Document Detail

Physiological optics and physical geometry.
MedLine Citation:
PMID:  12068896     Owner:  HMD     Status:  MEDLINE    
Hermann von Helmholtz's distinction between "pure intuitive" and "physical" geometry must be counted as the most influential of his many contributions to the philosophy of science. In a series of papers from the 1860s and 70s, Helmholtz argued against Kant's claim that our knowledge of Euclidean geometry was an a priori condition for empirical knowledge. He claimed that geometrical propositions could be meaningful only if they were taken to concern the behaviors of physical bodies used in measurement, from which it followed that it was posterior to our acquaintance with this behavior. This paper argues that Helmholtz's understanding of geometry was fundamentally shaped by his work in sense-physiology, above all on the continuum of colors. For in the course of that research, Helmholtz was forced to realize that the color-space had no inherent metrical structure. The latter was a product of axiomatic definitions of color-addition and the empirical results of such additions. Helmholtz's development of these views is explained with detailed reference to the competing work of the mathematician Hermann Grassmann and that of the young James Clerk Maxwell. It is this separation between 1) essential properties of a continuum, 2) supplementary axioms concerning distance-measurement, and 3) the behaviors of the physical apparatus used to realize the axioms, which is definitive of Helmholtz's arguments concerning geometry.
D J Hyder
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Publication Detail:
Type:  Biography; Historical Article; Journal Article    
Journal Detail:
Title:  Science in context     Volume:  14     ISSN:  0269-8897     ISO Abbreviation:  Sci Context     Publication Date:  2001 Sep 
Date Detail:
Created Date:  2002-06-17     Completed Date:  2002-06-20     Revised Date:  2008-11-21    
Medline Journal Info:
Nlm Unique ID:  8904113     Medline TA:  Sci Context     Country:  England    
Other Details:
Languages:  eng     Pagination:  419-56     Citation Subset:  Q    
University of Konstanz.
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MeSH Terms
History, 19th Century
Mathematics / history*
Ocular Physiological Phenomena*
Optics and Photonics / history*
Personal Name Subject
Personal Name Subject:
H Helmholtz

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