Category Archives: Concept of the field

Concept of the field, particularly the electromagnetic field in Faraday’s thinking, and as developed by Maxwell in the “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism”.

Maxwell’s Mathematical Rhetoric: Rethinking the “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism”.

The Green Lion Press has just announced the publication of my study Maxwell’s Mathematical Rhetoric: Rethinking the “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism”. Although this is by no means a new work, its implications for the most part still remain to be explored, and I am delighted to greet its appearance in this form.

Maxwell's Mathematical Rhetoric

What is meant by this curious phrase, mathematical rhetoric? To explain, it may be best to go back to the problem which first led me to undertake this project. Maxwell’s Treatise had been a candidate for the list of “great books of the western world” from the outset of the seminar program at St. John’s College in Annapolis – but it soon became apparent that no one could “crack’ this massive work. It introduced, indeed, Maxwell’s equations of the electromagnetic field, and with them, the recognition that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon. But these equations, and that theory, could much more quickly be reached by way of any modern textbook. What secrets might Maxwell’s work harbor, beyond the stark narrative those textbooks could offer? I set out to explore this question by reading the Treatise as a work of literature. By great good luck, I discovered that Maxwell had written with just just that intent: to compose a work of literature artfully shaped to convey a weave of interconnected messages. To this end, his primary instrument would be the art of rhetoric.

The basis of the art of rhetoric is the distinction between what is said, in a simple declarative sentence, and the way that thought is expressed.  A nuanced statement may convey meanings very different from the literal content of a sentence. Surprisingly, perhaps, the same is true of a mathematical equation. Its literal content is the numbers which it serves to compute; but its rhetorical content is the thoughts it suggests to the mind of the reader. Rhetoric is often used to win arguments, but Maxwell’s intention is very different. His aim is to suggest new ideas, and he shapes his equations to open our minds to new ways of viewing the natural world.

Maxwell’s Treatise has, in effect, two plots. Its first, overt role, is to provide a text in electricity and magnetism to support the addition of those subjects to the highly mathematical, severely demanding tripos examinations weeding out candidates for a degree at Cambridge. Maxwell however weaves into his work a much richer, more subtle plot, very nearly antithetical to the first. Throughout the book, this second plot increasingly shapes equations to give expression to the new and far more interesting ideas of Michael Faraday — who himself knew no mathematics whatever. Late in Part IV of the Treatise, a sharp turn of the narrative and the adoption of an altogether new rhetoric – a new form of the basic equations of physics — gives final victory to Faraday.  Thus when Maxwell’s field equations emerge in the Treatise, they belong to a breathtakingly new view of the natural world, while the conventions of the tripos exams have been left far behind.

That new rhetorical form, shaped to fit Faraday’s way of thinking as well as the idea of the space-filling field itself, is collectively known as Lagrange’s equations of motion. They speak not of forces, but of energies, and through them, explanation flows from a whole system to its parts, not from part to whole.

Whether we use Newton’s equations or Lagrange’s, the calculated results may be the same; but the contrasting form of the equations bespeaks a correspondingly transformed view of the natural world. Our very idea of causality is reversed. As we increasingly come to recognize the deep connectedness of the systems which surround us – from ecosystems to single cells, our own bodies and minds or a global economy – we desperately need the insight which Maxwell’s Treatise has so carefully crafted.

In that sense, perhaps, both Maxwell’s work and this study of its rhetorical trajectory are more timely today than ever before. We have already spoken on this website of Lagrange’s equations and their contrast to Newton’s, which I have called a truly dialectical alternative, and further studies of Maxwell’s rhetorical strategies, in direct reference to Maxwell’s Mathematical Rhetoric, are planned. “Stay tuned” — and as ever, comments are warmly encouraged.

What Do we Mean by the Term “Elementary”?

What do we mean when we use the term ,”elementary”, in relation to a science? Does it refer to an easy introduction, as contrasted with an “advanced” treatment of the same subject? Or does it mean a solid account of the very foundations of the science? Or, for that matter, are these the same thing?

Maxwell had a tendency toward writing “elementary” texts: he wrote one on heat, and another on mechanics, both for use in classes for workingmen – a project to which he was deeply committed. Finally, at the time of his death he was at work on his “Elementary Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, intended to serve as the Cambridge text to support a new degree in experimental natural philosophy at Cambridge University.

My sense is that Maxwell endowed each of these with earnest attention – that he regarded the “elements” not as evident, but as a topic to be approached with great care. Our decision as to what is elementary in a science has a great deal to do with our sense of the form the finished product will take – so that the most difficult issues may focus on the most elementary beginnings.

For example, Maxwell wrote his workingmen’s text in mechanics, Matter and Motion, only after he had hit on the fundamental idea, new to him, of Lagrnagian mechanics and generalized corrdinates. This would not be a mechanics in Newtonian form, in which the elements would be assumed to be hard bodies acting upon one another according to laws; rather, elements of this sort would be the least known components of the system, represented by generalized coordinates.

In this view, what we observe initially is a whole system of some sort; it is this whole which is fundamental, and truly elementary. The parts which compose it, we may never know. Our science can be complete and secure even if that question remains unresolved, or unresolvable.

This is the point of view I believe Maxwell had come to, underlying his approach to the new program at Cambridge as well. If so, must it not represent a truly revolutionary inversion of our very concept of scientific knowledge?

It fitted the primacy he – following the path of Farday – was giving to the concept of the electromagnetic field. In this view, he field would not be a secondary phenomenon, a composite or consequence of simpler “elements”, but itself both simple and whole.

If the elementary is what is primary, then in the case of the field it is the whole which is the element, from which we deduce what we can, concerning lesser components. Faraday had felt strongly that in the case of electricity, there was no “charge” lying on the surface of a charged body, but what we call a “charge” was a field, which filled the room.

Isn’t it the case that when we ask for the “explanation” of a physical system, we are asking for an account in terms of its elements? If so, then the field is itself explanatory, and we would not seek explanation in terms of the actions of some lesser parts. What will be the consequences if we extend this view to physical explanation – or explanation beyond the realm of physics — more generally?

“Faraday’s Mathematics”

“Faraday’s Mathematics” is a lecture I gave at at a conference on Faraday at St. John’s College in Annapolis.  Its subtitle is “On Getting Allong Without Euclid”, for Faraday had neither studied Euclid, nor taken on board the plan of formal demonstration which most of us learn from the study of geometry.  In short, Faraday thought in his own way, following the lead of nature and experiment.  He was in effect  liberated from the presuppositions about thought and physical theory with which others in the scientific community were encumbered. 

 The result was that Faraday hit on a fundamentally new way of understanding the phenomena of electricity and magnetism – by way of the new concept of the “field”. Maxwell deeply respected Faraday’s way, and dedicated much of his own life to comprehending how Faraday worked, and what it was that Faraday had done.  The field is a fully connected system, and fields interact, not by way of their parts, but as wholes.  This was clear enough to Faraday, but it required recourse to a new sort of mathematics – Lagrangian theory – and a major reversal of conventional thinking, to articulate a formal theory in which the whole is primary, and with it a new rhetoric of explanation.   This was Maxwell’s accomplishment in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, a transformation I trace as a rhetorical adventure in my book Figures of Thought.

  In the end, Maxwell emerged with the astonishing claim that of them all, it was the uneducated Faraday who was the real mathematician.  If that could be so, what is mathematics?   That’s the question pursued in this lecture, which aims to find out what Maxwell could have meant.

Maxwell was clearly in earnest, and seems to be pointing to a mathematics embodied in nature, which lies deeper than either its symbolic or its logical forms.






“The Dialectical Laboratory”: A lecture on behalf of holism in the sciences


My lecture, the “Dialectical Laboratory ” (see the “lectures” section of this website) , was given as a sort of parting statement to the St. John’s College community in Santa Fe.  But though directed to the college, and expressed by way of references to certain of the “great books” of that tradition, its message is of far broader import.  The “dialectical” issue – meaning, a watershed of western thought – is between a science based on mechanical actions between disparate parts, and a holistic science in which wholeness is respected, and whole systems are regarded as fundamental, not as mere aggregations of parts.  

Each of these two very different scientific approaches has its rigorous theory, and either can be used to solve engineering problems.  But conceptually they are worlds apart, and I am convinced it’s crucial that we follow the way of holism, and learn, before it’s too late, to appreciate and work with systems – from the least living organism to the global environment – which are more than the sum of mechanical parts.  Science is moving in this direction, but there is now no time to lose! 

Comments on these remarks, as well as on the lecture itself, will be welcome in reponse to this posting. 




In Praise of Generalized Coordinates

I’ve been expressing my enthusiasm for a holistic approach to the understanding of nature — in relation to my favorite topic, the electromagnetic field, this takes the form of the Lagrangian equations for the field as a single, connected system characterized by its energy, not by forces.  It was crucial to Maxwell’s development of the equations of the field in his “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism” that they be formulated as instances of such a connected system — i.e., in Lagrangian terms, and NOT on the basis of Newton’s laws of motion.  (The difference — very fundamental to our understanding of nature — is developed in “The Dialectical Laboratory”, in my “Lectures” menu.) Now, the question arises: “If we start in this way, from the ‘top down’, how do we ever arrive at the elements?”   The answer is, “We DON’T!” We move logically “downward” by finding the dependence of the energy of the whole system upon ANY set of measurements we want to make — provided only that it’s a complete (i.e. sufficient to determine the state of the system), with each measure “independent” of the others. We find such a set of measurements by doing experiments — and when we get them, they are called “generalized coordinates”.  The important thing is that there may be many ways we can define them, each set as good as the others: and in the whole process we never get any”real,underlying elements” — we don’t need them!  Reality is founded at the top, not the bottom, of the chain of explanation.   This is Maxwell’s new view of physical reality, founded upon the field.  It is the opposite of the notion of “mechanical explanation”, and it is the direction which our approach to nature desperately needs to take as we approach the challenges which lie before us today.  In terms of the philosophy of science, Maxwell it seems was far ahead of his time.  I propose to call this the “Maxwellian Revolution”. 

Newton on the Field

I’ve just returned from a gathering in New Mexico, the first, pilot workshop of the Cosmic Serpent project, in which Native Americans and others-such as myself-gathered to compare Native American views of the natural world with those of “western science”. With the essential help of Jim Judson from the Sister Creek Center in San Antonio, I brought along an “open lab” on magnetism. It seemed to me that the concept of the “field”-specifically, here the (electro-) magnetic field-might prove helpful in relating these two domains of thought about nature.

For the moment, here, I just want to comment on a document that was circulating during the conference concerning the mystery of magnetism. Asking very simply “What is Magnetism?”, it was written by Bruno Maddox and published in a recent edition of Discover magazine. He reports that after exploring all options, he finds no scientific explanation of the cause  of magnetism.  If it remains a mystery, as he seems to conclude, then it may well be open to interpretation in terms compatible with Native American points of view.

That’s a point of view I’ll want to return to in future postings.  For the moment, I want to call attention to one of Maddox’s findings. He hit on a text in which Isaac Newton-looking in this case at the mystery of gravitation-opines that “the notion that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else…is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.”What did Newton have in mind?

I’m confident that he is not thinking in terms of any sort of mechanical explanation. Newton was not a mechanist: in fact, he wrote the Principia essentially as a polemic against mechanism, and in particular, against Descartes. No. His aim is to reveal the role of what he called Spirit in the world: the fact that the laws of these actions are mathematical in no way implies for Newton that they are mechanical, but is fully compatible with his concept of Spirit and its operation throughout the realm of nature.

I’m not arguing that Newton “had” the idea of the field-though his “intensive” quantity of a force seems to ascribe it to space itself, and is remarkably compatible with later ideas of the “field”. My point is only that as he describes the mathematical System of the World, Newton feels himself to be in the immediate presence of mystery-in his view, divine mystery in the form of the Holy Spirit as God’s agent in the natural world.

Newton’s thoughts along these lines, together with those on alchemy and theology, were systematically buried by his followers, and have been uncovered only in recent years. But now that we have a better sense of what he actually meant, we may be the more ready to contemplate this bridge between “spirit” as Newton intended it, and “spirit” in Indigenous accounts of the operations of the natural world. Either way, we are contemplating something which has all the feel of wonder and mystery.

While in Santa Fe, I learned that students at St. John’s College there would be gathering to witness this very mystery, in an experiment which Newton himself had thought would be impossible to carry out. Just as the Sun and Earth are joined by the gravitational force, so any two bodies on Earth must attract another by a very slight, yet calculable force. The experiment can in fact be done, with lead weights suspended by a delicate metal thread. To watch them, by way of a light beam and mirror, move toward one another slowly but surely, is to be present at a solemn ceremony at the foundation of the cosmos-as much a mystery, still today, as it ever was. I wonder if others agree with this reading of Newton’s text?

Indigenous Views of Nature and the Deep Roots of Western Science

When I wrote yesterday about the “deep roots” of Western science, I intended to point to a possible relation this opens up between the domain of “science” and Indigenous views of the natural world.  If we follow that line of development which leads from Aristotle through Leibniz to the holistic mathematical physics based on the Principle of Least Action, we find ourselves in a position much closer to that of Native American thinkers than we might have expected.Modern science in its mechanical mode cuts off “science” from any sense of wholeness or, especially, of purpose. It wants to reduce all quality to quantity, all motion to the operation of laws which bind matter apart from any sense of goal or meaning, and sees “nature” exclusively as an object from which we stand apart as mere observers. None of these limitations apply to the physics in the holistic mode.  Least Action applies to whole systems, and sees systems moving directionally toward the optimization of a quantity which applies to the system as a whole.  Although this goal may be no more than the optimization of a mathematical quantity, it opens the way to thinking of systems such as organisms or ecologies as moving as wholes toward ends — a line of thought of which the modern world is in desperate need.One more link in this line of thought: the modern computer is bridging the gap ;between “quantitative” and “qualitative” thinking.  What goes in as number typically comes out on the computer screen as a graphical image readily grasped by the intuitive mind and conducive to interpretation in terms of purposes and goals. We can see how systems are moving, and where they “are going”.   Nothing stands in the way of reading these in terms of purposes, and that is what we do on a daily basis — think for example of evidences of the consequences of global warming emerging from complex computer modeling.  Thinking in this way in terms of whole systems,  understanding their motions in terms of a mathematics of optimization, and bridging the gap between quality and quantity — all this is yielding an approach to science at once new and old — in a continuous thread leading from Aristotle into the age of the modern computer.  If we follow that path and think of modern science in terms like these, then it seems to me the gap between a holistic science and Indigenous relations to the natural world is not as deep as it had seemed.  Set aside mechanistic thinking, embrace the sense of nature as a whole of which we ourselves are part, admit goal as a category amenable to science — and then the old gap between Indigenous, or simply hunan views of the world, and those of “western science”, begins to dissolve.   Thus the Cosmic Serpent project, designed to consider this relationship, begins to look much more promising than it otherwise might have.