Heisenberg on ‘an ancient quarrel’

In his PhD thesis from the early 1940’s, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, McLuhan formulated the notion of “an ancient quarrel” which had played out in European cultural history over the two millennia between classical Athens and the end of the Elizabethan era. This ‘quarrel’ was depicted as arising between the three disciplines of the trivium: rhetoric, grammar and dialectic. In his paper from 1945, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, McLuhan then extended this description over the succeeding 500 years into our own time.

McLuhan’s three ‘trivial’ types1 were isomorphic with materialism (rhetoric), idealism (dialectic) and the interplay of these two (grammar). And like materialism and idealism, McLuhan’s forms were treated as fundamental types of reality — as ontologies.

Werner Heisenberg described a similar “ancient quarrel” which had been reborn in contemporary quantum physics:2

our purpose [in quantum physics] today is to solve problems that have faced humanity for a very long time [such] that the theoretical work of our era is related to the efforts undertaken by mankind3 thousands of years ago. (9)

It is remarkable that this old question of materialism and idealism [and of “a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea”]4 has again been raised in a very definite form by modern atomic physics and particularly by the quantum theory. (12)

the possibility or “tendency” for an event to take place has a kind of reality — a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea (16)

the science of nature does not deal with nature itself but in fact with the science of nature as mankind thinks and describes itThis does not introduce an element of subjectivity into natural science. We do not by any means pretend that occurrences in the universe depend on our observations, but we point out that natural science stands between nature and mankind (20)

It seems to me fascinating to think that there is today a struggle in the most diverse countries of the world and with the most powerful means5 at the disposal of modern technology to solve together problems posed two and a half millennia ago by the Greek philosophers (27-28)

  1. See McLuhan’s ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953).
  2. The cited passages are all from ‘Die Plancksche Entdeckung und die philosophischen Probleme der Atomphysik’, lecture from the 13th conference of the Rencontres Internationales de Genève, September 4, 1958. Translation in On Modern Physics, 1962 as ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’.
  3. ‘Man’ in the translation of Heisenberg’s essay has been changed to ‘mankind’ throughout.
  4. See the next passage from p 16.
  5. Plato was clear in his depiction of the gigantomachia (Sophist 246-249) that the unending struggle of gigantic first principles in their gigantic differences with one another is the most gigantic of all disputes.