Perspective in Biology and Medicine


Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. xix + 587. $35.00.


            Romantic science has traditionally been held in very low esteem by scientists and historians of science alike. The heavy emphasis on philosophical reasoning (especially of an idealist sort) as the route to scientific knowledge along with the central role given to invisible, interchangeable, and ill-defined forces of nature, and, conversely, the de-emphasis on empirical research and the associated lack of a dialectical relationship between theory and empirical practice–these and other supposed attributes of romantic science have led scholars to discount the value of much science practiced by romantic natural philosophers in the late-eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries. Indeed, many scholars consider at least some of that “science” to be no science at all.


            Recent scholarship has, however, begun to reassess this negative view of Romantic science. Robert J. Richards’s impressive study of science and philosophy in the age of Goethe (1770-1830) is sure to force still greater reconsideration of Romantic science, at least insofar as concerns the study of the organic world. Indeed, it will (or should) become one of the premier interpretations of the positive contributions made by a group of closely knit German Romantic philosophers, scientists, and poets who sought to comprehend the origins and development of organic life.


            Richards offers a deeply contextualized study, both in the sense that he recounts in considerable detail the romantic lives of several of his key figures and in the sense that he sees science in the German-speaking world of this era as interwoven with philosophy and poetry. He portrays the philosophers, scientists, and artists who stand at the heart of his study–Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis), Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Christian Reil, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Friedrich Schiller, the brothers Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, and, above all, the central figure of the book and the age, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe–not only in terms of their intellectual positions and systems but also of the lives they led. While the book is in good measure about the thought of these and other men, Richards leavens his intellectual analysis with enticing portrayals of their various involvements with one another and, especially, with women. More particularly, he presents a fascinating account of the strong intellectual, personal, and, at points, even sexual relationships that these men (and associated others) developed in Jena and Weimar. These portrayals are not meant, however, as some sort of relief from the intellectually demanding portions of the study–and trying to follow the systems of Fichte and Schelling, for example, does indeed require a break every so often. Rather, Richards argues that there was an seamless web of interwoven relationships amongst the intellectual, social, and general cultural worlds of these individuals in Jena and Weimar, and that we cannot fully appreciate the origin and meaning of their intellectual outlooks without simultaneously also grasping (insofar as possible) the psychological and personal realms of their lives. In short, Richards creates a narrative in which individual selves and the concepts of self, along with their moral and aesthetic outlooks, are inextricably interwoven with philosophical and scientific ideas and with literary achievements, and he shows how this conglomerate eventuated in a biological interpretation of nature.


            Richards’s well-structured book has an elegant architecture. Part One is devoted to the early Romantic movement in literature, philosophy, and science. It sets the background for the remainder of the book by recounting the work and lives of the Schlegel brothers (including their personal involvement with women), Novalis, Fichte and his philosophy of freedom, the literary salons of Berlin, the religious views and poetics of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and, above all, Schelling’s philosophy (and poetry) of nature (Naturphilosophie). Among other things, Richards shows that Schelling had a greater appreciation of the role of observation and experiment in science than most scholars have previously understood.


            Part Two focuses on the philosophical and scientific foundations of the romantic conception of life. Here Richards takes up various early modern theories of development, above all that of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and his Bildungsbetrieb (a formative, developmental force responsible for nourishment, reproduction, and restoration in plants and animals), along with Kant’s philosophical views on biological explanation. He also analyzes Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer’s understanding of the interaction of organic forces, including his primitive notions of the origin and transformation of species; Reil’s romantic theories of life and the mind (especially concerning mental illness); and Schelling’s dynamic evolutionism. Here and elsewhere in the book Richards argues that several of the Romantic figures adopted and adapted the work of Baruch de Spinoza as well as of such Enlightenment figures as Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He stresses that, at least for several of the key figures in his study, they by no means rejected the rationalistic outlook of the Enlightenment; rather, they sought to expand upon it, even as, to be sure, they rejected mechanism and the associated Newtonian world view and replaced it with an organic interpretation of nature. We learn how these thinkers learned from one another, how they borrowed and often enough criticized all or parts of the philosophical outlooks and scientific results that were of potential use in their own creative work.


            Richards devotes Part Three of his book, the centerpiece, to Goethe as a scientist. He shows in great detail the many linkages amongst Goethe’s attitudes towards and views of women, morphology, and poetry, just as he shows the intellectual stimulation that Goethe received from his readings of Spinoza, Kant, Schelling, Schiller, and others, as well as from his travels to Italy. We are here reminded not simply of Goethe’s well-known discovery of the intermaxillary bone in humans and of his theory of the metamorphosis of plants. We also see the evolution of the poet’s own life and personality, including his involvement with (or sexual longing for) various women and how this contributed not only to his poetry–something that is easy enough to appreciate–but also to his general erotic view of nature. Richards argues convincingly that Goethe helped create the foundations of morphology; that he helped lay (especially through his archetypal theory and his morphological analysis) the roots of what would later become Charles Darwin’s evolutionary outlook; and that his work in osteology, comparative anatomy, botany, and his theoretical call to clarify and search for the archetypes of the organic world amounted to a veritable scientific revolution. Pace numerous scientists and historians of science, from Goethe’s day to our own, Richards maintains quite rightly that Goethe’s science must be judged in terms of his own times, and not in terms of the standards and results of later eras. (Richards restricts his defense of Goethe to the biologist, not to the latter’s far more controversial and dubious views on optics and the methodology of physical science in general.) We see Goethe’s Gesamtwerk: his ideas and work in biology, epistemology, and aesthetics were all of a piece, and how they were motivated and driven on by personal friendships and sexual desire. We see, in other words, how he became and embodied the Romantic biologist.


            Part Four, an extended epilogue, is not only the book’s denouement but in truth une conclusion qui s’ouvre: Richards adumbrates a much larger historiographical argument about the nature of biology during the entire nineteenth century. He sketches Darwin’s romantic view of nature, showing how he derived much of his general outlook from figures like Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt–i.e., from the German Romantic movement. He develops a line of analysis that he had already in part taken up in a much shorter, yet equally penetrating book, The Meaning of Evolution: The Morphological Construction and Ideological Reconstruction of Darwin’s Theory (Chicago, 1992). There he argued for the especial importance of the embryological writings of Lorenz Oken and Karl Ernst von Baer for the young Darwin. Here, in the epilogue to The Romantic Conception of Life, he argues above all for the importance to the young Darwin of his study of Humboldt, who had close ties to the German romantics, especially to Goethe, but also to others in Jena, Weimar, and Berlin. He shows that Humboldt’s general romantic (i.e., non-mechanistic) outlook on life and the portrait of nature that he painted–in particular, that of the Americas as given in his Personal Narrative and more generally and later in his Cosmos–profoundly affected the young Darwin, so much so that when he came to write up his own diaries from his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle (1831-36), he himself painted a portrait of the natural and social worlds of South America that was entirely in the spirit of Humboldt’s own portrait of some thirty years earlier. In short, Richards shows that Darwin greatly admired and, to a certain extent, imitated Humboldt. Yet equally important, if only by implication, Richards suggests that the Romantic conception of life that he has brought out in full detail for German natural philosophers and others is but the beginnings of a story that reaches well beyond the age of Goethe and the German plains. For he suggests that down to the end of the century, in England as well as in Germany, there was a strong romantic conception of life that shaped biologists’ understanding of the nature, origins, and development of the organic world.


            Despite the engaging tales of social webs and the cultural-cum-personal portraits that Richards paints, his study is an intellectually demanding one. In part this is due to the inherently complex and convoluted philosophical positions on the foundations of biological explanation that he recounts–especially those of Kant, Fichte, Reil, and Schelling–and in part to the variegated interrelationships that he characterizes among men, women, nature, art, and science. Yet in part, too, the book’s intellectual challenge stems from the adjustment that open-minded readers must make as they try to appreciate his argument that nineteenth-century biology, including that of and following Darwin, was in no small measure teleological in nature and imbued with aesthetic and moral values.


            For Richards’s argument that there was a deep romantic streak in nineteenth-century biology that had its roots in German Romanticism and that continued on throughout the century and into the English-speaking cultural world is a large-scale, historiographically revolutionary interpretation. For it seems fair to say that virtually all of us, scholars and non-scholars alike, think of nineteenth-century evolutionary theory as an English science with English cultural and political economic roots. The standard historiographical interpretation argues, generally speaking, that Darwin was not only the discoverer of the idea of evolution by means of natural selection but that he drew on a wellspring of English culture and political economics (with a dose of Lamarck and perhaps another non-Englishmen or two thrown in) in formulating his theory. Working as he did under the general effects of the Industrial Revolution and of the political Reform movement in mid-Victorian Britain, the young Darwin was primed to see and explain change. Moreover, his journey on the Beagle, a geographical and hydrographic survey expedition in the service of British imperialism; his reading of such English writers as Thomas R. Malthus on demography and Charles Lyell on geological time; the groundwork to evolution laid out before Darwin by Robert Chambers in his Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), which helped prepare an otherwise potentially hostile public; and the simultaneous, independent, and virtually identical analysis of Alfred Russel Wallace that forced Darwin to publish so as to secure priority–these and other well-known points constitute the elements of the standard historiographical view that the sources of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) lay in the common context of a set of intellectual and social values and political economic interests. In short, the standard historiographical interpretation argues that the theory of evolution as propounded by him was a thoroughgoing English piece of work, one that, like Newton’s Principia and the machinery that drove much of contemporary British political economy, was mechanistic, and one that in its broad philosophical outlook was non-teleological and without recourse to moral or aesthetic values whatsoever. It is this standard interpretation that Richards rejects. Instead, he argues that Darwin was enamored of Humboldt’s organic, non-mechanistic view of nature, of a cosmos bubbling over with life; that he favored the theory of archetypes so dear to German romantics; that he endowed nature with teleological structure; and that he considered aesthetic and moral values as inherent to organic nature.


            This learned, well-written, and well-illustrated analysis of the romantic conception of life weaves together philosophy, science, and art in the age of Goethe. It presents a penetrating account of German Romantic science and of its implications for Darwin and other naturalists later in the century. It is an intellectual tour de force that all serious scholars of the history of biology and of nineteenth-century culture in general will want to avail themselves of.


                                                                                                                                 David Cahan


Department of History

University of Nebraska