers did not hesitate to differ from him whenever this seemed to be necessary. There was intense discussion on a variety of topics notably concerning the creation of the world and the motion of bodies. In 1277 the Bishop of Parts, Etienne Tempier, found it necessary to condemn 219 philosophical propositions as contrary to the Christian belief in the creation by God of all things out of nothing. This was a turning point in the history of thought, as it channelled philosophical speculations about motion in a direction that led eventually to the destruction of Aristotelian physics, thus opening the way to modern science.

In this new intellectual climate the fourteenth century French philosopher Jean Buridan wrote that:

God, when He created the world, moved each of the celestial orbs as he pleased, and in moving them He impressed upon them impetuses which moved them without His having to move them anymore except by the method of general influence whereby He concurs as co-agent in all things which take place.

This shows a clear break with Aristotle, who required the continuing action of a mover throughout the motion. What Buridan called impetus was later refined into the concept of momentum, and hence to Newton's first law of motion. Buridan's works were widely published and his ideas became known to Leonardo and hence to the scientists of Renaissance times.

Duhem's studies of medieval science showed him that there was a continuous development that led eventually to the great flowering in the Renaissance. Furthermore, that development was made possible by the Christian theology of the creation of all things out of nothing by God. This tells us that matter is good and ordered and rational, presuppositions that are essential foundations of science.

He described the transition from Greek to modern physics in words that deserve quotation in full:

The demolition of Aristotelian physics was not a sudden collapse; the construction of modern physics did not take place on a terrain where nothing was left standing. From one to the other the passage takes place by a long sequence of partial transformations of which each pretended to retouch or enlarge some piece of the edifice without changing anything of the ensemble. But when all these modifications of detail had been made, the human mind perceived, as it sized up with a single look the result of all that long work, that nothing remained of that ancient palace and that a new palace rose in its place. Those who in the sixteenth century took stock of this substitution of one science for another were seized by a strange illusion. They imagined that this substitution was sudden and that it was their work. They proclaimed that Peripatic physics had just collapsed under their blows and that on the ruins of that physics they had built, as if by magic, the clear abode of truth. About the sincere illusion or arrogantly wilful error of these men, the men of subsequent centuries were either the unsuspecting victims or sheer accomplices. The physicists of the sixteenth century were celebrated as creators to whom the world owed the renaissance of science. They were very often but continuers and sometimes plagiarizers.

Duhem told the story of the development of science through the Middle Ages in a series of volumes: The Evolution of Mechanics (1903), The Origins of Statics (1905), the three volumes of Studies of Leonardo da Vinci (1906-13) and finally the ten monumental volumes of The Structure of the World (Le Systeme du Monde) (1906-59).

Duhem's demonstration of the importance of medieval thought, and particularly of the close connection between the rise of science and Christian theology, was not welcomed by the anti-clerical establishment of the Third Republic, or by the rationalists and secularists then dominating the historiography of science, and they saw to it that his work was virtually ignored not only during his lifetime but for years after his death. The first volume of Le Systeme du Monde, on Greek cosmology, was warmly welcomed by the American historian George Sarton in the pages of the journal Isis, but the next four volumes were greeted by silence. The reason for this was simple: the second volume began the account of astronomy in the Middle Ages, and Sarton realised the inconsistency between the work of Duhem and the secularist humanism that he was assidously propagating.

Tragically, Duhem died at the age of 55 in 1916, leaving the remaining five volumes of Le Systeme du Monde in manuscript. There followed a long battle between Duhem's daughter Helene and a few of his friends with the publishers and Duhem's secularist enemies, who were determined to prevent the publication of the second half of Duhem's magnum opus. Their delaying tactics were successful for almost four decades, and it was not until 1954-9 that they were finally published.

In the intervening years there were many studies of medieval science by Anneliese Maier, Marshall Clagett, E. Grant, Alistair Crombie and others, and these have extended and confirmed the work of Duhem, while inevitably correcting it in some details. Thus as a result of Duhem's pioneering work the study of medieval science is now well established, and can no longer be ignored.

Duhem's work as a philosopher of science is less detailed but perhaps more widely known than his historical studies. Like all working physicists, Duhem was a convinced realist. But having declared his realism in uncompromising terms, he went on to develop his philosophy of science in terms that easily give the impression that he was a positivist. His physics tended to be abstract and mathematical, without the reliance on models that is so characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon mind, and he was deeply aware that scientific theories remain open to change. Thus he is often quoted along with the thorough-going positivists who dominated the philosophy of science in the decades following his death.

In his philosophical writings he avoided both the naive realism of the mechanists and the positivism of Mach and Comte. His books on the philosophy of science, To Save the Phenomena: an Essay on the Idea of Physical Theory from Plato to Galileo, and The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory maintain that the principal task of a scientific theory is to represent in mathematical terms the experimental laws as simply and exactly as possible, but this methodological positivism is balanced by an insistence on the need for common sense to provide assurance about external reality. Duhem believed, like all scientists, that the human mind can grasp the inner nature of the physical world, and that as physics progresses it approaches asymptotically a true and complete account of the structure of the world. Against the claim that matter is merely a fiction to account for our sensations he insisted that the sole remedy is to 'cling with all our strength to the bedrock of common sense. Our most sublime scientific knowledge has no other foundation than the facts admitted by common sense'.

In addition to his work as a physicist and historian and philosopher of science, Duhem was also an accomplished artist, and a volume containing a small selection of his landscapes and sketches has recently been published.

The work of Duhem is of great relevance today, for it shows clearly the Christian roots of modern science, thus decisively refuting the alleged incompatibility of science and Christianity still propagated by the secularist establishment. Science is an integral part of Christian culture, a lesson still to be learned even within the Christian Church. From this follows the importance of detailed and accurate scientific studies of many aspects of modern life before any moral judgements are made.

Duhem's work on the Christian origin of science has been deliberately neglected because it is unwelcome both to the heirs of the French Enlightenment and to the heirs of the Reformation. For different reasons they both wish to paint the Middle Ages as darkly as possible. His career was caught up in the battle between the secularists who fought against Christian rationality and realism and the Christians whose energies were fatally dissipated by the conflicts between liberals and conservatives. Then, as now, these two groups of Christians had at least one thing in common: they both ignored the growing importance of science in moulding our civilization and thus failed to realise the vital importance of the work of Duhem.

On a more personal level, the life of Duhem is an example of Christian fortitude in the face of many setbacks and sorrows. The professional enmity that kept him from Paris has already been mentioned, and his work as a historian of science was ignored because his conclusions were uncongenial to the secularist-dominated establishment. In addition he suffered the loss of his wife and second daughter after less than two years of happy married life. His health was never strong, and yet he kept working and by the time of his death had written forty books and over four hundred articles. He also found time to visit and help the sick and the poor. He was a devoted father, popular with his students and the children of his friends. It is appropriate that after his unexpected death in his ancestral village of Cabrespine his funeral was attended not by university dignitaries but by a throng of simple folk led by his friend the cure.


It is a pleasure to acknowledge the books on Duhem by Professor S. L. Jaki, on which this article is based, and from which the quotations are taken:

Uneasy Genius: The Life and Work of Pierre Duhem, Stanley Jaki, Martinus Nijhoff, Boston 1984. A detailed account of Duhem and his work as a physicist, historian and philosopher.

Science and Censorship: Helene Duhem and the Publication of the Systeme du Monde in The Absolute beneath the Relative and other Essays, Chapter 11, Stanley L. Jaki, University Press of America 1988.

The Physicist as Artist: The Landscapes of Pierre Duhem, Selected and introduced by Stanley L. Jaki, Scottish Academic Press 1988.

|Dr. Peter E. Hodgson is a Senior Research Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He is University Lecturer in Nuclear Physics and the head of the Nuclear Physics Theoretical Group of the Nuclear Physics Laboratory, Oxford, where he directs a programme of theoretical research in nuclear reactions and nuclear structure. An earlier version of this article was published by The Farmington Institute for Christian Studies in Oxford.~
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Title Annotation:French physicist Pierre Duhem
Author:Hodgson, P.E.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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