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 Review of Kant’s Cosmogony (1901)*

By Bertrand Russell

Kant’s Cosmogony: As in His Essay on the Retardation of the Earth, and in His Natural History and Theory of the Heavens: With Introduction, Appendices, and a Portrait of Thomas Wright of Durham. Edited and translated by W. Hastie, D.D., Professor of Divinity, University of Glasgow. Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons, 1900. Pp. cix, 205.

PROF. HASTIE has accomplished, in the present work, a task which will be extremely useful to all who are interested either in Kant’s early views or in the origins of modern speculations as to the development of the Solar System. In addition to the translations of Kant’s two works, Whether the Earth Has Undergone an Alteration of Its Axial Rotation (1754), and the Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens1 (1755), there is a very full Introduction, giving the main points of historical importance as regards the origin, influence and tenability of Kant’s Cosmogony; and there are three Appendices: (A) “Dieterich’s Summary of Kant’s Theory (1876)”; (B) “The Hamburg Account of the Theory of Thomas Wright of Durham (1751)”; (C) “De Morgan’s Account of Wright’s Speculations (1848).” The Appendix B is especially interesting from a historical point of view. Kant tells us (p. 30) that his Cosmogony was suggested by the account in the Hamburg Freie Urtheile und Nachrichten of Thomas Wright’s Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe. It does not appear that Kant was acquainted with the original work, so that the Hamburg account becomes important in judging what Kant obtained from Wright. Unfortunately, Prof. Hastie has not seen the original, but has made his reprint from a MS. copy, the correctness of which may be open to question. Though Mr. Wright appears to have indulged in some very fanciful hypotheses, it appears clearly that he was the source of a considerable part of Kant’s theory. “One motive of this work,” Prof. Hastie says, “has been to do justice to Thomas Wright while furnishing the means for determining exactly what Kant owed to him” (p. lxviii); and this has been successfully accomplished in the present work. The translation, though it contains many small inaccuracies, is, so far as I have verified it, free from serious errors.

As regards the intrinsic value of the works translated, very different opinions have been held. The first, on the retardation of the earth’s rotation, is extremely short (nine pages in the translation), but genuinely scientific. It points out that tidal friction is a constant cause of retardation, and that this cause, though small, is cumulative, and therefore not to be neglected. It also suggests that tides give the explanation of the fact that the moon always turns the same side to the earth (p. 10). Although its numerical data and results are extremely far from the truth, the main conclusion is indisputable, and appears to have been first discovered by Kant (see p. xliii).

The larger work, on the Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, is more speculative, being concerned with a possible origin, not only of the Solar System, but of the stars generally. Prof. Hastie thinks that this theory “will probably be regarded hereafter as the most wonderful and enduring product of his (Kant’s) genius” (p. ix). On the other hand Dühring2 will allow no merit whatever to Kant’s speculations, except that he sometimes, by accident, reaches a correct result by fallacious reasoning from false premisses.

Although Dühring, no doubt, goes somewhat too far, his judgment would seem, from a scientific standpoint, to be nearer the truth than that of Prof. Hastie. Kant’s premisses are usually false, and his reasoning is usually fallacious. But his theories have a value as a stimulus to the scientific imagination, and in parts they have a literary value in the almost Miltonic descriptions of “the realm of Chaos and old Night.” This is especially the case in part 2, chapter 7, “Of the Creation in the whole extent of its infinitude, both in Space and in Time.” The Solar System, we are told, forms part of a larger system, which is the Milky Way; the Nebulæ are in reality other Milky Ways;3 many Milky Ways combine into a new system, and so on. To this process of forming larger and larger systems there is absolutely no end. Each system is gradually developed out of the original chaos, and different systems are developed at different times. But all perish, and return to the original chaos again. The process is then repeated, and so on ad infinitum. Thus the antithesis in the first antinomy represents a real stage in Kant’s thought.

Kant, like Boscovich, assumes two forces, attraction and repulsion, of which the latter is insensible except at small distances. The original chaos is of different densities in different parts, and the denser parts gradually become nuclei of the heavenly bodies. The universe is originally cold, and stars only become hot in the process of contraction. The sun is supposed to be actually in a state of combustion (p. 159). The theory of the formation of planets and satellites, and of Saturn’s ring, is worked out in some detail; but the arguments are always vague, and seem not infrequently to be definitely mistaken. Kant seems at times to suppose that the resultant attraction of a system on one of its particles must be directed to the centre of mass of the system. He bases an elaborate argument upon the fact that, on the whole, the eccentricities of the orbits of the planets increase with their distances from the sun. This leads him (part 2, chapter 3) to the suggestion that, in accordance with Leibniz’s law of continuity, there are probably planets beyond Saturn, with more and more eccentric orbits, and gradually approximating to comets. But we know that, when such planets were discovered, they were found not to approximate to comets at all. This is a fair sample of the kind of reasoning employed.

On the whole, Kant’s theory is hardly to be ranked as a scientific hypothesis, not because, in its general outline, it is improbable, but because Kant wholly failed to show that it is probable. It is rather to be classed with ancient cosmogonies, among which Kant himself mentions, as similar to his, those of Lucretius, Epicurus, Leucippus and Democritus. The work is interesting because Kant wrote it, and because, in incidental remarks, it shows him as a thorough Leibnizian.4 But the value of a work in which a bold hypothesis is put forward lies in the arguments adduced in support of the hypothesis, not in the fact that others afterwards find arguments to support it or something similar. Science, unlike theology, is concerned, not with the enunciation of “great truths,” but with their demonstration.


*  Bertrand Russell, Review of Kant, Cosmogony, Mind, n.s. 10, no. 39 (Jul 1901), 405-7

1 The concluding portion of this work has not been published in the translation, partly because Kant himself, in 1791, would not permit its republication, partly because what has been published is complete in itself. The part omitted has, in my opinion, no very great value.

2 Principien der Mechanik, third edition, pp. 390-391.

3 It was, of course, not known in Kant’s day that some nebulæ are not composed of stars.

4 See, e.g., the dictum on inertia and resistance as limiting freedom, p. 166.