Mechanistic worldview

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A mechanistic worldview (also: mechanicism , mechanism, mechanistic worldview, mechanical philosophy) is a philosophical position which, in the sense of a metaphysical materialism, proceeds from the thesis that only matter exists and z. B. the human mind or will cannot be explained by reference to the immaterial. A sub-form of this thesis is atomism , according to which the whole of reality consists of the smallest material objects. In addition, there is usually the assumption that matter has only an extremely narrow repertoire of actions: It can only react to external influences and always does this in the same way with the same impulses. This results in a determinism , i.e. the thesis that the entire reality through strict natural laws are governed, so that in principle with their exact knowledge as well as an exact knowledge of the world state at one point in time, the states at all other points in time can be calculated. By means of the materialistic thesis, this also includes states of the human mind and will. This assumption led to the thought experiment of the Laplace demon .

Both metaphysical theses, materialism and determinism, correspond to an epistemological methodology , according to which nature should and can be explained quantitatively and causally by reference to strict laws, as was the case for the first time in the area of ​​application of classical Newtonian mechanics . In the area of ​​biological processes, this position is in contrast to vitalism (see, for example, Doctrine médicale de l'École de Montpellier ), which assumes its own life principle.


The mechanistic worldview emerged in the early modern period, spread to all social, cultural and spiritual areas of life (nature, man, society, state, soul life) and finally became the paradigm of scientific rationality in general. Legitimation for the development was not least of all certain Bible statements such as that of the likeness of man to God ( Genesis 1.27  EU ), of “subjugating the earth” ( Genesis 1.28  EU ), the theologically justified rule of man over nature, according to which man has power over nature. The human being as “maître et possesseur de la nature” (master and owner of nature) becomes the model of the modern worldview.

The mechanistic worldview is chronologically assigned to the 16th – 19th centuries. Century too.

The world as a machine (watch comparison)

The idea of ​​the “machina mundi”, the world machine, came into the Middle Ages via the Chalcidius translation of the Platonic Timaeus (around 400 AD), but at that time it still had an organismic meaning in the sense of a “living, organic world whole”. In the late Middle Ages, the term experienced a shift in meaning towards the idea of ​​the inanimate, dead machine, and later also negative towards the mindless and soulless rattling and rattling machine.

When it comes to characterizing the world as a machine, one particular “machine” plays a role, namely the clock. The world is compared to a clock, God appears as the almighty clockmaker. An early proof of the comparison of watches can be found in Nikolaus v. Oresme (14th century): “For if someone were to make a watch, wouldn't they ensure that all movements and circuits are coordinated with one another? How much more can this be assumed from the architect who is said to have created everything to measure, number and weight ”. A letter from Kepler (1605): "My aim is to show that the heavenly machine is not a kind of divine living being, but rather a clockwork ..." documents that the change in meaning of the concept of machine from organismic meaning (living being) to inanimate meaning (Clockwork) is complete.

In Descartes' ( Meditationes de prima philosophia , 1641) the idea of ​​a machine is transferred to the human body and related to the marvel of the “clockwork”: “Yes, just like a ... clock, so it is with the human body when I have it as a kind of machine, which is made up of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood and skin ... and is composed ... ". Descartes developed a completely new view of the human (and animal) body in the sense of an independently functioning machine (mechanistic physiology). This view is reflected in the later famous book title of La Mettrie L'homme machine (Man - a machine) (1748). Since machine production emerged at that later time, the image of the gear wheel appeared next to the image of the clock, as a symbol of a mechanism in which one gear wheel meshes with the other.

The idea of ​​clocks found its most concise expression in the large clocks, e.g. B. at the cathedral of Münster and the cathedral of Strasbourg. They not only show the hours, but also calendar information on the day, month, year, the status of the planets, combined with a carillon and a dance of emperors, princes, noblemen and citizens. You are thus a symbol of the cosmic order. It is therefore not surprising that the very clock, which embodies order, structure, regulation, was compared with the world that is also ordered, structured and regulated.

The mechanization of the state goes back to Thomas Hobbes by transferring the concept of the machine together with the mechanistic method to society and the state ( Leviathan, 1651). The state of nature appears to Hobbes as bad, because people destroy each other due to their striving for power and profit, ambition and self-interest (homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man). In order to avoid this consequence, people unite in the artificial formation of a state, whereby all power is transferred to a sovereign. According to this conception, the state is dressed in the image of an oversized machine, the sovereign assumes the function of a technician who controls this "machine state".

In the 18th / 19th Finally, in the 19th century, the idea of ​​machines was transferred to the life of the soul (mechanization of the life of the soul). Examples of this are from the early period David Hume A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), from the later period JF Herbart's mental physics Psychology as a science (1824/25). The entire soul life is explained here according to mechanistic rules.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the American engineer and entrepreneur FW Taylor (1856–1915) developed a theory of business management. The so-called Taylorism provides precise job descriptions and time specifications (use of the stopwatch) for the performance of work activities. The idea of ​​the clock reappears here in the characteristic variant of the stopwatch for measuring process times. In this work system, the human being becomes a “cogwheel” in a huge manufacturing machine. If the gear fails, it can easily be replaced by someone else. With the development of Taylor, the machine concept penetrated the organizational form of collaboration in the world of work.

Rise of Mechanics

Assuming that the mechanistic worldview has developed from the idea of ​​God as the almighty watchmaker and the world as a mechanical watch, as the product of this divine watchmaker, then it makes sense to take a look at the history of the watch, especially the mechanical wheel clock, throw.

Between 1000 and 1300, inventors throughout Europe who still followed the principle of intuition tried to get rid of the dependence on natural energy sources (sundial, water clock, hourglass, candle clock) and develop mechanical timepieces when designing clocks. Finally, somewhere in Europe, probably in the monastic area, the principle of the clock with a balance escapement was invented. The first examples of these clocks had a chime, but probably neither a dial nor a pointer, and served as waking instruments for the punctual performance of liturgical prayers (horologium, clocke, cyt bell). The dial and hour hand were added later, the minute hand not until the 17th century. You can already see from the individual components that make up a wheel clock that such clocks are complicated constructions: train weight, drive shaft, bar balance (balance), spindle, crown wheel, riser wheel, spindle wheel, shaft axis, gear wheel . The oldest large-wheel clocks are those of Exeter Cathedral (1284), St. Paul's Cathedral in London (1286) and those of the Canterbury and Sens (both 1292) cathedrals. Around 1320, in his Divine Comedy, Dante compared a heavenly round dance with the wheels of a clock. The lead of the West was also noticeable with the introduction of the wheel clock; the development began earlier in England, Spain, Italy and France than in Germany. The mechanical watch spread so epidemically across Europe that one can almost speak of a procurement boom.

In the early modern era, Galileo Galilei has the merit of having put the emerging science of technical mechanics on a formal mathematical basis. Galileo is considered to be the essential founder of modern natural sciences. On the one hand, he developed the method, which is still relevant today, consisting of the combination of his own observation, possibly on the basis of planned experiments, with the most accurate possible quantitative measurement of the observable quantities and the analysis of the measurement results using mathematical means. On the other hand, he called for the results obtained in this way to be given priority over purely philosophical or theologically based statements about nature. Isaac Newton wrote the history of science with the invention of calculus based on mechanical observation. Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock: this was the first time that the functionality of a new clock had been mathematically precisely calculated and developed with the help of geometric construction drawings. In the 18th century, the members of the Bernoulli family, Leonhard Euler and Charles Augustin de Coulomb prepared the ground for technical mechanics, which is still valid today and forms the basis for many technical disciplines.

History of the experiment

Karen Gloy defines the (modern) experiment in such a way that, as a rule, a preliminary theoretical draft is assumed in order to verify or falsify it on the basis of the experiment or to decide between competing models.

If the history of the experiment is started in the High Middle Ages (e.g. Albert the Great , approx. 1200–1280) (we ignore antiquity), then it becomes apparent that the medieval understanding of the experiment as defined above still has little in common with the modern shows. In the Middle Ages, the Latin word experimentum (experiri) was synonymous with experience, sensual perception. For Albert, experiment does not mean much more than the basic empirical orientation: one's own experience is opposed to mere belief and blind trust in what has been handed down in writing or orally.

Progress in experimental analysis can only be found with Francis Bacon (1561–1626) (e.g. Novum Organon , 1620), even if Bacon did not conduct his own research but was more of a science manager. F. Bacon dresses his basic conviction, namely that man is destined to rule over nature on the basis of his reason, in the image of the court situation: the inquiring person is the judge, nature sits in the dock like a defendant who refuses to telling the truth and who can only be brought to come out with the truth by using force. One of the methods that Bacon developed is the so-called list method. There is a three-step procedure: Observe → Collect observation data in lists → Evaluate. The evaluation (however verbally formulated) then results in the “law”. When trying to evaluate Bacon's experimental method in the light of the modern definition of the experiment mentioned at the beginning, it emerges that Bacon's approach represents an instrumental methodization of the "old" understanding of nature rather than the application of experiments in the modern sense, in which a preconceived theory is assumed which should then be verified or falsified by the experiment.

A further stage of development was reached with Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). Two innovations go back to Galileo, which went down in history under the catchphrase of the “Galilean turn”. Galileo's first innovation is the restriction (reduction) of the reasons for explaining a problem to the quantitative determinations, excluding the qualitative determinations - and associated with this - their exclusively mathematical formulation: the law that is found is no longer formulated verbally, as was the case with F Bacon, but in the form of a mathematical formula. Take the law of fall as an example: it is no longer about “the essence” of the fall, but the falling movement is resolved into a series of time and space, so that each point of the path corresponds to a certain moment of the time path. The underlying rule, the law of nature, is written down in the form of a mathematical formula. The same basic idea underlies Descartes' discovery of analytical geometry and Newton and Leibniz's invention of differential calculus. The second decisive innovation that made a breakthrough with Galileo is the fundamental role of experiment in terms of method theory. It essentially corresponds to the modern definition: You start from one or more proposed theories and develop an experiment with the purpose of checking them, i.e. confirming or falsifying them, or in order to be able to decide between the competing theories.

The new ideal of science

Francis Bacon , in his writings Novum Organon (1620) and Nova Atlantis (1624), described for the first time many features that constitute the intellectual prototype of all later scientific attitudes, teamwork and research institutes.

There are four areas (idola, illusions) that hinder people in natural research: the idola tribus (of the tribe), i.e. H. the limitations of human nature; the idola specu (the cave), that is what one could describe with cultural imprint; the idola fori (of the market), wrong usage of language, wrong definitions, empty word battles; the idola theatri (of the theater), the attachment to certain philosophical systems. Bacon not only made considerations about the method in the individual sciences, but also about the method of interdisciplinary research and the principle of the modern division of labor (teamwork) in research: while one group collects materials and conducts research, another group conducts experiments, another group another analyzes and tabulates the test results, and yet another thinks about practical applications. In the works mentioned, considerations on the scope and extent of experimental activity, and above all on manipulation and artificial-technical interventions in nature, are important and forward-looking. E.g .: artificial generation of light, heat, wind, snow; Construction of towers to observe the weather; Installation of artificial springs, fountains, lakes; Breeding and manipulation of plants and animals by crossing, grafting, etc. Ä .; Breeding of high-yielding and less high-yielding species (principle of profit maximization); Breeding dwarfism and giant forms; even breeding of certain kinds of mind (e.g. dogs for chasing or herding sheep); Breeding “snakes, worms, mosquitoes and fish from decaying materials”.

What Bacon proclaims here as a goal of science and progress obviously corresponds to a dream of mankind: the total manipulation of nature, the artificial production of all things. With F. Bacon, the foundations of modern dispositional knowledge are revealed for the first time as opposed to traditional orientational knowledge. Beyond the fascination of the artificial domination of nature by science and technology, as it is symptomatic of Bacon and the mechanistic age, the negative effects were overlooked, which were already visible then - albeit to a lesser extent than today - (e.g. those caused by Karstification of the soil due to forest clearing; water and air pollution).

End of the mechanistic worldview

In the 19th and 20th In the 19th century the idea of ​​the world as a machine had come to an end. New developments in the sciences of the 19th and, above all, the 20th century led to a worldview for which the picture of mechanical clockwork was no longer appropriate. The development could be summarized under the title: From the mechanistic to the systemic understanding of nature. If the overall development is interpreted as a higher development in the sense of an abstraction process, then the sequence results: the world as a living, organic whole of the world (up to the late Middle Ages); Abstraction for the (static) idea of ​​the “world as a machine” (16th to 19th centuries); further abstraction to the (dynamic) systemic understanding of nature (“a world of systems”: since the end of the 19th century).

The reasons for the development from a mechanistic to a systemic understanding of nature are:

The emergence of the concept of energy since the second half of the 19th century. Originally a distinction was made between energy and matter, the discovery of Albert Einstein (1879–1955) that matter and energy are ultimately the same resulted in the conviction that the entire spatiotemporal reality can ultimately be traced back to energy or energetic processes.

From the rigid to the statistical conception of causality : Until the 19th century, causality was understood in the form of rigid cause-effect chains, but thanks to the discoveries of Max Planck (1858–1947), it was no longer possible to accept that in the subatomic area the individual particle can be captured, but only large groups of them. Measured effects were therefore to be understood as group effects. As a result, the rigid view of causality was replaced by the statistical one.

When the regulation , the regulated being of many natural processes, including the networked thinking, attracted attention, a science developed around these processes - across many disciplines: cybernetics . The American mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) is considered to be the founder .

With the advent of chaos research , the linear conception of natural processes crumbled. Findings from chaos research showed that natural processes do not run linearly, i. This means that processes usually come to a point where they can turn into different, unpredictable directions. Due to the insight that even simple natural processes do not run linearly, one had to give up the hope of being able to predict future developments in nature exactly: This finally stripped the ground for determinism .

However, the decisive step towards a fundamentally new view of nature was taken with the emergence of the term system in the middle of the 20th century. A system can be described as a dynamic, holistic structure that - at least from the level of the living - has the ability to transform itself while maintaining wholeness. The higher living beings may serve as an example, transforming themselves from the embryo via the child to the youth form, then via the adult to the age form. The pictures of mechanical clockwork, gear wheel or steam engine are no longer suitable for all such processes. The systemic view has meanwhile replaced the older mechanistic view in both natural and cultural sciences.

Example: history of biology

The history of biology provides a revealing example of the fact that there are always “bitter opponents” for every worldview . The history of biology is marked by endless arguments between the mechanists and the vitalists . The mechanists hold the view that life is ultimately nothing more than mechanics, whereby living things are often described as machines, and even identified with machines. The vitalists, on the other hand, see life, so to speak, “from above” determined by a vital force that is supposed to express the “soulfulness” of all living things.

In the 17th century, GA Borelli (1608–1679) interpreted the construction of humans as a working skeletal-muscle machine. This view culminated in the 18th century in the controversial work of the French doctor JO de La Mettrie (1709–1751) L'homme machine (Man - a machine, 1747). In the 19th century, Charles Darwin, with his selection theory, traced the evolution of living things back to natural selection, a principle that works mechanically. In opposition to the mechanistic view that flourished with modern science, the vitalists in the 18th and 19th centuries developed the so-called life force teachings on a broad basis, based on the conviction that not all life phenomena can be explained purely physically (mechanically). Around 1900, out of fierce resistance to the mechanism, neovitalism established itself, under the impression that certain problems in genetics and evolutionary research were not adequately explained by the mechanistic approach. Hans Driesch (1867–1941) renewed the idea of entelechy , Henri Bergson (1859–1941) spoke of the elan vital (vitality). Around 1950 the pendulum swung again to the other extreme than with the justification of molecular biology , v. a. then with the deciphering of the genetic code, the secret of reproduction and heredity in the realm of living things was revealed. From then on, and to this day, many biologists declared themselves to be representatives of a “molecular mechanism”, according to which life is ultimately only a matter of chemistry and physics.

According to Wuketits , the dualism mechanism vs. Finally, vitalism through the system-theoretical approach, as it z. B. Ludwig v. Bertalanffy (1901–1972) represented, overcome. The system-theoretical concept of life states that, despite its physical-chemical foundations, life cannot be completely reduced to physics and chemistry. This makes a new concept of life visible and enables a philosophy of life that has overcome the old contradictions.


According to Hannah Arendt , the parable of the clock is to be seen as an evident paradigm for the mechanistic worldview. An early document for comparing clocks comes from the 14th century (Nicolas v. Oresme). Nature is seen as the product of a divine maker. On the other hand, this model symbolizes the incipient deification of Homo faber . The limitations of the knowledge of nature had just persisted in this somewhat rigid mechanistic picture.

See also


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. René Descartes : Discours de la Méthode , 1637
  2. The chapter "The world as a machine (comparison of clocks)" is described after Karen Gloy: The history of scientific thinking. In: Komet , 1995, 4th part, modern understanding of nature.
  3. ^ Gloy, p. 167
  4. ^ Gloy, p. 168
  5. ^ Gloy, p. 167: Letter to Herwart von Hohenburg of February 10, 1605.
  6. Gloy, p. 168: Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641).
  7. ^ Gloy, p. 169.
  8. ^ Gloy, p. 172.
  9. ^ Gloy, p. 172.
  10. This section after Sebastian Stein: Problems of software development . 2004,
  11. The following according to the wheel clock . In: Lexicon of the Middle Ages . 9 volumes, Munich / Zurich, 1977–1999
  12. This paragraph after the wikipedia pages on technical mechanics and Galileo Galilei
  13. ^ Gloy, p. 190
  14. ^ Gloy, p. 195
  15. ^ Gloy, p. 187
  16. Gloy, p. 179ff.
  17. Gloy, p. 193 ff.
  18. Gloy, p. 179 ff.
  19. z. B. Gloy, pp. 36f.
  20. The following is described by Willy Obrist: Nature - the source of ethics and meaning . 1999
  21. Willy Obrist: The nature - source of ethics and meaning . 1999, p. 80 f.
  22. Willy Obrist: The nature - source of ethics and meaning . 1999, p. 205 f.
  23. Willy Obrist: The nature - source of ethics and meaning . 1999, p. 211
  24. Willy Obrist: The nature - source of ethics and meaning . 1999, p. 208 f.
  25. Willy Obrist: The nature - source of ethics and meaning . 1999, p. 211 ff.
  26. The following is presented after Franz Wuketits, Vitalism - Mechanism . In: Lexikon der Biologie , Volume 8. Herder, 1987, p. 347 ff. Or Internet: (1999)
  27. Wuketits describes Darwin's view not as "mechanistic", but as "naturalistic".
  28. ^ Hannah Arendt : Vita activa or from active life . 3. Edition. R. Piper, Munich 1983, ISBN 3-492-00517-9 , pp. 290 f., 120, 305