Kant and the Art of BMW Maintenance: From German Idealism to German Engineering.

Employees on a car assembly line in Wolfsburg, Germany

Introduction

Today, when we think of modern Germany we may find that images of high-quality engineering come to mind; beautiful, high-performance vehicles such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, or exquisitely machined hand tools like Bosch and Stihl. This seemingly highly instrumental turn of events, however, seems at odds with the vision of the 18th century German Idealists, who exalted poetry, art, philosophy and the life of the mind.

Drawing on Peter Watson’s The German Genius, this short paper will argue that far from representing the abandonment of their ideals, the careful and artisanal craftwork of today’s German engineering instead reveals the aufheben* (preservation) of the artistic ideals of Kant, Schelling, Hegel and the other German Idealists into the modern age.

From Idealism to Engineering

The thread from idealism to engineering begins with Kant’s attempt to discern the categories of understanding in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). This attempt at categorisation would eventually inspire the emergence of Wissenshaftideologie — the development of independent thought in pursuit of a rigorous understanding of experience — associated with Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s University of Berlin founded in 1809. Wissenshaftideologie then became fused with the concept of Bildung — the inner striving towards ever greater mental and spiritual perfection — resulting in the emergence of an ever more perfect classification of research terms (Watson, 2010, p.229).

Years later, this urge towards the precise categorisation of natural phenomenon would lead to the scholarly pursuit of a fundamental link connecting all nature (ibid, p.342). As Thomas Kuhn was to point out, in this search the scholarly community emerging in the wake of Von Humboldt’s University ideal had been influenced by the Idealist Naturphilosophen, such as Schelling, and their belief, following Kant in his Critique of Judgement, that the natural world was a fusion of teleology and aesthetics (ibid, p.201). Schelling, for example, believed that magnetism, electricity, chemistry and biology all shared one vital root (ibid p.342). However, instead of the dry, technical descriptions and diagrams of the natural world we may by familiar with in modern textbooks, the Romantic Naturphilosophen would not only attempt to categorise animals and creatures according to their telos — their purpose in nature — but would also beautifully illustrate these creatures engaged in one of their natural behaviours in order to emphasise their existence as living beings (ibid, p.201).

Out of this quest for a theory of everything, several different researchers began to converge on the concept of “energy”. One of the contributors to this research was a Julius Robert von Mayer, a Wurttemberg born ship’s physician in the Dutch East Indies. He noticed that the blood of the sailors he was caring for was more red than usual and he surmised that this was due to their bodies requiring less oxygen to maintain their body temperature due to the tropical heat they were working in (ibid, p.342). Mayer’s observation seemed to concur with the pioneering organic chemist Justus von Liebig’s own observations that the chemical “force” (as they put it) present in the food an animal consumes is balanced by the amount of heat it gives off while performing activities: an early formulation of what the noted physicist Rudolf Clausius would later develop into what we today call the First Law of Thermodynamics, i.e. the notion that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed from one form to another. Liebig published von Mayer’s findings in his influential journal the Annelen der Chemie and Pharmacie in 1842. Tellingly, Liebig had earlier studied with Schelling for two years (ibid, p.342).

From Physis to Physics

Yet, there were those who wished to probe deeper still. In the late eighteenth century “physics” referred to the whole of what we would now call the natural sciences (ibid, p.341). However, by the middle of the 1800s physics had emerged as a distinctive science which sought to uncover the mathematical substrate behind all reality (ibid, p.342), although perhaps in this attempt to uncover nature’s wonder we see an unintended prefiguration of Hiedegger’s lament that modern science and technology strip nature of its “physis”; its ability “to hide herself”.

Nevertheless, the pages of the influential journal Annalen der Physik would lead to the explosion of German physics through the work of Rudolf Clausius and his aforementioned articulation of what is now known as the First Law of Thermodynamics (1850), and the independently published Herman von Helmholtz and his mathematical formulation categorising light, heat, magnetism and electricity as different forms of “energy” (1847) (ibid, pp.344–347). These theories in turn contributed to the developing techniques of metallurgy and chemistry in the nascent Germany, which would eventually give rise to Karl Benz and Rudolf Diesel’s engines (in 1886 and 1893 respectively) and ultimately the birth of the modern automobile industry (ibid, pp.376, 378).

Beautiful because Useful

But didn’t all modern nations go through a similar process of industrialisation, what marks out the German experience as any different? And how can the instrumentality of mechanics possibly relate to German Idealism? Perhaps an answer can be found in the aforementioned Bildung, that inner striving towards perfection, where the fusing of the teleological and the aesthetic in tools and vehicles that are beautiful because they are so functional is an aufheben that preserves something of the thinking of German Idealism in manufactured objects. In this way, perhaps by standing Kant on his head, as Marx might say, we see the German Idealism of the 18th century preserved in the German engineering of the 21st.

*A Hegelian term denoting a synthesis between opposing concepts that nonetheless preserves something of the original concepts within it — (Bykova, 2020, p.252)

Bykova, M.F. (ed.) (2020) The German Idealism Reader. Bloomsbury: London.

Watson, P. (2010) The German Genius. Simon and Schuster: London.