NEW BIOLOGICAL BOOKS
The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and
Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Science and Its
By Robert J Richards.
index. ISBN: 0–226–71210–9. 2002.
In this masterful study of the intellectual background
of early 19th-century biology, the author
argues that the standard reading of the influence
of Romanticism and Naturphilosophie on the development
of modern biology is radically mistaken.
Instead of being aberrations with no significant
influence on future developments, he argues that
these movements shaped the questions and, to a
certain extent, the range of acceptable solutions
that came to characterize the evolutionary view of
life in the latter part of the 19th century and which
continues to the present day. In a final Epilogue,
Richards even goes so far as to argue that Charles
The author’s approach is biographical. He gives
a finely nuanced characterization of the major figures
of the Romantic movement and of the Naturphilosophes.
The central figure of the saga is Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe, that larger than life polymath
who dominated the European intellectual
landscape at the end of the 18th and beginning of
the 19th centuries. The leitmotif of the book: Goethe
was a romantic in spite of himself. What Richards
takes the Romantic conception of life to be is
captured in a citation from Friedrich Schlegel at
the beginning of the book: “All art should become
science and all science art; poetry and philosophy
should be made one.”
Part One, The Early Romantic Movement in Literature,
Philosophy, and Science, examines the
lives, work, and influence of the literary critics Wilhelm
and Friedrich Schlegel and their wives and
friends, the poets Novalis and Friedrich Schiller,
and the philosophers Johann Fichte, Friedrich
Schelling, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Part
Two, Scientific Foundations of the Romantic Conception
of Life, looks at the influence of Johann
Blumenbach and Immanuel Kant on early 19thcentury
theories of evolution and development.
The third part, Goethe, A Genius for Poetry, Morphology,
and Women, is a sympathetic reinterpretation
of the significance of Goethe’s contributions
to the development of modern science.
This is a page-turning read and a must for anyone
interested in the history of 19th-century biology.
Even those who will take issue with some of
the more radical interpretations offered by Richards
cannot fail to come away with a deeper understanding
of the philosophical foundations of modern