Volume 78, No. 4 December 2003 THE QUARTERLY REVIEW OF BIOLOGY





The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and

Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Science and Its

Conceptual Foundations.

By Robert J Richards. Chicago (Illinois): University of

Chicago Press. $35.00. xix _ 587 p _ 4 pl; ill.;

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

Darwin was, in many respects, a Romantic biologist.

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


Michael Bradie, Philosophy, Bowling Green State

University, Bowling Green, Ohio