"All art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one." Friedrich Schlegel's words perfectly capture the project of the German Romantics, who believed that the aesthetic approaches of art and literature could reveal patterns and meaning in nature that couldn't be uncovered through rationalistic philosophy and science alone. In this wide-ranging work, Robert J. Richards shows how the Romantic conception of the world influenced (and was influenced by) both the lives of the people who held it and the development of nineteenth-century science.
Integrating Romantic literature, science, and philosophy with an intimate knowledge of the individuals involved—from Goethe and the brothers Schlegel to Humboldt and Friedrich and Caroline Schelling—Richards demonstrates how their tempestuous lives shaped their ideas as profoundly as their intellectual and cultural heritage. He focuses especially on how Romantic concepts of the self, as well as aesthetic and moral considerations—all tempered by personal relationships—altered scientific representations of nature. Although historians have long considered Romanticism at best a minor tributary to scientific thought, Richards moves it to the center of the main currents of nineteenth-century biology, culminating in the conception of nature that underlies Darwin's evolutionary theory.
Uniting the personal and poetic aspects of philosophy and science in a way that the German Romantics themselves would have honored, The Romantic Conception of Life alters how we look at Romanticism and nineteenth-century biology.
About the Author
Robert J. Richards is a professor of history, philosophy, and psychology and director of the Fishbein Center for the History of Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior and The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin's Theory, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
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The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe
By Robert J. Richards
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2002 Robert J. Richards
All right reserved.
Chapter 1 - Introduction: A Most Happy Encounter
When sleep overcomes her, I lie by her side and think over many things. Often I have composed poetry while in her arms and have softly beat out the measure of hexameters, fingering along her spine.
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Romische ElegienOn 20 July 1794, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 -1832) and Friedrich Schiller (1759 -1805) happened to attend the same meeting of the Jena Natural Research Society. They knew each other, having met six years before, but their relationship remained distant and distrustful. Goethe had been instrumental in securing Schiller's appointment to the history faculty at Jena; initially, though, the position carried only a small stipend and provided neither the financial security the younger poet sought nor the freedom to continue his literary work. Goethe's aloof genius, which seemed so effortlessly to sail over the flood of poetry spilling from his pen, evoked in Schiller feelings, he confessed, not unlike those "Brutus and Cassius must have had for Caesar." "I could murder his spirit," he wrote a friend, "and then love him with all my heart." For his part, Goethe disliked Schiller's sensational Sturm und Drang play Die Rauber (The robbers, 1781), which seemed to endorse the kind of anarchic attitudes that inspired talk of revolution; and he was vexed over what he believed Schiller had implied about him in the essay Uber Anmut und Wurde (On grace and dignity, 1793), namely, that his aesthetic talent lacked a deeper moral character. What particularly disconcerted Goethe was Schiller's Kantian subjectivism, which he thought dropped a veil between the artist and nature. So when they left the Jena meeting and could not avoid interchange, they began to discuss, with mutual wariness, the fragmented character of the lecture they had just heard. Contrary to the approach of the speaker, the botanist August Johann Georg Carl Batsch (1761-1802), Goethe suggested that the study of nature had to move from the whole to the parts rather than the reverse. Intrigued, Schiller invited this benign nemesis back to his house to continue the conversation. There Goethe turned to his botanical theories, and he sketched for Schiller the ideal plant, the morphological model for understanding all plants. Seven years earlier Goethe had roamed through southern Italy and Sicily attempting to discover this Urpflanze. But when Schiller looked at the sketch, he exclaimed: "Das ist keine Erfahrung, das ist eine Idee"-- "That's no observation, that's an idea." Goethe, quite provoked, responded: "Well, I'm rather fortunate that I have ideas without knowing it and can even see them with my own eyes."
Goethe's irritating confrontation with Schiller actually marked the beginning of their intimate friendship, which terminated only with Schiller's death a decade later. Goethe described this "happy encounter" in the first number of his zoological writings Zur Morphologie (1817-24). He meant the tale to be emblematic of the several features of the morphological doctrine that he formed before and after his encounter with Schiller. But this literary Denkmal also suggests, I believe, the way in which Goethe's theory, and the tradition it spawned, arose out of a decidedly Romantic sensibility: his ideal plant did stem from empirical observations, which, however, had been transformed by a creative imagination to reveal a deeper core of reality.
Goethe as a Romantic--a rather anomalous idea, perhaps. Certainly his Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The sorrows of young Werther) is easily read as a Romantic novel; and much of Goethe's lyric poetry expresses that delicacy of feeling for nature with which the English Romantic poets resonated. But his dramas, such as Iphigenie auf Tauris or Torquato Tasso, are normally understood as classical in character. And his several other novels, such as Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship), are usually thought to occupy the genre of Bildungsroman, rather than that of the Romantic portrait. Even his very living quarters exhibited his classical taste. The floors of his well-preserved (and postwar reconstructed) house on Der Frauenplan in Weimar sag with the weight of Greek and Roman statuary that he accumulated on his travels. Goethe might be more easily classifiable had he become reasonable, for then he would have been, as Lessing remarked, an ordinary man. But his genius and energies far outstripped those of his contemporaries. He appeared at the time (and now) a figure immensely larger than any small category that might capture individuals of more common clay. And particularly in this instance, he disdainfully discarded the very label that might allow his work to be easily tagged as Romantic. Late in his life, in conversations with a young writer on the make, Johann Peter Eckermann, Goethe mentioned that he had very simple definitions of "classical" and "Romantic." "I call the classical healthy," he explained, "and the Romantic sick." Yet a year later, on 21 March 1830, he acknowledged to his young friend that Schiller had convinced him that "I myself, contrary to my own will, was a Romantic."
Goethe's acknowledgment of the Romantic character of his own thought will serve as a leitmotiv for this book. Historians of nineteenth-century science, the really serious historians, usually dismiss anything sounding like Romantic science as an aberration and suspect that anyone following such a red thread will be traveling down a path that terminates in the higher nonsense. Historical investigations of Romanticism may be amusing enough for the moment but certainly not instructive about the authentic science of the period, the science that grounds our contemporary understanding. The biologist E. O. Wilson, for instance, indicts the Romantics precisely as those responsible for advancing irrational fantasy over scientific reason--the latter, fortunately, having escaped the specter that still haunts present cul-ture. Even a sophisticated historian like Timothy Lenoir, who has focused on German life sciences of the early nineteenth century, wishes to shield the "real" biologists of the period--such as Johann Christian Reil, Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer, Ignaz Dollinger, Karl Friedrich Burdach, and Karl Ernst von Baer--from this taint. Lenoir argues the certainly interesting thesis that these aforementioned scientists have to be regarded as materialists and mechanists and that their construction of living organisms as teleological can only be modeled after Kant's teleology als ob--a model that supposedly allowed good scientists to believe organisms were mere mechanisms while heuristically describing them as if they exhibited an intrinsically purposive structure. I believe these historiographic attitudes have excised the heart of nineteenth-century biology, which pulsed to more fascinating rhythms than can be imagined when dissecting the dried corpus of the discipline. When that biology has its lifelines secured by reattaching them to the thought and culture that animated it, I believe we will discover that many of its main themes have been played out in a Romantic mode, or so is the central argument of this book.
In the next three chapters, forming part 1 of this volume, I portray the life and thought of the individuals who created the Romantic movement at the end of the eighteenth century--Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), the brothers Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schelling, Goethe, and the incomparable Caroline Michaelis Bohmer Schlegel Schelling, whose surname plots only part of her romantic trajectory. I also consider associated figures who, while not members of the charmed circle, nevertheless provided some of the ingredients necessary for the magic to work. In this latter category, I focus on Kant and Fichte in particular. My effort is first to observe the leading ideas of these individuals as they emerged from the interstices of personal interactions and then more carefully to explore those conceptions in order to reveal their inner logic and external relations. It is impossible, I believe, to understand either the more overt or the very subtle ways Romanticism shaped biology in the nineteenth century without coming to understand the Romantic mode of being and thought, and to feel its very complex and often heterogeneous constitution. In part 2 I consider philosophical and scientific formulations of the nature of life, especially in the works of Kant, Herder, Blumenbach, Kielmeyer, and Humboldt. These formulations merged with and were transformed by writers like Schelling and Reil. During this period the basic categories of investigation changed from mechanism to organicism, and with that change arose a consideration that would assume huge proportions later in the nineteenth century, namely, the theory of evolution. In part 3 I return to Goethe and his apparently contradictory evaluations of Romantic literature. In order to understand his attitude, it will be necessary, first, to assess the various ways nature exerted an erotic command over his thought and life. I then concentrate on what the Schiller-induced acknowledgment of Romanticism reveals about the structure of Goethe's aesthetics and his science, their relationship, and the sources of their construction. Goethe dominated scientific and even philosophical thought in the Romantic circle, and his fundamental ideas about biological structures would reverberate throughout the nineteenth century, becoming united with the evolutionary thought of Darwin and Haeckel. I will limn the impact of German Romanticism on Darwin's biology in the epilogue and undertake a more thorough analysis of its consequence for the science of the late nineteenth century in a subsequent volume.
The biographical emphasis of this book stems from my conviction, which can only be partly acted upon in a work such as this, that we catch ideas in the making only when we understand rather intimately the character--the attitudes, the intellectual beliefs, the emotional reactions--of the thinkers in question. Without an initial plunge into personality, logical analysis of the connections of their ideas will be blind and social construction of their theories empty.
The Historical Meaning of Naturphilosophie and Romantic Biology
To demonstrate the accuracy of Goethe's own avowal of Romanticism requires a rather thick description of the Romantic movement at the turn of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth. I undertake that description in the next three chapters. But no matter how rounded this narrative, it will seem hardly sufficient to prepare for the argument that Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel were Romantic scientists. The historian of science David Knight expresses a perfectly common view when he takes for granted that "the Origin of Species was not rooted in Romanticism." The Romantics, he conventionally presumes, were "not in the business of genealogy, constructing family trees, but searching for natural kinds." So a scientist like Haeckel, who planted more genealogical trees in the hard ground of his empirical studies than any of his English friends, likewise should not, upon this representation, be counted among the Romantics.
Part of the difficulty of seeing all those evolutionary trees but not their Romantic roots stems, I think, from the unstudied vagueness with which the terms "Romanticism" and Naturphilosophie have been used. Cultural historians have been studiously reluctant to venture a definition of Romanticism, regarding such effort a "trap," as Isaiah Berlin put it. In one of the best recent books devoted to the topic of Romanticism and the sciences, none of the contributing authors attempts a definition of the subject of the volume; rather, they rely on cultural assumptions and unanchored intuitions--a caricature of the Romantic approach itself. Most of these authors undoubtedly assume, with decent precedent, that any attempted definitions of Romantic science or nature philosophy must be flat, stale, and unprofitable; that limp generalizations must fail to capture the rich diversity of a movement that involved so many extraordinary individuals, the luxury of their art, and the prodigality of their ideas.
I do not think, however, that the effort at general characterization is as hopeless as it appears. I will attempt two methodologically different approaches to definition. The first utilizes an evolutionary construction, and it constitutes the principal task of this book: namely, to uncover the historical roots of the ideas captured by the terms "Romantic biology" and Naturphilosophie, and then to follow their evolution, as they develop and bend to the causal interactions radiating from their intellectual, psychological, and social environments. Thus at any one time in their evolution, the meanings constituting "Romantic biology" will be fixed by their particular causal interactions; and their entire development will constitute the meaning of Romantic biology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Definitions of the more usual sort also have their uses. After all, just as in the case of biological systematics--when one attempts to trace the genealogy of, say, a species of Galapagos mockingbird--so in the genealogy of ideas: general notions must initially be used to discriminate the lineages of interest. We must, therefore, form some broad but definite conceptions about the composition of Naturphilosophie and Romantic biology, which will constitute their provisional definitions, in order to recognize their sources and trace their consequent developments. If such preliminary characterizations are to be strategically useful, though, they must be induced, partly at least, from the actual history of their constituent ideas. Definitions so constructed can then be employed to illuminate the further course of the participant ideas as they extend beyond their preliminary inductive foundations. On the basis of these extending historical analyses, we will be able to refine our understanding of the principal subjects of interest and, accordingly, readjust the definitions. From induction to definition to deductive inference and around again, in historical constructions we raise our understanding by our own semantic bootstraps. Let me then, as propaedeutic to my study, discriminate those ideas that have traveled together for a good part of their history; these will constitute, in a preliminary fashion, the meanings of "Romantic biology" and of Naturphilosophie. No system of thought in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries will likely include all of these marks; but we will understand a system to be more or less Romantic or naturphilosophisch depending on how many of these notes they do incorporate.
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Table of Contents
1. Introduction: A Most Happy Encounter
PART ONE - THE EARLY ROMANTIC MOVEMENT IN LITERATURE PHILOSOPHY, AND SCIENCE
2. The Early Romantic Movement
3. Schelling: The Poetry of Nature
4. Denouement: Farwell to Jena
PART TWO - SCIENTIFIC FOUNDATIONS OF THE ROMANTIC CONCEPTION OF LIFE
5. Early Theories of Development: Blumenback and Kant
6. Kielmeyer and the Organic Powers of Nature
7. Johann Christian Reli's Romantic Theories of Life and Mind, or Rhapsodies on a Cat-Piano
PART THREE - GOETHE, A GENIUS FOR POETRY, MORPHOLOGY, AND WOMEN
10 - The Erotic Authority of Nature
11 - Goethe's Scientific Revolution
12 - Conclusion: The History of a Life in Art and Science
PART FOUR - EPILOGUE
13. The Romantic Conception of Life
14. Darwin's Romantic Biology