These developments help to shed light on the puzzle, mentioned at the outset, concerning whether the phenomena named by concepts precede the development of the concepts themselves and how the two vastly different positions mentioned can arise.
The puzzle is posed here by the question: Was there energy prior to 1800? This question would surely make most people, including and especially scientists, roll their eyes. Such people would interpret the question as asking whether the phenomenon named by the word existed. In this commonsense view, the answer is surely yes. Energy, after all, was not discovered or invented. It has powered the sun for billions of years, made organisms grow for millions, and driven industrial machines for hundreds. Our opinions, ideas, and representations of energy may have evolved, but energy apart from these—what we are trying to get at through them— does not. But if the question is interpreted as asking whether the abstract notion of a capacity to do work that comes in various forms convertible into each other existed prior to 1800, then the answer to the question is just as surely no.
Traditional philosophers of science would try to resolve the puzzle by appeal to the extremely influential distinction between the context of discovery, or the manner in which a theory or datum was historically discovered, and the context of justification, or the manner in which that theory or datum is justified by reference to all the available evidence on hand—and say that the convoluted, fortuitous, and often idiosyncratic process by which a discovery or concept enters science does not matter. There is some truth to this. But a term like energy cannot be justified in a bare environment, but only within a network or horizon of other historically given concepts (force, work, heat, etc.) and technologies (steam engines, instruments to measure temperature, etc.). These phenomena lead us to interpret other things in their light, changing our view of world and its findings, structures, and laws, leading us to project them as elements of the world—past, present, and future. This does not make scientific concepts arbitrary, an artifact of language or culture, but nor does it legitimate us thinking that these concepts refer to things apart from time and history.
The various interpretations of the question arise because the formulation of concepts such as energy is indebted both to a set of purely theoretical considerations and to a practical, technologically shaped world. This latter world is constantly changing, giving rise to new kinds of phenomena to be explained and related to phenomena that already appear. The network of theory and technologically shaped world forms a horizon in which scientific claims can be tested and be judged true or false.
If one emphasizes the values which permeate the horizon at the expense of the theoretical considerations, and the dependence on them that the invariance that phenomena such as energy show—if one emphasizes let us say the role of the development of steam and heat engines, the social and economic interest in creating more efficient types of such engines, and so forth; and if one emphasizes that a concept such as energy could not have emerged without such interests—it promotes a position such as Latour’s.
On the other hand, if one emphasizes the theoretical considerations at the expense of the practical and technologically rich horizon thanks to which phenomena such as energy can show themselves as being invariant in myriad guises—if one emphasizes let us say the tightness and interdependence of the connection between concepts such as energy, power, work, and so forth—it promotes the view that science represents an ahistorical reality apart from a worldly context. But because the horizon is relatively stable, we tend to forget that it, too, can change, and that we justify things only in it.
So was there energy before 1800? If this means an abstractly defined concept of a quantity conserved in closed systems and related in precise quantitative ways to other concepts like power and work, no; if this means this is how we currently understand the world and its phenomena, yes. The history of the term energy is an episode in the history of science that helps to reveal the complexities of the history of science.
The scientific tradition as it has developed up to the present has shaped the contemporary notion of energy such that everything is a modality of energy. In cosmology, for instance, starting with radiant energy, some radiant energy becomes particles (thus mass energy), some particles become atoms, which in turn become molecules and condensed matter, and so forth. Energy is, as it were, the dynamic existential materia prima of the universe. This has both a theory side that gives to the present an illusion of wild nature that exceeds all representations and is beyond human creation, and a practical, representable, and controllable side that gives to the present an illusion of being merely socially constructed.
Conservation of Energy Concept, History of • Early Industrial World, Energy Flow in • Economic Thought, History of Energy in • Forms and Measurement of Energy • Geographic Thought, History of Energy in • Thermodynamic Sciences, History of • Work, Power, and Energy.
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