From Energeia to Energy: Plotinus and the formation of the concept of energy


Energy belongs to these ubiquitous but, at the same time, highly elusive concepts of modern physics which, on the one hand, look indispensable for our understanding of the nature and the function of our universe and, on the other, seem to defy any attempt to come up with a precise definition of them. Richard Feynman, one of the most prominent modern authorities on the subject, famously described this situation in a lecture given not so many years ago with the words: 'It is important to realize that in physics today we have no knowledge what energy is.'2 Nonetheless, there is a common perception nowadays that tends to regard it as 'the ability of a physical system to do work on other physical systems',3 that is, to put it in Aristotelian terms, as the exercise of the ability of a substance to impart change to another substance.4 The term itself was apparently introduced to modern thinking nearly two centuries ago by Thomas Young, but its origin undoubtedly goes back at least to Aristotle who seems to have been the one who coined the word energeia by combining the preposition en, meaning 'in', with the common noun ergon meaning 'work'.


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