In the book "Scientific Babel" by Michael D. Gordon, Wilhelm Ostwald is quoted as saying

Interessen immer weiter von der Chemie fortwandern. Internationalismus, Pacifismus und kulturelle Energetik sind jetzt meine Probleme.

which the author has translated as

[my] interests have moved ever further away from chemistry. Internationalism, pacifism, and cultural energetics are my problem now.

However, searching for the English phrase "cultural energetics" doesn't get many hits, suggesting the author just did a word for word translation of the phrase without understanding what it meant, especially since the author didn't provide a definition for the phrase.

I tried searching for "kulturelle Energetik" in Wiktionary but couldn't find anything (it's possible I don't know how to search a German dictionary for words, though). What does the phrase mean?

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    "Energetik" is a philosophical concept coined by Ostwald and apparently is in turn based on monism. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no clue about philosophy, but I am sure you can read up on it on the internet. :) Dec 30, 2016 at 8:22
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    According to Wikipedia article about Energetik, the term disappeared after WWI, and has just recently been taken up again. (Whatever 'recently' exactly means). So, I wouldn't be surprised if there's not much in English about this topic. — As of the translation, I don't think there's an official translation, but the one given in that book is probably fine.
    – Em1
    Dec 30, 2016 at 8:29
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    It's a well-known criticism against philosophers that they hide in a coppice of unorthodox and vaguely defined terms and –from time to time– let some well-defined word flash up in the mud to make the puzzled reader proud as he has understood something in such a "deep" text. You can sell many stupid books that way.
    – Janka
    Dec 30, 2016 at 9:15
  • Never heard of such a concept, especially in conjunction with cultural it sounds rather like a mystic philosophers idea (like Rudolf Steiner). It is also hard to say without more context, when lived Ostwald and what was the reason saying this?
    – Thomas
    Dec 30, 2016 at 9:59
  • Ostwalds Wikipedia contains some background information. In the beginning of 20 century Philosophers often asked themselves to adapt materialism terms and concepts like energy and matter to cultural/social of mankind.
    – Thomas
    Dec 30, 2016 at 10:08

2 Answers 2


Wilhelm Ostwals was a scentist of the end of the 19th century, who adapted scientific (which here means physical and chemical) terms and knowledge to other fields like philosophy, economy and sociology. One of these terms was Energie (energy), whose properties and laws he not only adapted to other physical terms, such as Materie (matter) (which was only publicised by Einstein's theory of relativity much later) but also to non-physical terms such als philosophical Materialismus (materialism). He went even further and tried to find energies in other fields and adapt the properties and laws of energy into these fields. Among these was also Kultur (culture). He understood Kultur as coefficients determining how economically efficient energy was used.

For example: a stone age painter put a lot of effort (energy) into the painting of a hunter hunting a buffalo onto a rock surface in a cave. But because the stone age cultural level was low, this energy was used inefficiently, because only few people came to the cave, couldn't see well in the darkness there and even then could only see a rather monochrome painting with wrong proportions.)

Now back to your question: Energetik is the study of energy and its transformations. Kulturelle Energetik is study of energy and its transformations regarding the influence of culture (as described above regarding Ostwald's concept of energy).

So, the translation my Michael D. Gordon seems to be pretty accurate.


Kulturelle Energetik is certainly not a run of the mill group of words.

Using the definitions below the answer would be:

"Gehalt an oder das Auftreten von Energie in Kultur(en)."

Just some background on culture. Essentially culture is a bunch of interrelated memes.

Memes are self-replicating and give the carrier of a meme some advantage or disadvantage.


Brushing your teeth regularly helps in keeping your teeth in shape and prevents potentially deadly mouth infections. --> Result you have more energy, because you can better eat food and don't have to combat potentially deadly mouth infections.

Energetik is defined as:

der Gehalt an oder das Auftreten von Energie (1) Gebrauch besonders Musik

Beispiel die intensive Energetik ihres Spiels beeindruckte das Publikum

Kulturell is defined as:

die Kultur (1) betreffend

  • You misinterpret the meaning of Energetik as Ostwald uses it.
    – Toscho
    Jul 5, 2017 at 20:02

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