Published: 08.07.09
Wednesday Column

“Reveries of a Solitary Walker”

Jürg Fröhlich, professor of theoretical physics at ETH Zurich. (Photo: H. Hostettler, D-PHYS)
Jürg Fröhlich, professor of theoretical physics at ETH Zurich. (Photo: H. Hostettler, D-PHYS)

"Les rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire" ("Reveries of a Solitary Walker") - this is the title of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s last work on philosophical life (or more specifically his own), which he wrote in bitter solitude and which wasn’t published until after his death.

ETH Zurich is not a school for studies on philosophical life and I only selected Rousseau’s title for that of my fourth column because I – like Rousseau – am fond of daydreaming. I like to wander in space and time, and feel a little lonely in the reality of our time with the attitudes and opinions of my senior years. More important for us than Rousseau’s later work, however, is his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences from 1750. Using the example of Rousseau, the aim of this column is to highlight the suppressed certainty that the prevalent image of science has changed considerably over the last few centuries, and that we would be well advised to question and discuss ours every now and again. 

Rousseau’s message in his Discourse is embodied in the frontispiece he chose for the first edition of his oeuvre: the top left-hand corner of the picture depicts Prometheus climbing down from a cloud. He is clutching a burning torch in his right hand above the head of a naked youth standing on a pedestal in the centre of the picture; his left hand is rested protectively on the boy’s shoulder, who in turn is looking back at Prometheus. Below the youth, a satyr is approaching from the right with his arm stretched upwards towards the torch.   

In a public response to a long controversy regarding his work, Rousseau interprets the frontispiece as follows: the torch symbolizes the sciences and Prometheus their bearer (Rousseau himself, or we professors); the satyr, who wants to grab the torch and embrace it, represents the ‘common people’ (the public at large), who, seduced by the glamour of science, recklessly abandon themselves to academia (i.e. their exploitation); the youth on the other hand stands for the small number of young people who are gifted and suitable for science (our students). Prometheus warns the hommes vulgaires of the fire’s menace.  

Rousseau knows that a god who is hostile to the peace of men is the creator or bearer of the sciences and does not grow weary of warning against the disastrous impact of the arts and sciences on the virtue of the public and organized society. He deems the recognition of the ‘truth’ dangerous, does not think popularizing the results worthwhile and is convinced that the discrimination between ‘philosophers’ (scientists) and ‘non-philosophers’ (non-scientists) is irreconcilable because human beings are inherently different; (Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men). However, Rousseau also knows and appreciates the great significance and value of the sciences. Once Prometheus has warned the satyr against the fire, he continues: “but it (the fire) gives light and warmth, and is an implement serving all crafts providing one knows how to use it well.” (1)

I don’t need to tell the reader how fundamentally different the concept of the sciences and their communicability and accessibility for a broad public expressed in Rousseau’s views is from the one that currently prevails. This disparity is probably due to the change in the people’s attitude to the function, aim and merit of the sciences. 

Really, one would like to think that the function, aim and merit of the sciences has always been to learn more about the world, understand it rationally in order to find one’s way in it – the cultural side of the sciences – guarantee the continuation of the human race gracefully and in modest prosperity, and improve our quality of life – their utilitarian side. (Undeniably, they also have a hedonistic side, however.)

But let’s face it: Heraclitus coined the phrase, “war is the father of all things”, and this especially goes for modern science from Galileo up until after the Second World War. At present, however, one tends to say that the economy is the father of all things instead – or at least the measure of all things, (which might be a sign of progress). 

To an alarming extent, the sciences of today are undeniably determined by the economic needs of the national economy and the universities where science is performed – not to mention their media entertainment value – and rated and funded in terms of the same criteria. In order to generate the capital needed to produce fresh knowledge and increase the acceptance of the commercial exploitation of scientific data, one thinks it advisable to communicate scientific data to the general public, albeit in a simplified, boiled-down form. 

We say that the sciences have to assert themselves on the market in the face of public opinion; we talk of their “democratization”; we make their results globally available through modern media like the Internet. Scientists are under considerable pressure to popularize the results of their research as quickly as possible and test their practicability as commercially usable products.   

Scientists are increasingly judged in terms of the amount of funding they attract, the number of spin-offs their work spawns, their h-Index and impact factors. It is no different for the universities where they operate, either, which then shows up in the budget figures. There is no reliable quantitative yardstick for the cultural value of scientific findings and their importance for human’s quality of life. Such aspects thus seem to play an ever decreasing role – despite assurances of the contrary.    

The Italian Renaissance released an immense creative energy into the arts, architecture and the sciences, as anyone who knows anything about Italy will confirm. I don’t think that this creative energy would have sprung from sources in economics or commerce if the prosperity of the Italian banks and the rivalry among the ruling houses and the city states at the time had been allowed to play a positive role. The driving force of that creativity was aesthetic and cultural. Would a phenomenon like the Italian Renaissance even be possible in the modern world – when we are not enduring a financial and economic crisis, that is?  

Physics never had it better in Germany than during and after the First World War and during the Great Depression. The crisis of classical physics still had to be surmounted and the superb applications of quantum mechanics and the resulting gigantic surplus value were still a thing of the future. Could it be that a sizeable cutback in the budget of a university like ETH Zurich or the EPFL in the aftermath of the financial and economic crisis might not be all that catastrophic for them after all? Could outstanding science still be produced just the same – provided that our image of the sciences were correct, we focused on the big issues and the remaining resources were used according to sensible priorities, without eyeing the commercial side of things all the time and accordingly exerting pressure on the scientists?  

I just want to throw questions like these in the room – there is no harm in that. I call upon you, dear reader, to answer them yourself, for I have no logical, hard and fast answers to give you. However, I do believe that technical progress and commercial success do not have any value in themselves. Switzerland appears to lack academics. Could this be because we are showing our youth an unattractive, erroneous or at least incomplete picture of the sciences?  

(1) My basic information on the works of Rousseau comes from a little book by Heinrich Meier, “Les rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire – Rousseau über das philosophische Leben”, Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung – Themen Bd. 82, München.