Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 39(4), 432–434 Fall 2003
Published online in Wiley Interscience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI 10.1002/jhbs.10176
© 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Robert J. Richards. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the
Age of Goethe.
The Romantic Conception of Life is a study of the conceptions of living nature developed during the early German Romantic period, situated in the personal lives of their authors. Focusing upon the Jena Romantics, Schelling, Goethe and the scientists in their circles, it provides detailed readings of key texts, punctuated by portraits of the individuals discussed—portraits filled out by exhaustive attention to letters and diaries.
In this ambitious and learned work, Richards makes an important contribution to the historical reevaluation of Romantic biology. He rightly contends that before any assessment of its significance can begin, it is necessary to have a nuanced understanding of the science in its relationship to the Romantic movement and contemporary philosophy, which this book sets out to provide. Richards emphasizes that the Romantic figures he discusses were not opposed to Enlightenment reason, as ordinarily presumed, but on the contrary intensely preoccupied with exploring the potential of human reason. Moreover, they were deeply engaged with its philosophical legacy, such as the problem posed by Kant regarding the apparent teleological ordering of living organisms. He attributes the discontinuities of Enlightenment with Romantic science to the latter’s emphases on the organic productivity of nature, on the aesthetic appreciation of nature’s creativity, and on the attribution of freedom and morality to nature. Richards effectively demonstrates how these emphases enabled important contributions to the understanding of life in the period that acted as foundations for later developments in nineteenth-century biology.
The boldest and
most controversial argument of the book is that
Schelling’s philosophies of nature and conceptions of the
organic. Casting the Romantic conception of life so wide
as to include
Richards is one of the few historians of science to have deeply engaged with the difficult philosophical texts of German idealism vital to understanding conceptions of life in the Romantic period. The results are highly insightful discussions of how the figures he discusses resolved the problem of understanding the teleology of the individual organisms into the problem of understanding nature as a whole, and of how they understood the self-organization of the universe as correspondent to the self-organization of the mind, thus relating developing knowledge of nature to developing knowledge of the self. But Richards rejects the claims of Fichte and Schelling, and of many of their modern interpreters, that they were continuing Kant’s critical project. Thus he reads Fichte and Schelling as making the perplexing claim that the world is constituted by the mind, when they are better understood as extending Kant’s examination of the conditions for cognition of the world. He also finds in Kant a clear boundary between reflective judgments of the organic and determinative judgments of mechanical bodies, whereas Fichte and Schelling started from the ambiguities they found in Kant’s attempts at
such demarcations. But it is precisely the great merit of Richards’s excellent book, the most substantial work on Romantic science now available, that it invites debate with scholars in the field at the level of detailed analysis long enjoyed by historians of science of other periods.
Reviewed by JOAN STEIGERWALD, Associate Professor of History and
Philosophy of Science,
The author comments:
Steigerwald has noted that I do not regard Fichte and Schelling as merely extending Kant’s epistemological and metaphysical proposals. This is an issue that divides scholars of German idealism. I argue that when Fichte and Schelling dismissed as risible Kant’s “thing-in-itself ” (an object about which Kant claimed nothing could be known, though he himself seemed to know a lot about it), we should take their laughter seriously. Perhaps only the specialist will hyperventilate about this problem, but it is one that has multiple ramifications for the history of the human sciences in the nineteenth century and even today.
Finally, Steigerwald suggests that I exaggerate the impact of Goethe’s influence on Schelling, especially in respect to archetype theory. The dispute is another of those that might excite only the devotees of German idealism. Yet the case is one of many that display, I think, the necessity of examining close personal relations in order to understand the more abstract relations of ideas. My book might be read as one long argument for the necessity of keeping the authorial genie in the well-wrought urn. Goethe was a magnetic personality and his intimate intervention in Schelling’s near suicide bound the two individuals in a sympathetic union that secreted into their philosophical and scientific beliefs—or so I argue. Some of Steigerwald’s conceptions differ from mine, but we are in solid agreement that Romanticism had a far-reaching impact on nineteenth-century science, forming several of its deeply flowing and powerful currents.
ROBERT J. RICHARDS, The
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