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  • The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe
  • David Cahan
The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. By Robert J. Richards. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. xix + 587. $35.

Romantic science has traditionally been held in very low esteem by scientists and historians of science alike. By "Romantic science" scholars mean a certain style of or approach to science during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, one that was practiced above all by German natural philosophers who sought to gain scientific knowledge through philosophical reasoning (of an idealist sort) by giving a central role to interchangeable and ill-defined forces of nature, taking a nonmechanistic approach to nature, and imbuing nature with aesthetic and moral values. According to the traditional view, Romantic science deemphasized empirical research and eschewed the associated dialectical relationship between theory and empirical practice. These attributes have led scholars to discount the science practiced by Romantic natural philosophers; indeed, many consider at least some of that "science" to be no science at all.

Recent scholarship has, however, begun to reassess this negative view of Romantic science. Robert J. Richards's impressive study of science and philosophy in the age of Goethe (1770-1830) is sure to force still greater reconsideration of Romantic science, at least insofar as it concerns the study of the organic world. Indeed, it will—or should—become one of the premier interpretations of the positive contributions made by a group of closely knit German Romantic [End Page 464] philosophers, scientists, and poets, who sought to comprehend the origins and development of organic life.

Richards offers a deeply contextualized study, both in the sense that he recounts in considerable detail the romantic lives (i.e., the love affairs) of several of his key figures, and in the sense that he sees science in the German-speaking world of this era as interwoven with philosophy and poetry. He portrays the central figures who stand at the heart of his study—the novelist Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis), the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, the physician and biologist Johann Christian Reil, the natural philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, the writer Friedrich Schiller, the novelists (and brothers) Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, and, above all, the central figure of the book and the age, the novelist, poet, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—not only in terms of their intellectual positions and systems but also in terms of the lives they led.While the book is in good measure about the thought of these and other men, Richards leavens his intellectual analysis with enticing portrayals of their various involvements with one another and, especially, with women. More particularly, he presents a fascinating account of the strong intellectual, personal, and, at points, even sexual relationships that these men developed in Jena and Weimar. These portrayals are not meant, however, as some sort of relief from the intellectually demanding portions of the study—although trying to follow the systems of Fichte and Schelling, for example, does indeed require a break every so often. Rather, Richards argues that there was a seamless web of relationships among the intellectual, social, and general cultural worlds of these individuals, and that we cannot fully appreciate the origin and meaning of their intellectual outlooks without simultaneously also grasping the psychological and personal realms of their lives. In short, Richards creates a narrative in which individual selves and the concepts of self, along with their moral and aesthetic outlooks, are inextricably interwoven with philosophical and scientific ideas and with literary achievements, and he shows how this conglomerate eventuated in a biological interpretation of nature.

Richards' book has an elegant architecture. Part 1 is devoted to the early Romantic movement in literature, philosophy, and science. It sets the background for the remainder of the book by recounting the work and lives of the German Romantic natural philosophers. Among other things, Richards shows that Schelling had a greater appreciation of the role of observation and experiment in science than most scholars have previously understood. Part 2 focuses on the philosophical and scientific foundations of the romantic conception of life. Here Richards takes up various...


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