Ludwig Boltzmann: on nature

We are please to share here this post in regard to a book on Boltzmann’s philosophical writings, gifted to us not so long ago, curated by the great intellectual Prof. F. Ordoñez (UAM). The following quote, repeated quite often by Boltzmann in his conferences, touched us profoundly:

“Señoras y señores, es mi tarea en el presente curso de conferencias ofrecerles a ustedes muchas cosas; intricados teoremas, conceptos ultrarefinados y complicadas pruebas. Perdónenme si hasta ahora no les he ofrecido algo de esto. Todavía no he definido, como habría sido conveniente, el concepto de mi ciencia, esto es, la física teórica, ni he desarrollado el plan según el cual intento tratar esta materia en estas conferencias. Hoy no quise presentar todo esto a ustedes; creo que más tarde, en el transcurso de nuestro trabajo, podremos aclarar mejor estas cosas. Hoy simplemente quise presentar algo más sencillo, aunque para mí esto resulta ser todo lo que tengo, es decir, yo mismo y toda mi forma de pensar y sentir.

Del mismo modo, durante estas conferencias tendré que pedirles muchas cosas: atención concentrada, incesante diligencia y trabajo incansable. Perdónenme, por lo tanto, si antes de embarcarme en uno de estos temas les pido a cambio algo que es lo más importante para mí, es decir, su confianza, afecto y amor; en una palabra, lo más precioso que pueden dar, es decir, ustedes mismos.”

Ludwig Boltzmann, "Una conferencia inaugural de la naturaleza", 1903. 
In: Boltzmann, L., Escritos de mecánica y termodinámica, Alianza Editorial, 
traducción e introducción por Francisco J. Odón Ordoñez.


To understand who was Ludwig Boltzmann, it is useful to note two descriptions reported at the beginning of Broda’s famous book, Ludwig Boltzmann: Man, Physicist, Philosopher. (i) In J. Bronowski’s electric view of human thought The Ascent of Man, Ludwig Boltzmann is praised in the following words: “And yet one man, at the critical turn of the century, stood up for the reality of atoms on fundamental grounds of theory. He was Ludwig Boltzmann, at whose memorial I pay homage. Boltzmann was irascible, extraordinary, difficult man, an early follower of Darwin, quarrelsome and delightful, and everything that a human being should be.” (ii) Paul Feyerabend notes in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In his realization of the hypothetical character of all our knowledge, Boltzmann was far ahead of his time and perhaps even our time.

Born in Vienna on February 20, 1844. Earned his physics PhD degree in 1866 at the University of Vienna.


Known as both a physicist and philosopher, Ludwig Boltzmann is best known for his contributions to atomistic theories and the development of statistical mechanics. Although he did not consider himself a philosopher and was critical of philosophy as a science, late in his career he did contribute to the realm of philosophy within natural science and even lectured in some philosophy classes at the University of Vienna. He received his doctorate in 1866 and in 1869 was appointed to the chair of theoretical physics at the University of Graz. His restlessness and impassioned temperament led him to move many times throughout his career. He went to the University of Vienna in 1873 as the chair of mathematics, but would return to Graz in 1876 to marry Henriette von Aigentler, a woman he had met during his first service in 1869. His position in Graz came only after a highly controversial contest between himself and Ernst Mach. After successfully gaining the position he stayed a number of years before taking the position of Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Munich in 1890. After only four years though, he returned to Vienna as chair of theoretical physics. It was here that his relationship with Ernst Mach became further strained, as the men had both personal and professional differences that Boltzmann could not handle. He left for Leipzig in 1900, but once again professional rivals would bring him back to Vienna.

As an avid atomist, Boltzmann’s fervent belief in his work led him into many heated debates with his colleagues. In Leipzig, Boltzmann had many passionate arguments with fellow professor Wilhelm Ostweld, an energist. Although Boltzmann was able to successfully defend his atomistic position, the strain of this rivalry led to his attempted suicide. Therefore, when Mach left his post at Vienna in 1901, Boltzmann was able to return to Vienna with hopes of a less strained tenure. It was at this time that his interest in philosophy began to take form. Boltzmann’s philosophy is difficult to pinpoint or define, due in part to his reluctance to accept philosophy as a legitimate part of his research. While he condemned the works of Hegel and Schopenhauer along with metaphysical ideas, he believed that a dialogue between philosophy and natural science could produce interesting and important achievements. He was particularly interested in the theoretical ideas of both fields. For Boltzmann, theories were a way to simplify and understand basic physical concepts; in this realm one could consider him an objectivist and perhaps also a relativist in his philosophical ideas. Boltzmann’s refutation of universals and belief in particulars is perhaps one reason why it is difficult to reduce his ideas down to one defining point.

Although his interests in philosophy were far reaching, even delving into the function of language; ultimately he was a theoretician and physicist. It was in this aspect of his life that he so vehemently worked. Tragically, though, his failure for immediate success and acceptance by the scientific community took their toll on Boltzmann. His frustrations with his work along with poor health led to his suicide in 1906 while on vacation near Trieste. Unfortunately, this happened before new discoveries were made which would prove his atomistic theories correct. Ludwig Boltzmann remains an important physicist and as more about his philosophical ideas surface, we will be able to better understand his impact on philosophical thought.

– extracted from Christina Weber

Ludwig Boltzmann was greatly demoralized due to the harsh criticism of his work. He committed suicide on September 5, 1906 at Duino, Italy by hanging himself. He was 62 years old.

[selected philosophical oeuvres]

  • Populäre Schriften. Leipzig, J.A. Barth, 1905. (reprinted in 1919 and 1925)
  • Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen. 3 vols. Ed. Fritz Hasenöhrl. Leipzig, J.A. Barth,
    1909. (Collection of Boltzmann’s scientific articles in scientific journals.)
  • Theoretical Physics and Philosophical Problems. Ed. Brian McGuinness. Trans. Paul
    Foulkes. Dordrecht, Reidel Publishing Co., 1974.