This book contains the first of the two series of Gifford Lectures which I gave at the University of Glasgow in the years 1959–61. I hope to publish the second series soon. I have retained the lecture form in print in order to maintain for the reader an impression as vivid and as far from a dogmatic assertion of my own views as possible. I also felt that this directness might be better achieved by writing my own English than by having a German text translated; only the tenth lecture is translated from a later German version. Professor R. Gregor Smith has given me invaluable help by reading the complete manuscript and with a cautious hand eliminating impossible English phrases, or at least drawing my attention to what the words I chose really mean in English. I wish to thank Herr H. Holste-Lilie for further corrections of the English text. A German version of these lectures is in course of publication by S. Hirzel in Stuttgart and Zürich.
A reluctant author can be cleverly enticed into writing a book by inviting him to deliver lectures under the condition that they subsequently be published. I feel I should explain in a few sentences what these lectures are intended to be and what they cannot be.
The question posed at the outset, as perhaps the final purpose of these lectures, is pragmatic. I have tried to engage in a dialogue, not so much with the specialists in fields I touch upon, but rather with those intellectuals who sense the dangerous ambivalence of our present-day scientific civilization. I have tried to contribute to the diagnosis of this ambivalence. A diagnosis is a theoretical piece of work with a practical goal—with the some time distant hope of therapy.
The first lecture series attempts this theoretical work in the field of history, namely that history from which our scientific civilization arose. Such an undertaking cannot avoid being philosophy of history. I have only attempted to present a philosophical hypothesis about history; a hypothesis, incidentally, most elements of which are not new. Being a natural scientist by training and still active as such, I have gratefully utilised the results of historical research about the many epochs and people treated in these lectures, insofar as I have been able to assimilate them. The overwhelming amount of material to be assimilated was the main reason for my near insurmountable hesitancy to publish. A guilty conscience towards the better-informed specialist is inevitable, weighing on me constantly.
On the other hand, I have no guilty conscience because of the fact that many historical researchers have an aversion to the philosophy of history altogether. This aversion is well justified when philosophy tries to force its viewpoints dogmatically upon the expert. But philosophy is indispensable when we, who are experts in some fields, want to become aware of our own prejudices. Thus in history every presentation, indeed even each research method, is based on a selection of certain facts considered relevant. But why do we regard these particular facts as relevant? Why do we rely upon certain reports and upon certain self-interpretations and why do we not rely upon others? There is usually unanimous agreement about such questions among members of one scientific school, which means that the philosophy common to a group is no longer felt as a “philosophy”. We do not recognize our own preconceptions as such, and we do not usually diagnose the preconceptions of our adversaries as consequences of different philosophical decisions but as errors. Unconscious philosophy, however, is generally bad philosophy. My objective in these lectures was therefore to make my own philosophical ideas as explicit as possible. I do not maintain that they are absolutely true, but if I am at all to deal with those disquieting questions we have in common, I must of necessity bring up for discussion these philosophical ideas.
At this point another cause for hesitancy appears: the enormity of the philosophical task. Philosophy is necessary but it is too difficult for our human mind; it is necessary nevertheless. Anyone who has observed himself critically has time and again experienced that the successful formulation of a philosophical sentence becomes a stepping-stone, which at once allows and demands that he go beyond it. I should therefore at least indicate the path upon which I understand this lecture series to be a stepping-stone.
A philosophy of history which propounds theses about the factual course of history challenges us to ask what it means by its use of concepts like history, fact, and understanding—consequently of time, being, and truth. The theses just mentioned appear at first as part of a circular or spiralling movement. So as a guiding question, by means of which I shall trace the history of western thought, I have chosen a problem induced by my work in astrophysics: the history of nature. Human history grew out of the history of nature. Conversely, our present understanding of nature grew out of human history. Thus my earlier lectures on the history of nature form a first semi-circle, which is completed to a full circle by these lectures. Having returned to the starting point, we cannot remain there. The second semi-circle, as “history of the history of nature”, is a reflection upon the first; it proves the contemporary scientist’s naïve understanding of nature to be in turn a product of history and compels us to make a second critical round. The second run through the first semi-circle, i.e. the critical analysis of present-day physics, will follow in a second series of lectures, as explained in the last lecture of this present series. A further step, not taken here, would be the reflection upon the basis and essence of this apparently circular movement; that reflection would eventually be part of a philosophy of time, being and truth.
Those who concern themselves with practical efforts towards a therapy of the sickness of our time will be unable to wait until philosophical thinking has completed the winding circles of its reflection. We cannot avoid dealing with both tasks at the same time. Everyone must do this according to his own resources. Anyone neglecting to further his theoretical understanding of our complex world as much as he can, will in the long run do more harm than good in his practical efforts. On the other hand, anyone retreating from the demands of practical work into the tower of pure contemplation will end up with philosophically sterile thoughts.
While the two tasks are certainly related, they are by no means identical, and the techniques appropriate should not be confused. On other occasions I have advanced various opinions on the practical problems of today, and I intend to continue doing so. But these lectures do not terminate in giving practical advice but rather in setting new theoretical tasks. Their contribution to practical life can only consist in the development of our consciousness.
In conclusion I wish to thank the Senators of the University of Glasgow, and especially Sir Hector Hetherington, Principal at that time, for the honour they bestowed upon me by inviting me to be a Gifford lecturer. I would like to express my warmest thanks to all my Glasgow colleagues, students and friends, who received me so well and made my life in Glasgow a great pleasure, even during some gloomy winter months. I am particularly grateful to Professor R. Gregor Smith and his wife for their steady help and encouragement. I cannot end this preface without mentioning the name of the deceased Principal of Aberdeen University, Sir Thomas M. Taylor, who was the first to invite me to Scotland. With him I had many most fruitful discussions on the questions of our times, as related to his ecumenical work. When illness interrupted my lectures, his home afforded me refuge, under the expert care of Lady Taylor. His all-too-early death robbed many people of a counsellor whom they revered and loved, and whom I might have been privileged to call my friend.
C. F. VON WEIZSÄCKER
Hamburg, May 1964