Key Texts of Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776–1810) on the Science and Art of Nature by Jocelyn Holland (review)
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Reviewed by
Jocelyn Holland, Key Texts of Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776–1810) on the Science and Art of Nature. Leiden: Brill, 2010. xiv + 713 pp.

Johann Wilhelm Ritter is not included among the pantheon of notable natural scientists. A brief mention by Goethe (HA 10:452), a friendship with Clemens Brentano, and an influence on Novalis have not rescued him from the general obscurity to which the circumstances of limited opportunity relegated him. Nor have Walter Benjamin’s positive opinions of him managed to pull Ritter into a wider reception. A few scant paragraphs in the omnivorous Wikipedia locate him generously as a “chemist, physicist and philosopher” but make evident that he was at best a peripheral figure. One can only hope that the present excellent edition of the German texts, with fine English translations by Holland and introduced by her essays, may to some extent correct the harsh judgment of contemporaries and posterity.

As the title indicates, the book consists of editions of Ritter’s key texts, with translations on the facing pages. Indexes of names and of subjects, one in English and one in German, will make the material readily accessible as well. The texts are divided into three sections. Part 1, the longest, consists of Ritter’s Fragmente aus dem Nachlasse eines jungen Physikers (Heidelberg, 1810), a collection of his aphorisms or scattered thoughts on a wide range of topics in physics. Overall, it is apparent that although Ritter kept up with the relevant literature in the field and was open to many possibilities, his speculations overshadowed the role of experiments. There is something of a poetic quality to pronouncements like aphorism 104: “The earths are the most basic thing on earth, the most prominent; that which must be closest to all explanation,—whereupon in formation the most force was used,—that which claims the most egoism,—the greatest self-sufficiency” (175). Such passages make clear that Ritter, like Novalis and Percy Shelley, belonged to the generation of speculative Romantic thinkers on the threshold of modern positivist science.

Part 2 presents Die Physik als Kunst (Munich, 1806), which is based on a speech Ritter delivered at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. Philosophical rather than scientific, it aimed for a physics that would be reconciled with living nature. The subject of part 3 was published in 1808 in the Journal für die Chemie und Physik as “Versuch einer Geschichte der Schicksale der chemischen Theorie in den letzten Jahrhunderten.” As Holland explains, given Ritter’s own research, it is predictable that the role of electricity in connecting the organic and inorganic realms becomes increasingly important in the course of the essay. [End Page 298]

This edition might not be of much interest to beginners or to undergraduates, but graduate students and specialists in German Romanticism will welcome it as a solid introduction to a fascinating, if flawed, figure.

Arnd Bohm
Carleton University