The Philology of the Physicists. Textual Knowledge and Practices within the Academic Culture of Quantum Physics

In their writings—both published and unpublished—the German-speaking founding fathers of quantum theory frequently reverted to their philological knowledge. The project suggests that the much-vaunted philological training, which the physicists had undergone in the course of their humanistic education, affected their working techniques and methods of creating knowledge. Neither the history of philology nor the history of science has so far systematically investigated this phenomenon. The project’s aim is to historically explore the interrelations between physics and philology on the epochal threshold around 1900 under the methodological umbrella of literary and cultural studies.

The project starts with the analysis of documents from German speaking modern atomic physicists. It will not only consider cultural dispositions, but also pay particular attention to media-technological, material, and infrastructural prerequisites for the knowledge production of that time. Building on text- and material-related case studies, the project aims to explore those contact zones and spheres of knowledge that enabled a profound exchange between physics and philology during the first half of the 20th century. Additionally, the research group addresses the circulation and productive transformations of epistemic practices which were used in theoretical physics and philology in dealing with uncertain, fragmentary, yet continuously expanding bodies of knowledge. To what extent were the techniques of reading, interpreting, translating, and generating “texts,” as practiced in the philological and physical seminars of the time, compatible with one another? Under what conditions did philology function as a knowledge model in modern physics? Or is it rather the simultaneous emergence of comparable practices in comparably organized epistemic spaces and situations?

By answering questions such as these, the project highlights the exposed position of philology in the production of knowledge beyond disciplinary boundaries. Investigating philological and physical practices and cultural techniques in their historical setting between 1875 and 1950, it furthermore contributes to the cultural history of intellectual practices and sets new impulses for current literary debates, which have announced not only the “end of philology,” but also its “return” and its “future,” its “promises” and its “power.”


Fig. above: © Martin Gronau

Volkswagen Foundation “Freigeist” Fellowship 2023–2028
Head researcher(s): Magdalena Gronau
Associate Researcher(s): Martin Gronau


Information event
07 May 2024 · 5.30 pm

Der “Fall” Schrödinger. Zur Aufklärung der Missbrauchsvorwürfe

Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung, Eberhard-Lämmert-Saal, entrance Meierottostr. 8, 10719 Berlin

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