Riezler on the situation of the world

Kurt Riezler (1882-1955) may or may not have been read by McLuhan or Bohm.  But even if they did not, his 1940 Physics and Reality is important to consider in the context of their work in multiple perspectives.

Riezler’s short book is a consideration in the name of Aristotle of modern physics. Both for the sake of the dire situation of the world (not only on account of the then raging WW2) and for the sake of physics itself, Riezler recommended a return to the Greeks and to the notion (particularly developed by Aristotle) of the implication of possibility with actuality — or, in Bohm’s terms, of the implicate with the explicate order. Indeed, in the course of the book, Riezler raised a series of issues which are close to those found in McLuhan and Bohm and which, therefore, may be considered as additional jigsaw pieces for comparison to theirs. Further, Riezler had been close to Heidegger before emigrating to the US so that his work served to introduce little appreciated aspects of Heidegger’s thought without weighting them with Heidegger’s name or with the further complications of Heidegger’s difficult texts. Further yet, by applying Aristotle and Heidegger to modern physics, Riezler placed them in a context outside of philosophy where verification or falsification might be possible in a way, or ways, that are impossible within it.

Riezler’s analysis of the contemporary world closely matched those of McLuhan and Bohm:1

You are caught in a maze, snared by habits and trapped by methods from which you cannot free yourselves. (…) You have the most ingenious instruments, you use the most efficient methods, you know the most astounding laws. Your ships, automobiles, airplanes, and radios unite the globe and connect events. Your catapults pull down cities and upturn stones from the bottoms of your fields. You endow your rulers with superior technical means that choke all possibilities of opposition. (…) The most intense of all your experiences is your desire for knowledge; [but] in vain do I look for the place of this experience in your scheme of the Universe. There is no place [for it]. This, not your successes, is what astonishes me most. This experience has not and cannot have a place in your scheme. You have shut yourselves off from Nature. The further you penetrate into what you call nature the more elusive you become to yourselves. What, by Zeus, have you been doing? (…) You have opened between your comprehension of yourselves and your knowledge of Nature a chasm that engulfs in darkness your common being. You realize it. In all the splendor of your inventions this is your secret grief and the scandal of your science. (…) I must confess a tinge of admiration in my horror. This world [of yours], however, is merely the world of your anonymous observer: a world of [instrumental] pointer readings. (…) It is bleak and barren  and lacks sun despite its lucidity.  (…) I have been wondering how you are able to live in this world without freezing. (…) Your science is a mirror inadequate to the object to be reflected. There is something to which it is and must be blind. You are not able even to name this something, let alone detach it from the qualities of the mirror and separate the object from its reflection. (…) In this mirror neither everything that is can appear nor can everything appear as it is. The mirror both fails to reflect and distorts. This is its nature. In the image you cannot separate the qualities of the thing reflected from those of the mirror. You cannot know what is omitted and what distorted. Your mirror has begotten the image with the thing. You cannot distinguish the qualities of the [thing] parent in the [image] child. This inadequacy of the mirror to reflect the thing has led you up to now to conclude that the mirror must be ·transformed. From Newton to Einstein you have done this successfully. Now [today with quantum mechanics] there seems to be a limit beyond which you cannot go. (…) By the wonder of the harmony between calculation and observation Nature has led you astray from the reality you are yourselves into a net of concepts, in which you yourselves are futile, your weal and woes dumb, your experience a paper of ciphers you are neither able nor willing to read: World and Being are disconnected. You have no way of understanding the nature of yourselves in the light of Nature outside yourselves, no way of comprehending Nature as one and the same in ruling yourselves and in ruling the myriads of beings. Thus you feel homeless and isolated wherever you are. Amid your vast knowledge you miss the very knowledge you were born to desire. (…) You deal with abstractions, no longer with physical things. (…) Again and again just that in which the realness of reality resides will elude you. It must. (…) Here you are blocked, fenced in by your own procedure. (…) Your cosmos is a void. Reality has evaporated into numbers (…) into the void of bodiless abstractions. (…) When rulers of another breed run the enormous machines of your states and use your discoveries as means for their ends, and everywhere thought is banished into secret societies, you may one day be disposed to ask my question and ponder my answer [as proferred in this book].2 


  1. As well as those of Innis and Havelock.
  2.  Physics and Reality: pages 3, 3, 4, 4, 14, 14, 14, 28, 35, 61, 105, 105, 112, 115, 117.