Acolytes of Nature: Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770-1850

Acolytes of Nature: Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770-1850

by Denise Phillips

View All Available Formats & Editions

Although many of the practical and intellectual traditions that make up modern science date back centuries, the category of “science” itself is a relative novelty. In the early eighteenth century, the modern German word that would later mean “science,” naturwissenschaft, was not even included in dictionaries. By 1850, however, the


Although many of the practical and intellectual traditions that make up modern science date back centuries, the category of “science” itself is a relative novelty. In the early eighteenth century, the modern German word that would later mean “science,” naturwissenschaft, was not even included in dictionaries. By 1850, however, the term was in use everywhere. Acolytes of Nature follows the emergence of this important new category within German-speaking Europe, tracing its rise from an insignificant eighteenth-century neologism to a defining rallying cry of modern German culture.

Today’s notion of a unified natural science has been deemed an invention of the mid-nineteenth century. Yet what Denise Phillips reveals here is that the idea of naturwissenschaft acquired a prominent place in German public life several decades earlier. Phillips uncovers the evolving outlines of the category of natural science and examines why Germans of varied social station and intellectual commitments came to find this label useful. An expanding education system, an increasingly vibrant consumer culture and urban social life, the early stages of industrialization, and the emergence of a liberal political movement all fundamentally altered the world in which educated Germans lived, and also reshaped the way they classified knowledge.

Editorial Reviews

German History - Ian F. McNeely
Acolytes of Nature shines a bright light on the still-neglected first half of the nineteenth century, fusing the history of science and the social history of middle-class associational life in a way that has long been the standard for the later 1880s. And by showing how the ‘pull of intellectual curiosity could be socially destabilizing,’ upsetting ‘established social hierarchies,’ Phillips provides a valuable account of historical change and causation applicable to other contexts as well.”
British Journal for the History of Science - Thomas P. Weber
"Convincingly shows that the epistemological foundations of science were debated not only in academic ivory towers, but also in local and regional contexts with participants from a wide range of professional and social backgrounds."
Choice - G. D. Oberle III
“An expanding, vibrant set of scholarly works has been produced on the history of natural science. Phillips provides an excellent addition to this literature in her study of the process of how natural science came to be defined as a distinctive area of study in Germany during the 19th century. . . . Phillips adds significant depth to readers’ understanding of the emergence of science as a public category. . . . Recommended.”
Lynn K. Nyhart
“Denise Phillips has brilliantly solved a major question in the history of science: How did science (Naturwissenschaft) become consolidated as a distinct cultural category in the German-speaking lands between 1760 and 1850? Her richly detailed social and cultural account is destined to become a landmark not only in the history of German science, but in the history of science more broadly, as a model of the best scholarly practices in the field.”
Nicolaas Rupke
“Whereas previous scholars have looked at the institutionalization of science, especially in the context of university history, or at professionalization and specialization, in particular of the biological and biomedical sciences, Denise Phillips looks at science in general, capturing a broad range of aspects and levels. Hers is a daring undertaking, but she carries off the grand sweep with considerable skill and success, giving coherence to the many and varied materials by centering her narrative on the development of not just science but the very term by which it gained public identity in German culture, namely Naturwissenschaft. Phillips’s study is a worthy addition to the long and continually growing body of excellent scholarship on the history of German science.”
Peter Galison
“In Acolytes of Nature Denise Phillips has a remarkable history to tell—the early and mid-nineteenth century assembly of a cornucopia of voluntary societies into what we know as modern science. These groups helped carve out a new domain of technical public space that, when joined with professional societies and physician associations issued in ‘professional science.’ A remarkable study that will change the way we tell the story of the emergence of professional science and more generally the emergence of modern civil society in Germany. Written with fine prose and an impeccable grasp of the archives, this is one terrific book.”
Brian Vick
“Adding a dimension to our knowledge of the world of science in nineteenth-century Germany, Denise Phillips draws deeply and effectively on the wider social and cultural history of the German states in order to illuminate the cultural environment in which the concept, institutions, and practices of modern science emerged. By investigating local and regional associations alongside the university milieu, Phillips opens up new perspectives on the role of broader publics—including local business and educated elites, aristocrats and artisans, and, notably, women—in changing the definition and reception of modern scientific research.”
Sun News Network - Clifford Cunningham
“[A] valuable book that touches on many disciplines from agriculture and medicine to astronomy and technology, and deserves to be widely read.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Acolytes of Nature

Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770–1850

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-66737-9

Chapter One

Natural Knowledge and the Learned Public in the Enlightenment

"Naturwissenschaft" first appeared in the early eighteenth century as a synonym for physica, or natural philosophy. Three decades after its debut, it was still not common enough to be included in Christoph Ernst Steinbach's 1734 German dictionary. Just a few years later, however, J. H. Zedler's encyclopedia listed it as one of several possible synonyms for "natural philosophy," and by the 1770s, the term was in wide circulation. By the late eighteenth century, it was also used as a synonym for "natural history," and could mean "natural knowledge" in a more general sense, too.

From our perspective, J. S. T. Gehler made things a bit clearer. In 1790, he called natural history, natural philosophy, and applied mathematics "the three main divisions of Naturwissenschaft as a whole." With this definition, we might seem to have already arrived at a crucial watershed. At least in broad terms, Gehler employed the word in a way that looks much like later nineteenth-century usages; "natural science" was an umbrella term for all the disciplines that studied nature. Drawing on previous work on nineteenth-century German science, we might imagine a clear way forward from here. We might predict that this new overarching category grew more powerful as the old tripartite division of natural history, natural philosophy, and applied mathematics continued to decay in the face of modern scientific specialization. That would put us in familiar territory. We could follow Rudolf Stichweh in examining the process of disciplinary specialization that took off around 1800 and see how the hierarchically structured fields of early modern learned knowledge became an array of vertically organized modern scientific disciplines, collectively labeled "the natural sciences." We might even see the stabilization of this new terminology as part of the process whereby science became an independent "system" clearly differentiated from the other constituent systems (the state, the economy) that made up society as a whole.

Yet a quick glance ahead at the early nineteenth century reveals that this is not, in fact, to be the way forward. The following juxtaposition illustrates succinctly why not: by 1824, the Brockhaus lexicon, an encyclopedia written for a broad educated audience, had an entry for "Naturwissenschaft" that used this word as the label for a unified natural science. The 1833 edition of Gehler's more technical Physical Dictionary did not. The editors who revised Gehler's dictionary chose "Physik," or natural philosophy, as their master label for the scientific study of nature, and "Naturwissenschaft" still kept its modest eighteenth-century place as one of nine possible synonyms for this term. Georg Wilhelm Muncke, the author of the article on natural philosophy, had indeed abandoned the triad of natural history, natural philosophy, and applied mathematics for a wider field of disciplines (though he kept other well-worn early modern distinctions, such as the one between historical and philosophical kinds of knowledge). The transition to a more complicated disciplinary array seems to have done nothing in and of itself to raise the status of "Naturwissenschaft" as an overarching term.

"Natural science" gained prominence through different channels than these, and its presence in the 1824 Brockhaus lexicon gives us a clue to where we might look to better understand the word's history. As we will see in later chapters, this category was the product of the border zone where learned natural researchers met the broader public; it played an important role in attempts to clarify the relationship between learned experts and an expanding lay audience of readers, authors, and collectors. It was also a term that natural researchers used to rally the troops internally, but in ways that often avoided difficult, specific questions about how exactly the different fields of natural knowledge might relate to one another. For the editors of the 1833 Gehler dictionary, who took it as their task to describe the contours of learned natural knowledge with some degree of intellectual precision, "Naturwissenschaft" was not yet an indispensable reference point.

To be able to follow the trajectory of this word after 1800, however, we need to first be clear on its late eighteenth-century status. In this regard, statements like the one Gehler made in 1790 are deceptive in their apparent familiarity. Gehler used the phrase "natural science as a whole" to mean all of learned natural knowledge in one of the sentences in his article; just a few lines earlier, however, he had listed the word as a synonym for natural philosophy. The eighteenth-century word "Naturwissenschaft" still lacked certain key features of its nineteenth-century descendant, even in cases where it was used to refer to natural knowledge in general. It was still just one of several words one might choose, a word with many possible synonyms. It lacked the strong emotional punch that it would carry several decades later, and it lacked a role as an organizing reference point in intellectual exchange.

When Johannes Müller compiled his guide to German scientific societies in the 1880s, he had little trouble pulling together a group called "natural scientific societies." That would have been a fool's errand in the 1780s and 1790s. In the eighteenth century, the support of "natural science" was not yet a distinct social cause around which people organized themselves. But the study of nature was. That was already a recognizable collective enterprise by the late eighteenth century, but one with looser boundaries and a wider purview than what the nineteenth century called natural science. Someone who contributed to this collective enterprise already had a name; he or she was called a Naturforscher. German-speaking Europe's Naturforscher belonged to a loose, decentralized community, a community whose integrative sinews ran through learned societies, personal correspondence networks, and published journals.

Knowledgeable Naturforscher formed part of what late eighteenth-century Germans called "the learned public," or, less frequently, "the republic of letters." This latter term can be confusing; some historians have used it to refer primarily to the early modern predecessor of the enlightened public sphere, while others use it as a synonym for the enlightened public as a whole. The late eighteenth-century "learned public" was decidedly not the same thing as the public as a whole; in its practices and in its constitutive ideals, it differed considerably from the public of readers, theatergoers, and coffee drinkers familiar to us from much previous work on the public sphere. It was a narrower and more exclusive public, embedded within the broader public but distinct from it in many ways, too. Like earlier citizens of the learned world, late eighteenth-century Naturforscher described themselves as linked to one another through ties of friendship and mutual obligation. In addition to communicating in print, the learned still assiduously wrote letters and exchanged specimens. When Naturforscher spoke of the public that had the right to assess their work, they often designated this narrower learned public as their intended judge. The learned public was a public full of Kenner, of experts; its members were vetted and interconnected in ways members of the general public were not.

"Naturwissenschaft" and the Study of Nature in the Enlightenment

As Quentin Skinner has argued, when writing the history of a word, tracing changes in meaning is not enough. We also need to look for moments when a word's referents changed, or moments when it began to be used in new kinds of speech acts. Between 1770 and 1850, "natural science" became invested with an emotional intensity it utterly lacked in the eighteenth century; it became a word that communicated fervor and inspired loyalty. In the eighteenth century, the word was a descriptive label for a (loosely specified) field of knowledge; in the nineteenth century, it referred to a powerful cultural force. It stopped being merely a descriptive term and became useful for both acts of praise and acts of condemnation. For Werner von Siemens, "the natural scientific age" was an electric phrase spoken with celebratory zeal. The historian Johann Droysen spat similar words out, one imagines when one reads him, with a strong flavor of disgust in his mouth. Eighteenth-century authors chose different objects for their ire, and shouted different slogans.

Eighteenth-century Naturforscher did, however, already see the study of nature as a unified cause. They just did not associate this cause with a single epistemic category, and they often shifted happily between ill-defined synonyms when they sang the praises of learned natural knowledge. The word "Naturwissenschaft," which later came to mean "science," did not yet serve as an exclusive reservoir for the collective enthusiasms of enlightened natural researchers. This gap between word and cause is the topic of the following section, which also looks at the terms that eighteenth-century authors did invest with rhetorical force.

First, however, we will start with a few more examples of how authors in the late eighteenth century used the term "Naturwissenschaft." In 1783, Wenceslaus Johann Gustav Karsten published a textbook he described as a guide to "how natural science ought to be practiced in the future." The book offered an introduction to the study of nature in one volume, breaking with established tradition. The three fields Karsten covered—natural history, natural philosophy, and chemistry—were usually treated as separate sciences, each deserving a textbook of its own. These three subjects had generally recognized parameters, which Karsten described briefly in his introduction. Natural history dealt with specific natural bodies, plant, animal, and mineral. Chemistry described the composition of matter and the rules that governed how different fundamental elements combined, while natural philosophy explained the causes at work in the physical world. Karsten argued that these three Wissenschaften (sciences) were in reality so closely interconnected that it made sense to join them together into "a single whole."

Chemistry, natural history, and natural philosophy belonged together as a single whole; the role that Karsten assigned mathematics in this mix was more complicated. In another publication, he noted that the successes of applied mathematics (by which he meant things like Newton's mechanics) had led some of his predecessors to treat mathematics and natural philosophy as if they were one and the same thing. Karsten considered this approach outdated. Advances in chemistry and natural history, he thought, made a solely mathematical natural philosophy untenable. Furthermore, applied mathematics, though valuable, was a field that not all students of nature needed to master. Karsten himself was both a mathematician and a natural philosopher, but he argued that not everyone needed to learn mathematics. The reasons he gave for his position were pragmatic. Many learned young men simply had no interest in or talent for the subject. They would end up "yawning and falling asleep" in a mathematics lecture, and since there were also many nonmathematical ways to study nature, there was no reason to bore people unnecessarily. But according to Karsten, "No one [could] lay claim to the title Naturforscher" without understanding the interconnections that bound natural history, chemistry, and natural philosophy together.

Karsten's suggestions differed dramatically from another proposal put on the table in the mid-1780s, Immanuel Kant's Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. Unlike his colleague in Halle, the Königsberg professor placed natural history and chemistry outside of the circle of true Wissenschaften. "Proper" natural science needed the apodictic certainty that came with laws that could be formulated a priori, and chemistry and natural history, which in Kant's view were just experiential (albeit still valuable) forms of knowledge, could never aspire to reach these heights. Kant considered mathematics, in contrast, central to Naturwissenschaft as he defined it.

With these two books juxtaposed, one might try to claim that in the mid-1780s, German thinkers were already engaged in a full-fledged debate about how to define a novel concept, modern natural science. That would be anachronistic for several reasons. Karsten described himself as laying out a program for "how natural science should be practiced in the future," but he did not put all that much weight on the term itself. His main concern was not defining "Naturwissenschaft," but laying out a new program for Naturlehre, natural philosophy. Karsten's primary aim was to lobby for natural philosophy to draw more heavily on chemistry and natural history than it had in the past.

Furthermore, neither Karsten's natural philosophy nor Kant's version of "Naturwissenschaft" stretched as far as later standard usages of "the natural sciences." Kant, in contrast to Karsten, was indeed interested in defining Naturwissenschaft, but he did so in an idiosyncratic way that broke with the evolving colloquial uses of the word. For Kant, Naturwissenschaft properly so called was found only where one found mathematics; there were other, experiential kinds of knowledge about nature, but these were not part of Naturwissenschaft in the strict sense. A more common move in the late eighteenth century would have been to separate mathematics from other areas of natural knowledge and save words like "Naturwissenschaft" for the latter, not the former. For example, when the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock listed different types of German learned men, he put Naturforscher in a separate group from mathematicians. Johann Bernoulli referred to his esteemed predecessor Johann Heinrich Lambert as a "mathematician and Naturforscher" as if those were two different things. In 1790, the University of Jena published a list of its courses for the coming semester, and for the first time a subset of these lectures appeared under the heading "the natural sciences." Lectures in mechanics and other areas of applied mathematics were not on this list.

Even Karsten's more generous concept of natural philosophy did not include all the areas that appeared under the Jena faculty's label, which mapped onto more loose and colloquial uses of the term. Only the general parts of chemistry and natural history belonged within his new natural philosophy; "special natural history," the study of individual kinds of plants, animals, and minerals, did not. Similarly, though Kant's philosophy certainly played an important role in later discussions of science, the highly technical definition he offered in the Metaphysical Foundations serves as a poor starting point for a general history of the concept as a widely shared cultural reference point. This was partly a matter of raw numbers. Just as Karsten suggested in his textbook, nonmathematical kinds of natural knowledge simply had much broader appeal. Though applied mathematics had its share of practitioners, chemistry, natural history, and nonmathematical areas of natural philosophy like the study of electricity attracted much larger followings.

More important, if we started from Karsten and Kant and tried to trace the fate of specific intellectual proposals for how natural knowledge (or parts thereof) might be brought together as a unity, we would end up with many branching threads but nothing like a whole piece of cloth. As we will see in later chapters, such proposals multiplied, but they did not converge. With only these things in hand, we would be at a loss to explain both the nineteenth-century concept's strange new stability and the timing and manner of its emergence. Complicated philosophical debates about the internal structure of natural knowledge are by no means irrelevant to this concept's history, but the glue that held the natural sciences together did not come from any one intellectual synthesis.

Given the evocatively emotive character of the later nineteenth-century term "natural science," its strength seems, rather, to have something to do with collective enthusiasm and emotion. To that end, the most interesting thing to look for in the late eighteenth century is perhaps not a handful of thinkers (however famous) who seem to be inching toward a more unified concept of natural science. The real thing we need to look for are places where Naturforscher were rallying together and claiming to be part of some unified cause.


Excerpted from Acolytes of Nature by DENISE PHILLIPS Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Denise Phillips is assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >