Bohr, Quantum Mechanics and German philosophy

Participation by invitation only

Quantum mechanics, according to Bohr, provides "an epistemological lesson with bearing on problems far beyond the domain of physical science" ("The Unity of Knowledge", 1954, in Philosophical Papers, v.II, pp. 68-69). Many, perhaps most, readers of Bohr regard this statement, or similar remarks, as implicitly referring to Bohr's various discussions attempting to extend the doctrine of "complementarity" to diverse fields of inquiry. In fact, the intent of Bohr's statement is far broader, for the aforementioned "epistemological lesson" concerns quantum theory's (in particular, "the quantum postulate symbolized by Planck's quantum of action") displacement of a fundamentally fixed distinction between subject and object presumed, since Descartes, in classical representationalist (and so, realist) accounts of knowledge. Such accounts might be deemed adequate or unproblematic in classical physics and everyday knowledge but, due to the quantum postulate, fail in the quantum domain. Complementarity appears as but a corollary of a more expansive argument for the sufficiency of non-representationalist epistemology tout court. 

Not a trained philosopher but a philosopher nonetheless, Bohr never fully articulated the complete argument yet the abbreviate versions scattered across his philosophical writings reveal profound analogies to non-representationalist epistemologies of a 'transcendental' neo-Kantian and phenomenological character. Unlike the more widely familiar non-representationalist epistemologies of instrumentalism or pragmatism, these seek to show how intersubjective objectivity (i.e., pertaining to common 'objects of knowledge') is constituted from within material practice, instrumentation, and ideational structures, the details of which must meet a criterion of unambiguous communication within a community of cognizing agents. Furthermore, such a transcendental, non-representational reading of Bohr is by no means an ex post facto attribution but rather strongly suggested by several passages in Bohr’s own writings. In drawing out these hitherto understudied motives, the workshop will also seek to contextualize Bohr’s thinking with the two most sustained historical attempts to use a widely phenomenological framework for the interpretation of contemporary physics: Hermann Weyl’s explicitly Husserlian understanding of General Relativity Theory which lead to the discovery of the gauge principle, and Fritz London’s and Edmond Bauer’s phenomenological solution of the measurement problem in quantum mechanics.

This workshop will draw out the 'transcendental' threads of Bohr's argument and seek to show where, and how, the argument requires further articulation or amendment.


Dan Zahavi: Introduction


Thomas Ryckman (Stanford University): “Bohr on Subject and Object: Neo-Kantian and Phenomenological Perspectives”


Per Hedegård (University of Copenhagen): “The Copenhagen interpretation: The perspective of a practicing physicist”


Lunch Break


 Steven French (University of Leeds): ”Complementarity and the Lifeworld: Comparing Bohr and Husserl on Quantum Mechanics” 


Philipp Berghofer (University of Graz): ”The Role of the Scientist in Science: From Bohr to Qbism”


Coffee Break


Harald A. Wiltsche (Linköping University): ”How Transcendental is Bohr’s Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics?”