Im Grunde ein Bild: Die Darstellung der Naturforschung bei Kant, Goethe, und Alexander von Humboldt by Michael Bies (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael Bies, Im Grunde ein Bild: Die Darstellung der Naturforschung bei Kant, Goethe, und Alexander von Humboldt. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2012. 371 pp.

This rich study provides a new and welcome look at the concept of Darstellung, a central linchpin of the aesthetics of the Goethezeit. Though philosophical and literary articulations of Darstellung have been dealt with in detail in recent decades by Winfried Menninghaus, Martha Helfer, and others, Michael Bies pursues a compellingly synthetic project that brings Kant, Goethe, and [End Page 270] Humboldt into resonance with each other in original ways. Specifically, Bies tracks the aesthetics of Darstellung and the preoccupation with the role of the image (Bild) in new knowledge production across scientific writing, in literary and philosophical exposition, and in Goethe’s and Humboldt’s experiments with visual images in their botanical studies. As Bies describes it, the model of an image that can manifest a holistic conception of nature in an immediate and vivid way—in contrast to a purely abstract depiction or one that manifests only the limited results of a single scientific discipline—served to organize much of the diverse literary, philosophical, and scientific output of the period. Along with addressing issues of central poetic and aesthetic importance, this study will also be of value for scholars working on the history of science and the popularization of science, as well as on media and performance studies.

One of the benefits of Bies’s study is that he casts the aesthetic problem of Darstellung against the backdrop of the emergence of modern scientific disciplines. If the general trend of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is one of disciplinary Ausdifferenzierung, then for Bies the model of Darstellung serves as a locus of de-differentiation (Entdifferenzierung), which synthesizes aesthetics with modes of new knowledge production. Bies thus rightly treats discussions about Darstellung as a key site of contact between aesthetics and the sciences. This insight has far-reaching implications: for one, Bies convincingly argues that this model of Darstellung is at work in the popularization of science (commonly associated later in the nineteenth century with a model of Humboldtian science) and in the more general problem of the place of literary style in philosophical and scientific exposition. Additionally, Bies shows how the problem of intermediality (particularly the intersection of text and image) lies at the heart of modern conceptions of new knowledge production; here the interaction between text and image at work in Goethe’s botanical drawings and in Humboldt’s famous plates depicting plant geography overlaps with these authors’ synthetic visions of the natural world as lebendige Natur. Following the general Foucauldian thesis of the early nineteenth-century turn away from a “classical” Enlightenment model of abstract representation, Bies describes what he calls an epochal “Medienwandel von Text zum Bild” that poses the question of the interrelations of text and image, of abstraction and concretion, in new ways.

The book opens with a detailed study of Kant’s theory of Darstellung against the backdrop of eighteenth-century poetics. Drawing on Klopstock’s distinction between lively presentation that accesses the imagination and intuition (Darstellung) and abstract, scientific presentation (Abhandlung), Bies shows how Kant’s concepts of Anschauung, Darstellung, hypotyposis, and aesthetic idea articulate an emergent aesthetics of the lively image. Indeed, he situates Kant as one of the crucial instigators of the aesthetics of Darstellung that would come to preoccupy Goethe, Schiller, and the Romantics. Additionally, Bies considers the extent to which certain features of Kant’s style lend themselves to be read as examples of Darstellung.

Bies then turns to Goethe, exploring his work on botany and the philosophical roots thereof in Goethe’s engagement with Kant and Spinoza. Bies compellingly lays out how Goethe’s reception of the Critique of Judgement—and in particular Kant’s analogy between the work of art and the natural organism—influenced his botanical studies and his various attempts to formulate their results. He explores Goethe’s idea of the “naturgemäße Methode” of studying nature, as well as his aspiration to give the results of his studies adequate expression [End Page 271] in linguistic and visual form. As Bies shows, Goethe was...