Figures of Thought:

A Literary Appreciation of Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism

by Thomas K. Simpson

6" x 9", 190 pages, bibliography and index.
Publication Date: February 2006
For pricing and ordering information, see the ordering section below.

Figures of Thought cover Thomas K. Simpson examines Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism with the tools of literary criticism, exploring questions of meaning, structure, and style. Maxwell was very concerned with the relation of meaning to form of presentation, as Simpson brought out in his guide to three Maxwell papers, Maxwell on the Electromagnetic Field: A Guided Study, published by Rutgers University Press. Figures of Thought is the definitive argument against Hertz's claim that "Maxwell's theory is Maxwell's system of equations."

This exciting new book carries out a project seldom undertaken in our time, that of recognizing a classic of mathematical physics as a work of literature.

James Clerk Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873) established the scope and the shape of classical electromagnetic science—from field theory (epitomized in “Maxwell’s equations”) to the electromagnetic theory of light. Maxwell, however, wrote as a natural philosopher, with purposes reaching far beyond the equations of electromagnetism. We get closer to Maxwell’s underlying thought when we read the Treatise with an eye to its literary form and to what Simpson identifies as Maxwell’s rhetoric of mathematical physics.


  • Examines a classic of mathematical physics as a work of literature.
  • Explores questions of meaning, structure, and style.


Simpson perceives Maxwell as driven by a purpose, which is to render the electromagnetic field as a dynamic whole that is everywhere evident, a kind of dramatic presence, in its observable parts. Simpson's account of this is, like Maxwell's own, a work of discovery, not dissection, wonderfully fresh and always happy in the task of interpretation it has set itself, with serious implications for science generally and the natural world it tries to know.

— John Van Doren
Past Executive Editor, The Great Ideas Today

With a sure hand and a discerning eye, Simpson reveals the interpretive and transformative functions of Maxwell’s principal theorems and several of his fundamental experiments. He reviews the literary tropes Maxwell employs and delineates the poetic whole to whose shaping those devices contribute. Thomas Simpson has written an original and challenging study of Maxwell’s Treatise, deftly showing how an appreciation of Maxwell’s literary strategy reinforces the reader’s understanding of his conception of electricity and magnetism. Simpson evinces the unity and clarity of Maxwell’s vision, and convinces the reader of his higher purpose. Simpson’s evocation of the 'poetics of the indirect way' will be read with profit by scientists, historians, philosophers, and the lay reader.

— Robert H. Kargon
Willis K. Shepard Professor of the History of Science,
Johns Hopkins University

Isis Book Review

Modern (Nineteenth Century to 1950)

Thomas K. Simpson. Figures of Thought: A Literary Appreciation of Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. xix + 169 pp., figs., bibl., index. Santa Fe, N.M.: Green Lion Press, 2006. $17.95 (paper).

Here, at last, is an answer to those who think mathematical physics has nothing to do with poetics. Although Thomas K. Simpson's Figures of Thought is modestly billed as an "appreciation" of James Clerk Maxwell's monumental Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873), it is really a tour-de-force reading, one that lavishes on the Treatise the sort of scrupulous formal attention usually reserved for the masterpieces of Western literature. Simpson thinks Maxwell's Treatise, in fact, is literature—and he wants you to see it that way too. A trained classicist as well as a physicist, Simpson looks closely at ten chapters of book 4 of the Treatise, showing how Maxwell introduced rhetorical figures and tropes to articulate and formalize his intuitions about the electromagnetic field. Simpson's presentation of the relevant rhetorical, poetic, mathematical, and physical concepts is clear and graceful. ...

Historians looking for a novel approach to Maxwell, or to mathematical physics in general, will find much that is provocative and interesting here; those interested in the rhetoric of science may be surprised to discover just how rhetorical the mathematical sciences can be. In its attention to the nuances of Maxwell's thought, Simpson's book recalls Jed Z. Buchwald's From Maxwell to Microphysics (Chicago, 1985) and Daniel Siegel's Innovation in Maxwell's Electromagnetic Theory (Cambridge, 1991). But while Buchwald and Siegel restrict their studies to Maxwell's physics, Simpson wants to show how Maxwell's Treatise is, in its rhetorical complexity, on a par with such touchstones of Western civilization as the Oresteia. Simpson's genius is that, by the end of the book, we believe him.

Diane Greco Josefowicz
Isis, June 2007
(Isis is the journal of the History of Science Society, published by the University of Chicago Press).

Simpson Talks About This Book

This study is based on the hypothesis that a serious work of science is ipso facto a literary work, and that a major scientific statement such as Maxwell's Treatise must be read from a literary, as well as a logical point of view, if its meaning and worth are to be grasped. The present study is, then, in a sense an experiment: to discover whether such an approach will in fact prove rewarding in the case of the Treatise. The study consists of a careful reading of one crucial section of the Treatise, that in which Maxwell unfolds his "dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field" — namely, Chapters I through IX of Part iv. To a very modest extent, it is a literary criticism, in the sense that it is concerned with the kind of question one would ordinarily expect to ask, for example, about a novel: questions of meaning, of structure, and of style. To borrow a term from a tradition which was alive for Maxwell though it is not in our own time, these are questions of "rhetoric," that art which concerns itself with style, the way things are said insofar as this can be distinguished from the abstract content of the argument. In part, the inquiry will help to determine whether mathematical physics has a "rhetoric," and if so, whether attention to the rhetoric will ultimately advance our understanding of the physics. The "rhetoric" which I have in view does not concern mere questions of ornament or persuasiveness — it does not exist as an addition to the scientific statement, but is intrinsic to it, as the very means by which the statement is made. One point of view would have it that in science, the matter alone counts, and that questions of manner are distractions, or at best concern a desirable but quite unnecessary elegance. This is, I think, what Hertz meant when he remarked, in desperation, in his attempt to understand Maxwell's meaning on the subject of electric charge: "Maxwell's theory is Maxwell's system of equations."

I am encouraged in the alternative view both by the traditional concern of scientists for their own methods, and by Maxwell himself, who frequently revealed his preoccupation with questions of form and style. Such questions arise whenever we find that the same thing can be said in more than one way, and that the choice among these ways makes a difference.

About the Author

Thomas K. Simpson photoThomas K. Simpson is Tutor Emeritus at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has taught at the American University at Cairo and is a co-founder of The Key School in Annapolis, Maryland. Educated at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, St. John’s College, Wesleyan University, and the Johns Hopkins University, he has a background in engineering, classics, and history of science.

His wide range of interests include organizing and leading "great books" seminars and interactive experimental displays for science museums, advising and working with secondary schools, and development of a computer program for the manipulation of objects in four-dimensional space.

Simpson's book, Maxwell on the Electromagnetic Field, was published in 1997 by Rutgers University Press. He has also written numerous articles for Britannica's The Great Ideas Today, three of which have been reissued as Newton, Maxwell, Marx: Spirit, Freedom, and the Scientific Vision by Green Lion Press. Green Lion has also published his classic study of Maxwell's Treatise, Maxwell's Mathematical Rhetoric, and his provocative trio of essays, Newton, Maxwell, Marx.

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Sewn softcover, ISBN 978-1-888009-31-6, list price: $17.95

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