Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. xix + 587. US$35.00, £24.50 HB.
Astrida One Tantillo, The Will to Create: Goethe ‘s Philosophy of Nature. Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. Pp. xii + 241. US$32.50 HB.
By Joan Steigerwald Goethe’s scientific studies have been subject to a number of differing interpretations. His status as the emblem of German culture, resulting in innumerable studies of his life and work, and his possession of an intellect ranging widely across disciplines, makes the assessment of his achievements in any given area a complex task. The volumes by Richards and Tantillo offer radically divergent valuations of his work. Tantillo argues that Goethe had no significant impact on the scientific community; Richards, in contrast, contends that his impact was significant both on contemporary scientists and on later developments in nineteenth century biology. Tantillo argues that Goethe was not a Romantic, equating Romanticism with subjective preoccupations uninterested in the study of nature; Richards, on the contrary, claims that Goethe was a Romantic, and further claims that Romanticism made important contributions to the study of nature.
Richards’ is the more sophisticated book. He offers a rich account of the Romantic conception of life, portraying it as arising from individual lives. He has done tremendous historical work to uncover the details of those lives, of personal relations and emotional
encounters, drawing upon correspondence, diaries, and recorded conversations, and situating them in cultural and historical contexts. He also is one of the few historians of science to have seriously engaged the philosophical works of Kant, Fichte and Schelling that informed studies of living organisms in the period, and provides his own original reading of their texts rather than relying on the analyses of others. Finally, his account of Romantic biology is steeped in his vast knowledge of developments in the life sciences during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He characterises the Romantic conception of life as marked by a view of nature as organic and dynamic, by an aesthetic appreciation of nature, by the inclusion of a moral component in the understanding of nature, by finding in the study of nature a resource for personal development, and, finally, by a distinctive Romantic personality that fused intellectual endeavour with emotional and imaginative impulses. However, the problem with starting from a definition of Romanticism and Romantic life is that it determines in advance what works or individuals might be included or what might be sought in the works examined. Moreover—though Richards’ does place the central figures of his narrative culturally and historically—his focus upon individual personalities and their biographies does suggest a perception of these figures as individuals with special insight, if not a seduction by the notion of Romantic genius, rather than a fully contextualist account of Romantic conceptions of life. The reading of individual texts against individual lives also results in the obscuring of thematic concerns in the sequence of detailed summaries of books.
Tantillo, in contrast, offers a strictly thematic reading of Goethe’s scientific works. Focusing upon Goethe’s conception of a will-driven nature, she examines and devotes a chapter to each of the basic principles informing this conception: the principles of polarity, of intensification, of compensation, and of competition. She claims a new interpretation of his work based on the whole of his scientific corpus, although there is a glaring omission of his important work on geology. Rather than attempting to rehabilitate Goethe as a scientist, Tantillo revisits him as a natural philosopher, considering the significance of his four principles for questions of scientific method, objectivity, theories of perception, aesthetic judgment, gender categories, and natural law. These discussions of Goethe’s philosophy of nature are the strongest aspects of the book. Unfortunately Tantillo provides little contextualisation of Goethe’s ideas. Although she notes that Goethe regarded biographical
details as essential for an assessment of scientists’ contributions and of the influences on their work, she offers few details of Goethe’s life. She reads Goethe largely against Newton and Descartes, rather than his actual contemporaries, and simply accepts rather than examines Goethe’s characterisations of mechanistic conceptions of nature and of Enlightenment rationality. What discussion of contemporary scientists is included relies too heavily on dated historical studies by others. Moreover, there is no attempt to examine the subtleties of the contemporary philosophical works that Goethe was reading, or the works and ideas of the Romantic figures with whom Goethe regularly interacted. Instead, his natural philosophy is compared anachronistically to Lucretius, Hobbes, and Nietzsche. The contrast to Richards’ rich biographical account of Goethe’s philosophy of nature could not be more striking.
Both Tantillo and Richards offer a defence of their subjects. Because Goethe’s and (other) Romantic philosophies of nature have too often been simply dismissed as pure speculation or poetic fancy, both authors attempt to redress impoverished historical assessments by highlighting their significant contributions. Tantillo argues that although Goethe made no significant contributions to science, Goethe’s reflections upon scientific method raised issues of modem relevance. Richards is much bolder. He too emphasises the important insights into the epistemological issues arising from natural inquiry provided by the figures examined in his work. He then goes on to argue that Goethe was a good scientist not only in light of the criteria of his time but for all time, and that he made actual scientific contributions through his morphology, his notion of the archetype and his discovery of the intermaxilliary bone in humans. Richards further argues that Goethe and Romantic biology more generally had significant influences upon nineteenth-century biology in general, including Darwin. Richards thus offers an important historical reevaluation of the contributions of Romantic thought to life science. Too often the detailed scientific work of this type has been neglected due to unwillingness to work through difficult texts or premature dismissals of the period as a whole.
The sense of a need to defend Romantic biology does, however, lead to a teleological reading of the science of the period in a manner criticised in much newer history of science: reading works of a historical period in terms of subsequent developments in science often distorts their meaning. In Richards’ case, this historiographical practice results in excessive emphasis on archetype theory: though certainly central to Goethe’s morphological work, it was less central than Richards suggests in Schelling’s natural philosophy. Moreover, Richards’ controversial claim that Darwin was a Romantic is barely sketched, and the broad historical generalisations of the concluding chapter of the book contrast poorly with the detailed analyses of the previous chapters. Finally, the need to defend the philosophies of nature of Goethe and the Romantics misses an opportunity to examine their productive failures. Often what is most interesting in the work of a figure such as Schelling is how his excessive explorations of systematic or scientific philosophy, of the conditions of cognition, or of the conditions for a philosophy of nature, or the internal processes of nature, led him to the limits of knowledge and scientific inquiry. Schelling can thus be provocatively read not as a grand metaphysical system-builder, but as an explorer of the necessary incompleteness of our knowledge of nature.
Both books offer important discussions of the thinking of Goethe and (other) Romantic figures on the complex relationships between the subject and object in scientific inquiry. Tantillo agues that at the core of Goethe’s philosophy of nature is a modern concept of the observer. She offers an engaging account of how Goethe stressed the necessity of approaching nature with self-knowledge to distinguish the subject’s contributions from those of nature. Goethe particularly emphasised the effects of the physiology of vision—of the effects of the physical eye as well as the mind’s eye—on our perceptions. Given that the world is dynamic, colourful, and alive, he argued that it is vital to consider its power over the mind and body, and to attend to the reactions of observers to phenomena. Tantillo is right to point out the sophistication of these reflections of Goethe’s on the subjectivity of observation. But Tantillo then cites Goethe as suggesting investigators should “try to view objects in their own right” and “to let the object of study speak for itself” (pp. 49, 77). These claims indicate that Goethe held that it is possible to overcome the subjective aspects of observation to arrive at objective knowledge of the phenomena under investigation. Indeed, if one carefully reads Goethe’s essay “Experiment as a Mediator between Subject and Object”, referred to by Tantillo, one finds Goethe offered means for providing experiments with the certainty of mathematical proof—hardly a modern understanding of experiment or observation. Tantillo also offers a curious interpretation of Goethe’s concept of type as an artificial construct, a flexible tool for studying the fluidity of form, as opposed to identifying a necessary or permanent aspect of nature. But if Goethe regarded the archetype as a product of the mind’s eye incorporating a range of possibilities, as Richards makes clear, he nevertheless regarded it as not merely hypothetical but as a determinative concept that assures the observer of the fundamental unity of organic beings. Goethe claimed to have an intellectual intuition of the necessary archetypes of plants and animals, a bold assertion of his capacity to arrive at objective knowledge of the essence of natural forms.
Richards’ exploration of the difficult philosophical works of the Romantic period enables him to offer very insightful discussions of their reflections upon the relationships between the subject and object of inquiry. He examines in particular German idealism’s claim that the self-organisation of the universe corresponds to the seif-organisation of the mind, i.e. that the subject and object merge at a deeper level. Richards offers an original reading of Fichte’s and Schelling’s transcendental idealism, tracing their account of how the empirical subject and natural world are constituted by the absolute subject in acts of self-knowledge. He reads Schelling’s natural philosophy as similarly claiming that phenomena and their relationships can be traced back to the self as their only possible source—that the “objective world is only the original, though unconscious, poetry of the mind” (p. 114). But German idealism is better understood as a continuation of Kant’s critical project of examining the conditions of cognition. Thus, as opposed to claiming that nature is constituted by the mind, both Fichte and Schelling were concerned to examine how the phenomena became actual for us and to trace the process of our construction of knowledge of the world. Richards locates Schelling’s break with Fichte in his shift from a preoccupation with the workings of the individual subjective mind to the absolute, as the source of both the subject and the object. Although this shift was an important aspect of the development of Schelling’s philosophy, he also remained engaged by the problem of finding an account of nature that was neither simply an element within the mind’s activity nor resolved into the divine. His 1809 essay “Philosophical Enquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom” rigorously examined this problem, but was unable to resolve it. Unfortunately, Richards does not consider this important work and its implications.
Both Tantillo and Richards stress the centrality of aesthetics to Goethe’s and Romantic philosophies of nature. Goethe was, of course, both a poet and a scientist. Accordingly, he theorised about natural beauty, about the aesthetic influence of colours on the subject, and about how the creative activity of nature paralleled that of the artist. Tantillo unfortunately does not go beyond such observations to consider how contemporary aesthetic theory influenced Goethe’s aesthetics, nor how Goethe’s understanding of aesthetic appraisal informed his study of morphology. Richards does discuss the influence of Winckelmann’s aesthetic theory on Goethe, and how Schelling led him to regard artistic intuition and scientific understanding as complementary means of penetrating nature’s underlying laws. As Schelling argued in his System of Transcendental Idealism, “aesthetic intuition is simply intellectual intuition become objective” (Richards, p. 162). Richards also considers how Schelling’s interest in aesthetics shifted in his later identity philosophy, so that ideas now became the standard not only for the objects of science and philosophy but also for art, and hence the philosopher took priority over the artist. But what neither author examines is the central place given the imagination in German idealism’s explorations of cognition and the judgment of phenomena, nor how considerations of the role of imagination in aesthetic judgment and artistic activity informed these epistemological explorations.
Kant’s Critique of Judgment attempted to provide a critical treatment of both aesthetics and teleology. Kant’s conception of teleology was much more sophisticated than his eighteenth-century predecessors, who regarded natural objects in terms of their use, the human being as above a nature designed for his or her use, and organisms as based on a predetermined divine plan. Kant was instead concerned with how to understand living things as self-organising systems, in which disparate parts seemed to be reciprocally means and ends, contributing together to the formation and preservation of the whole. Tantillo, unfortunately, does not address Kant’s conception of teleology, and thus represents Goethe simply as critical of eighteenth-century conceptions of teleology. Richards, in contrast, notes that Goethe distinguished internal from external teleology, and how he attempted to understand the internal perfection of the organism as without external purpose, that it “exists for itself and through itself’, under the influence of Kant (Richards, p. 447). Richards does, however, too readily accept Kant’s claim to draw a clear boundary between reflective judgments of organic bodies and determinative judgments of mechanical bodies. Indeed, Schelling’s philosophy of the organism started from the ambiguities he found in Kant’s attempts at such demarcation.
One of the most important contributions of both books is their consideration of the evolutionary ideas of Goethe and his contemporaries, challenging the received view denying evolutionary thought to the Romantic period. Both Tantillo and Richards argue that evolutionary thinking was central to Goethe’s philosophy of nature, and careful to distinguish Goethe’s ideas from Darwin’s. Tantillo’s interesting chapter on the principle of Steigerung or intensification examines Goethe’s understanding of nature’s will to create, its striving to perfection and drive to complexity. She emphasises that this creative drive works against the limitations with which it was born—its size, physical makeup, and environment—to produce new forms. But yet again Richards offers a divergent account. He argues that Goethe conceived the evolution of form as operating according to eternal archetypes that are realised in time. Thus for Goethe evolution is not simply a free, undirected impulse. Richards also discusses Schelling’s evolutionary thinking representing it as directed by archetypes that are realised only through an infinity of particular products progressively actualised over time. Richards’ concluding chapter offers convincing suggestions regarding how such archetype theories influenced Darwin’s evolutionary theory, while stressing how Darwin’s theory differed from Goethe’s and Schelling’s.
A central theme of Richards Romantic Conception of Life is the personal passions and desires of the individuals he discusses. He thus retains a rather traditional notion of Romanticism as romance. His representation of some of the female figures in his narrative is accordingly problematic; although he greatly admires women like Caroline Schlegel Schelling for their intellect and force of character, they remain objects of desire in Richards’ account. Nature is also cast as feminine, without an analysis of the gendered readings of nature by Goethe and others. Tantillo attempts such an analysis, but in a confused way. At one point she states that in the “Metamorphosis of Plants” Goethe discussed “gender in conjunction with sexual organs”, not clearly distinguishing a discussion of the sexuality of plants from a gendered characterisation of plants or a naturalisation of gender categories (Tantillo, p. 171). She often translates Goethe’s description of the männlich and weiblich sexual parts and tendencies of plants as masculine and feminine rather than male and female, again without clarifying to what extent she reads him as consciously using or unconsciously imposing gendered categories. Tantillo is right to be critical of simplistic feminist critiques of Goethe’s relationships to women and treatment of the sexuality of plants, but unfortunately only hints at his more complex attitudes to women as reflected in his literary works and life. Both books would benefit from attention to important recent studies of gender and sexuality in the Romantic period. The turn of the nineteenth century was a time in which attempts were made to naturalise particular gender roles. But many Romantic figures offered provocative challenges to conventional notions of gender and sexuality.
Both books are recommended to the reader. Tantillo offers an engaging portrait of Goethe’s natural philosophy, if lacking in rigor and historical detail. Richards provides an excellent study of the conception of life in the early German Romantic period that is both philosophically rigorous and historically nuanced. His book now represents the most substantive work on the philosophy of nature in the period, providing an ambitious and original analysis that invites debate with scholars in the field, and challenges us to engage with Romantic science at the level of detailed analysis long enjoyed by historians of science of other periods.
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