Alexander Teixeira Kalkhoff
1 The notion of field in physics
The mutual interaction, i.e. attraction and repulsion, of bodies across space without direct mechanical contact, such as the movement of planets, gravity, magnetism, electricity, or light, posed a theoretical and practical problem for physics until the middle of the nineteenth century (see for what follows about physical fields McMullin 2002). Up until that time, Newtonian mechanics provided generally accepted basic assumptions about the nature of matter and its movement, such as the dualism of matter and acting forces and the static space and absolute time. Movements of physical bodies across space were conceived as mathematical dispositions over the space that could be calculated and observed, but their driving forces were not understood.
Between 1839 and 1855, Michael Faraday published his three volumes on Experimental Researches in Electricity, in which Faraday introduces the notion of field for the first time. Only a few years later, in 1865, James Clerk Maxwell published A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, in which he unified the theories of electricity and magnetism to electromagnetism. At the latest by this point, the notion of field was introduced into modern physics with wide-reaching consequences that led to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. A physical field is defined as an area of influence of forces. That means that a field is a function of the acting forces, and these forces or energy are equivalent to matter (see Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2). The former Newtonian dualism of matter and force was suspended.
A new concept appears in physics, the most important invention since Newton’s time: the field. It needed great scientific imagination to realize that it is not the charges nor the particles but the field in the space between the charges and particles which is essential for the description of physical phenomena. The field concept proves most successful and leads to the formulation of Maxwell’s equations describing the structure of the electromagnetic field and governing the electric as well as the optical phenomena. The theory of relativity arises from the field problems.
(Einstein & Infeld 1938: 258s.)
In 1905, Albert Einstein published Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper and in 1916 Die Grundlagen der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie, in which he formulates the axioms of the special and general theories of relativity. The quintessence of Einsteinian relativity is that all laws of nature are the same regardless of whether the observer moves or not. Hence, Einstein’s theory of relativity completely relativized the reference system of a four-dimensional space-time and postulates the invariance of the speed of light and all other natural laws therein. As a consequence, we can never identify the observer’s absolute movement and there is no static space nor absolute time.
2 The notion of field in linguistics and psychology
Hence, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were two seminal concepts in modern physics, the notion of field and the notion of relativity. Interestingly, only shortly after that, in the 1920s and 1930s, psychological and linguistic theories appeared in Germany and the U.S. using field-like and relativity-like metaphors: e.g., gestalt theory’s explicit linking to physical field theory (Köhler 1920), Leo Weisgerber’s inhaltsbezogene Grammatik (‘content-related grammar’) and inter-world view (Weisgerber 1924), Edward Sapir’s relational phonological theory (Sapir 1925), Jost Trier’s Wortfeldtheorie (‘lexical field theory’) (Trier 1931), Karl Bühler’s Zeigfeld (‘deixis’) and Symbolfeld (‘symbolic field’) (Bühler 1934) and his word gestalt-based phonology (Bühler 1931 and 1934), Kurt Lewin’s field theory of personality and vector psychology (Lewin 1931, 1935, and 1963), and, much more loosely, the concept of linguistic relativity, also called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Whorf 1956). They all appeared as innovative approaches to a mainstream science mainly characterized by positivism in the context of holism, gestalt theory, psychology of perception, new idealisms, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s idea of innere Sprachform (‘inner speech-form’), philosophical phenomenology, psychophysics, and modern physics (Meyer-Abich 1989; Teixeira Kalkhoff in press), emphasizing dynamical aspects of linguistic meaning, understanding, and personality resulting from acting field forces and sensitive to the context and environment in which they appear. Read more ›