Branislav Petronijević

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Branislav Petronijević.

Branislav Petronijević (Serbian Cyrillic: Бранислав Петронијевић; 6 April 1875 – 4 March 1954) was a Serbian philosopher and scientist (paleontologist) who wrote primarily in three languages, Serbian, German and French fluently. Researched abroad and in Serbia, his major work is the two-volume, 1904-1911 Prinzipien der Metaphysik (Principles of Metaphysics), first published in Heidelberg in 1904. He later became a professor at the University of Belgrade. As a scientist, he was the first to distinguish between the genus Archaeopteryx and the genus Archaeornis; he also discovered new characteristics of the genera Tritylodon and Moeritherium. Petronijević's great scientific fame, however, is nearly eclipsed by his still greater philosophical renown, which he owes to his three principal philosophical works, Principi Metafizike (Principles of Metaphysics), O Vrednosti života (About Value of Life), Istorija novije filozofije (History of a Newer Philosophy).


Branislav Petronijević, world-renowned Serbian philosopher and paleontologist, was born in a small village of Sovljak, near Ub, Serbia, on 25 March 1875, the son of a priest, originally from Montenegro. He had as a youth a taste for collecting objects of natural history and other curiosities while a student at a gymnasium (high school) in Valjevo and the Grande école in Belgrade. This led him to the study of medicine, which he went to Vienna to pursue, eventually after the third semester directing his attention to psychiatry, philosophy, biology and paleontology. Petronijević joined the Philosophical Society of the University of Vienna and studied under Ludwig Boltzmann. After years in Vienna he travelled to Germany with a view to further philosophical study. There he studied at the University of Leipzig under Johannes Volkelt, Wilhelm Ostwald, and Ernst Mach. With his metaphysical writings,"Der ontologische Beweis fűr das Dasein des Absoluten", he proved himself a worthy student of Professor Wilhelm Wundt, "the father of experimental psychology," successfully defending his thesis in 1898. From Leipzig he went back to Belgrad, where he wrote and published "Der Satz vom Grunde" in 1898. It was during this period, however, that he thought out and developed what is distinctive in his philosophical doctrine. His eclecticism, his ontology and his philosophy of history were declared in principle and in most of their salient details in the "Prinzipen der Metaphysik" (2 volumes, Heidelberg, 1904–1911) and "Die typischen Geometrien und das Unendliche" (Heidelberg, 1907).

In 1898 he was given the post of privatdozent in the Grande école of Belgrade and seven years later when his alma mater became the University of Belgrade he was appointed associate professor. At the outbreak of World War I he turned to journalism, becoming a war correspondent for the Serbian War Office Press Bureau, induced by Col. Dragutin Dimitrijević, his childhood friend. In 1915 he joined the Serbian army's retreat through Albania (World War I). After reaching Greece, he was sent to London with the Serbian Legation, along with politician Nikola Pašić, geographer Jovan Cvijić, professors Bogdan Popović and his brother Pavle Popović.

We learn more about him in the Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 11:

A man who impressed me, not so much by his ability as by his resolute absorption in philosophy even under the most arduous circumstances, was the only Yugoslav philosopher of our time, whose name was Branislav Petroniević. I met him only once, in the year 1917. The only language we both knew was German and so we had to use it, although it caused people in the streets to look at us with suspicion. The Serbs had recently carried out their heroic retreat before the German invaders, and I was anxious to get a first-hand account of this retreat from him, but he only wanted to expound his doctrine that the number of points in space is finite and can be estimated by considerations derived from the theory of numbers. The consequence of this difference in our interests was a somewhat curious conversation. I said, "Were you in the great retreat?" and he replied, "Yes, but you see the way to calculate the number of points in space is." I said, "Were you on foot?" and he said, "Yes, you see the number must be a prime." I said, "Did you not try to get a horse?" and he said, "I started on a horse, but I fell off, and it should not be difficult to find out what prime." In spite of all my efforts, I could get nothing further from him about anything so trivial as the Great War. I admired his capacity for intellectual detachment from the accidents of his corporeal existence, in which I felt that few ancient Stoics could have rivalled him. After the First War he was employed by the Yugoslav Government to bring out a magnificent edition of the eighteenth-century Yugoslav philosopher Boscovic, but what happened to him after that I do not know.

After the war he left London and went back to his teaching post at the University of Belgrade, where he was appointed extraordinary professor (1919). In 1920, he was elected into the Serbian Royal Academy and at the same time he attracted the notice of other foreign philosophers with whom he had a lively correspondence in both philosophy and science. He wrote numerous papers on philosophy and science in English, French, German, Polish and Serbian learned journals.

We see in "L'Évolution universelle" very distinctly the fusion of the different philosophical influences by which his opinions were finally matured. For Petronijević was an eclectic in thought and habit of mind as he was in philosophical principle and system. It is with the publication of the L'Évolution of 1921 in Paris that the first great widening of his reputation is associated.

Also, he undertook the task to translate Ruđer Bošković's "A Theory of Natural Philosophy" mentioned by Russell. As far as we know, this is the first time that the work was translated from Latin to a modern language (English). It is prefaced by the "Life of Roger Joseph Boscovich," written in English by Branislav Petronijević, and an explanatory introduction by the translator. Bošković's "A Theory of Natural Philosophy" is a work of considerable importance in the history of physical theory and his atomic hypothesis were of particular interest when it was first published in London by Open Court Publishing Company in 1922.

Petronijević retired from the university in 1927. Ksenija Atanasijević was one of his disciples. He stopped working altogether from the time the Axis invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1941) until his death. He was staunch anti-fascist and anti-communist and could not accept the fact that Yugoslavia was dragooned behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps for this reason he was left ignored and forgotten, like most of his post-World War I colleagues who were in sympathy with the Old Order.

His old age was spent in obscure poverty, his friends and associates having fled to the West, killed in the war, or died before him. Petronijević died in a Belgrade hotel on 4 March 1954. He was 79. He never married.


Petronijević was completely devoted to philosophy and science. He spent his life working never accepting any social duties. In essence he espouses the synthetic-deductive philosophy which divides the system of knowledge into three spheres: metaphysical, intermediary and empirical. He considers himself a "born metaphysician" and devotes all his efforts into building of the original system of the spiritualistic objective idealism. In that metaphysical system he introduces the theory of cognition and philosophy of nature. Using this method, he seeks to reconcile the philosophies of Leibnitz and Spinoza. In his self-designated, starting stance of a monopluralist, he connects with the original empirical-rationalist theory of cognition, with his own discrete geometry and philosophy of developing nature. He argues that the universe is evolving from a condition of instability towards one of absolute stability, in which there will be equilibrium in the relation between particular elements or monads and the universal substance which underlies them. This last is the subject of a special division of philosophy, beyond metaphysics, which he calls hypermetaphysics.

Petronijević is a strict finitist in everything. As synthetic philosopher and dialectician he tries to merge primary philosophic doctrines: in gnoseology, empirism and rationalism; in metaphysics, monadology and substantialism; in ontology and methodology, dialectics and metaphysics (in Hegel's sense); science and religion, science and speculation and others. His main philosophic work "Principles of Metaphysics" (I and II) was left undone. He believed, however, that there is a parallel between metaphysics and mathematics. With regard to the method, metaphysics remains physics, and in it lies both their strength and weakness. The motto of the first part of Petronijević's "The Principles of Metaphysics" (published in Heidelberg in 1904) reads: "Exact mathematical notions are a key to the solution of the world's enigma." These metaphysics can be theology as well—these two sciences are related—but they will never be able to give any full answers to the so-called ultimate questions.

Petronijević upheld an ethical theory of transcendental optimism and free will. He devoted a number of studies to aesthetics, particularly in the work of the Serbian poet-prince-bishop Petar II Petrović Njegoš and Leo Tolstoy.

Some 53 original principles, discoveries and innovations were published by him. He considered that the highest level in science he reached in mathematics, especially with his original discrete and finite geometry. Time and space are real forms of the being and the space itself is simultaneous coexistence of real points and the fragments of the being in the time. That geometry mathematicians today consider as unusual, abstruse and not strictly mathematically grounded.[citation needed]

Contributions to science[edit]

In the natural sciences Petronijević published many texts in palaeontology, biology, comparative anatomy, physics, chemistry, astronomy and the history of those sciences. His most significant results he achieved in the research of fossil birds. He discovered a number of details in the Archaeopteryx skeleton on which basis he separated the Berlin example into the new genus Archaeornis. From that fact he made important speculative conclusions about the origin, development, taxonomy and characteristics of the early birds. After the extensive examination of five newly discovered early bird specimens all of his interpretations were abandoned. Only his real discoveries of the Archaeopteryx skeleton parts remained.

These parts were located with the aid of his original method of channelled deep preparation from the depth of the stone plate. The important place in the science remained for his other papers on fossil vertebrates. Petronijević's contributions to the philosophy of natural sciences are notable. Among them there are the explanation of the Dollo's law of irreversibility, the introduction of his own law of non-correlative evolution and detailed explanation of various segments of universal evolution.

With his whole philosophical, philosophically-scientific and scientific activity Petronijević, in the line with earlier empirical and critical metaphisicists, such as Lotze, Herbart, Hartmann, Volkelt, he directly contributed and made possible the formation of modern sphere of cognition which is today known as Metascience.


While Petronijević's fame rests chiefly on his labours in philosophy his palaeological studies and other scientific research are not without value in the history of natural science.

By the power of his analytical and synthetic opinions, by their width and depth, than by the creativity of his intuition and especially by the consequentiality and originality of conceptions, Petronijević achieved the peak of metaphysical thought in our country. Those same qualities enabled significant achievements in science and philosophy of science to him. Because of that Petronijević garnered considerable credit in Europe and the rest of the world, which has made him one of the most important Serbian philosophers and scientists of the first half of the twentieth century. Petronijević was not an experimental physicist, he built his conceptions of the discontinuous nature of space and time logically and mathematically, and on the basis of this concept he produced a new metaphysical system for which he is known today. That is why scholars recommend that modern experimental physicists and mathematicians read the very useful books and articles of Petronijević, in which his new conceptions of time and space are expounded.

According to Miodrag Cekić, it seems that the philosophy of Branislav Petronijević may have influenced Boltzmann's late system of philosophical classification. His theory of multi-dimensions as well as the theory of mathematical discontinuity also seems to have interested both Boltzmann and Mach.


Works by Petronijević in English:

Plus numerous articles on philosophy in British learned periodicals.

Works by Petronijević in German:

  • Der ontologische Beweis für das Dasein des Absoluten. Leipzig, 1897.
  • Der Satz vom Grunde. Belgrade: Staatsdruckerei, 1898.
  • Prinzipien der Erkenntnislehre. Berlin, 1900.
  • Prinzipien der Metaphysik, 2 vols. Heidelberg, 1904–1911.
  • Die typischen Geometrien und das Unendliche. Heidelberg, 1907.
  • L'évolution universelle. Paris, 1921.

Works by Petronijević in French:

  • Résumé des travaux philosophiques et scientifiques de Branislav Petroniević. Academie Royal Serbe, Bulletin de l'Academie des Lettres, No. 2. Belgrade, 1937.

Works by Petronijević in Serbian on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Spencer, and Hegel.

  • Едуард Хартман. Живот и филозофија. Београд, 1907. стр. 43
  • Историја новије филозофије. -{I}- део од Ренесансе до Канта. Београд, 1922. стр. 389
  • О слободи воље, моралној и кривичној одговорности. Београд, 1906. стр. 178+1
  • Основи емпириске психологије. Београд, 1910. стр. 318
  • Основи емпириске психологије. -{II}- изд. Књ. -{I-III}-. Београд, 1923-6. стр. 12+172
  • Основи теорије сазнања са 19 сл. у тексту. Београд, 1923. стр. 187
  • Спиритизам. Београд, 1900. стр. 74
  • Филозофија у „Горском Вијенцу“ Н. Сад, 1908. стр. 60
  • Фридрих Ниче. Н. Сад, 1902. стр. 99
  • Хегел и Хартман. Београд, 1924. стр. 151
  • Чланци и студије. Књ. -{I-III}-. Београд, 1913-22.
  • Чланци и студије. Нова серија. Београд, 1932. стр. 1932
  • Шопенхауер, Ниче и Спенсер. Београд, 1922. стр. 316
  • Принципи метафизике - I, II, Београд, 1998.


  • Šešić, B., "Petronijević, Branislav" in Brochert, D. M. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Second Edition, vol. 7 (Thomson Gale, 2006), p. 266-267.
  • Arsenijević, M., "Serbian Philosophy" in Honderich, T. (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, New Edition (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 407–408.
  • Spomenica Branislav Petronijević. SANU, No. 13. Belgrade, 1957. Plus articles on Petroniević by various authors.

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