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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hegel and heat engines

Just before I started writing up some local place names research, I had been reading a history of thermodynamics from Watt to Clausius. As I was reading it I made mental cross-references to a book which covered the same period of history - Philosophy and Revolution from Kant to Marx.

In the first book, the dynamic interplay was between British engineers and French scientists (although Rudolph Clausius was German) and the second between German and French philosophers. Cutting across both was the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Hegel is in the second book but not the first.

One theme from the first book is that before the theories of thermodynamics could be established, older theories on the nature of heat and of mechanical systems (including Newton’s) had to be worked through and overcome. It was a messy process, full of confusion and error. To begin with, theory followed practice as more and more ‘efficient’ steam engines were built but eventually theory caught up and led to the replacement of steam engines with the first internal combustion engines.

With second, the practice which drove the (philosophical) theory was the French Revolution and the outcome was Hegel’s equivalent of the heat engine - the flow of reason through society. But then the analogy breaks down since Karl Marx’s equivalent of the internal combustion engine has yet to be turned into a working model...

The problem was that the instabilities and contradictions of nineteenth century society have so far been sustained by ever increasing inputs of energy from fossil fuels. It is as if rather than try and improve the thermodynamic efficiency (as it later turned out he was doing) of Newcomen’s atmospheric heat engine, James Watt found a way to make cheap oil from Scottish shale to run it on. [There was a Scottish shale oil industry based at Broxburn near Edinburgh in later nineteenth century.]

This has allowed the ‘capture’ of human societies by the irrationality of industrial capitalist development. So long as the flow of fossilised energy can be maintained, the evolution of reason can be denied/thwarted. Thus the movement towards social self-consciousness, towards the actualisation of rationality; has been thwarted and so Hegel has become a footnote to history.

At the same time, and reading the history of thermodynamics book (written 40 years ago), the physical consequences of using fossilised energy to maintain an unstable system have moved from the social to the global. The gradual accumulation of carbon dioxide is altering the thermodynamics of the earth’s climate. This is an extra-ordinary development. It confounds the separation of the ‘natural’ from the ‘social’, or rather reverses the direction of the assumed motion of development from the natural to the social. The notion of industrial society is that technological and scientific progress through rationality has created a culture which is distinct and independent from nature. It is the image of a heat engine in which only the expansive part of the cycle exists.

But heat engines require a temperature difference to function. Once the heat difference is lost, no work can be done. The machine stops. Culture ends and we are returned to a state of nature, but, due to the period of irrationality which has prevailed until now, the state of nature which we return to is not that from which we began. It is a more unstable and chaotic state of nature, one probably inimicable to rational society.

Did Hegel get it wrong then? Not necessarily. He drew his conclusions from a world only just beginning its irrational turn towards fossilised energy. Therefore a society based around non-fossilised sources of energy could become actual - so long as it is rational.


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