May 27, 2011

Divagation on "Energy"

Wikipedia quotes Feynman:

There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law—it is exact so far as we know. The law is called the conservation of energy. It states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same.
—The Feynman Lectures on Physics

“Energy,” you might say, is the most boring of all things, in physics at least: it is the name of a quantity, and what's more, the name of a quantity that doesn't even change. There is nothing qualitative or concrete about it: it is, as Feynman says, inexorably mathematical and abstract.

It's a made-up word of pseudo-Greek origin, and I should admit that I have a prejudice against such words. There was a respectable reason for importing Latin scientific terminology into English. Latin was, for many centuries, the common learned language of the Western world. If you were going to learn just one foreign language, Latin was what you learned, and if you were going to write about something of international significance, you wrote in Latin and used Latin terms. The Polish Copernicus, The Italian Galileo, and the English Newton all wrote their books in Latin – and could all have read each other's writing with ease. The loss of this common language is one of the great intellectual disasters of our time. But that's all by the way. My point is, there was a good reason to use Latin terms: everybody who was interested in science knew what they meant, and they meant the same thing from Cracow to Pisa to Cambridge. But there's only ever been one reason to import Greek terms in the post-classical West, and that's to show off. You use Latin if you want to be understood: you use Greek if you want to impress. And often to people who actually know Greek, it's not very impressive: the Greek words get hauled into ludicrously wrong contexts, get fitted up with Latin plurals, and generally look, to someone with linguistic sensitivities, like wizards trying to dress as muggles.

One of them was a very old wizard who was wearing a long flowery nightgown. The other was clearly a Ministry wizard; he was holding out a pair of pinstriped trousers and almost crying with exasperation.

"Just put them on, Archie, there's a good chap. You can't walk around like that, the Muggle at the gate's already getting suspicious-"

"I bought this in a Muggle shop," said the old wizard stubbornly. "Muggles wear them."

"Muggle women wear them, Archie, not the men, they wear these," said the Ministry wizard, and he brandished the pinstriped trousers.

"I'm not putting them on," said old Archie in indignation. "I like a healthy breeze 'round my privates, thanks."
-- J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Well, somebody around the beginning of the 19th Century dug ἐνέργεια out of a Greek dictionary, much as Archie dug his nightgown out of a muggle shop, and we all need to pretend that it's a real word now: not because anyone is very sure what it means, but precisely because they're not. It's all very highfalutin and authoritative, but as Feynman, with his gift for isolating essentials, pointed out – it's a name for the strange fact that you can run certain calculations over at the conclusion of a change and get the same answer you got before it. It's not a description of change, or of the operations of cause and effect, or of force: in fact it's very nearly the opposite, and its co-option into English to mean things such as “vigor” or “transfer of force” is particularly inept.

Of course, that's just the way language goes: there's no use in objecting to the process, and I wouldn't even if there was. I'm just explaining my visceral response to the word: it strikes me, before we even get to bodywork, as bogus and posturing.

Don't get me wrong. It is a real word, thought not a common one, in classical Greek: it means something like "action" or "operation." But in the New Testament, where our English borrower no doubt found it, it is, as Strong says, "used only of superhuman power, whether of God or of the Devil." In other words, the English word "energy" has been trying to have it both ways ever since it was born: parading as a technical term, but deriving its energy (so to speak) from being associated with superhuman powers.


  1. It has utility for mystifying too, right? If "Dark Forces" is an example of juvenile mysticism, then what should we make of a term like "Dark Energy"?

    Or how about the phenomena of panprotopsychism in new age practices and beliefs?


  2. If we take a concept, reduce it to a term, then utter that term as a substitute, it becomes a replacement token that we exchange back and forth. And since we have substituted the token for actually thinking the thought, then what we easily slip into is utterances without cognition. I return to the image of the rich auditory texture of a forest. Maybe the Greek terms are (like my monstrosity above) the mating calls of the intellectual frog princes seeking to impress. We here the frequency of utterances, their pattern, and we are have an awareness of the presence of a crystal worshiper, a Limbaugh devotee, a Jungian, a Calvinist. Seldom do people really know or care about the etymology of the words or- and this continually surprises me- even the structure of the thoughts that the matrix of terms are meant to reflect. It is surprising speaking to Mormons how little of the Mormon doctrine they actually understand. Or how little of Steiner that a Waldorf teacher understands. But they have the lingo. Or... we have the utterances. And we are adept at picking up on and mimicing the signals.

    On one hand it makes me sad but the image of forest soundscapes seems wonderful- not a tool for denigrating the unthinking. Is seems like a way of understanding how our consciousness emerged and emerges from observation of the music of regular patterns.

    Rats- another rushed comment. Well- I must rush off with the family. Regards-

  3. :-) Yes, many terms of this ilk serve mostly as tribal markers, bumper-stickers. We both read Owen Barfield at a tender age, didn't we? I'm still grateful to him for the etymological method of thinking.

  4. There are varying views about the shifting meanings of terms over time, and Barfield's idea was interesting- that their study indicates something about the evolution of consciousness and culture. When Aristotle coined the term, he meant the active exercise of a capacity, such as that for sight or thought, as distinct from the mere possession of the capacity. This is to be applied not just any activity, but only those that are fully actual in the sense that they contain their own end and thus are fully complete at each moment of their existence. One example he gives is seeing. So anyway the idea takes on huge ontological dimensions as a kind of Being united with Becoming, which springs out of many religious views, but I always thought Tao Te Ching was kindest to it. So the semantic drift flows from that through Christian writers of the New Testament who see a clear connection with Yaweh's I AM THAT I AM "Energy" (Aristotle sense). St. Augustine makes the connection to Aristotle's Prime Mover explicit, and after several centuries there is the sense of a static potential that the one introduced into English. In physics, nature has become a machine, and the energy is the prime mover or god within the machine.

    Ironically, after the understanding in modern physics that matter is energy, the ancient ontological sense can be reunited. In a sense, Tao never changes but is never static. The ten thousand things arise and change and flow one into the other. It is close to that medieval idea that Coleridge was always fond of: nature naturing.

    Some folks go off the rail at this point into the occult- and maybe that is what was objected to by the former Reiki practitioner you quoted on facebook. It is certainly where I part company with Mr. Barfield. I am ok with the idea that this sort of thing can have great power in one's perceived phenomenal world because the mind will adjust the bodies physiology according to its perception of the world. If the patient was not conscious of the activities of the Reiki master, or their mind did not view the master's activities properly, there would be no "occult" healing effect.

    To be fair to Barfield, if I told him, but your Steiner occult woo woo stuff does not rearrange atoms (the things in themselves), he would say sure, but by definition we don't know anything about that, so since everything is phenomenal, then it is a more effective world view to have one that includes an occult Mind over Matter aspect. My objections are muted if a person has this rationale always in the forefront. It so quickly fades from view though.