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  • Natural Science and the Romanticisms
  • Jennifer J. Baker (bio)
Noah Heringman, ed. Romantic Science: The Literary Forms of Natural History. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 2003. xiii, 281 pp. $29.95.
Robert J. Richards. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002. xix, 587 pp. $20.00.
David M. Robinson. Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2004. xiv, 264 pp. $24.95.
Laura Dassow Walls. Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2003. viii, 280 pp. $35.00.
Eric G. Wilson. The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2003. viii, 278 pp. $65.00.

Romanticism has often been characterized as a movement that rejected the scientific program of the Enlightenment and denounced empirical scrutiny of the natural world. Romantic writers, however, often praised science’s revelatory power, and it is more accurate to say that science, depending upon its type, both undermined and endorsed the transcendental view of nature we associate with romanticism. Though scientific methods threatened to demystify nature, to reduce it to mere matter, they also promised to reveal the handiwork of a divine intelligence and the universal laws at work in the natural world. [End Page 387]

If we assume that romanticism was not necessarily antiscientific, as recent scholarship has come to do, key questions arise. With what particular forms of life and physical science did the romantics engage? How did these thinkers posit their own version of science—a “romantic science”—that accommodated their interests in human cognition and aesthetics? Did such a romantic science die out by the second half of the nineteenth century or did it leave a lasting impression on modern natural science? And to what extent was the distinction I have just drawn—between “real” science and romantic science—recognized by writers themselves, given the inchoate nature of scientific study at this time? The books under review here address these questions through studies of English, German, and American romanticism. In reviewing them together, I hope to highlight the relevance of English and German romantic scientific thought to mid-nineteenth-century American views of nature and natural science. In addition, using the examples of a recent study of Henry David Thoreau and another of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I would like to emphasize the crucial importance of Victorian science, particularly Darwinian biology, to the American assimilation and transformation of key romantic concepts.

Anyone approaching this topic will face the challenge of terminology. To begin with, “science” is far from a self-evident term. The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed dramatic changes in the way the natural world was studied and understood. In the history of Western science, the achievements of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were revolutionary, but their “natural philosophy” primarily concerned itself with formulating laws of physics and mathematics. At the turn of the nineteenth century, many zoologists and botanists sought to make the study of life forms as systematic and theoretically rigorous as Newtonian mechanics. This “second scientific revolution,” as it is sometimes called, entailed the increasing specialization and professionalization of nature studies, the rise of modern biology, and the advent of scientific institutions that delineated one set of methodologies to the exclusion of others. With these changes, natural history and natural science eventually became discrete endeavors. Natural history came to be [End Page 388] characterized as polymathic (encompassing studies of weather, plants, animals, rocks, and fossils, as well as ethnological studies), open to the amateur, strongly inclined to description, and attuned to the aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. By contrast, natural science, a broad rubric for the disciplines we now know as astronomy, chemistry, geology, physics, and biology, came to be understood as vocational, analytical, and sub-divided into fields of specialization. Taking natural philosophy as its model, it aimed at using inferential procedures to detect the unseen aspects of nature and to establish laws that could explain, or even predict, natural occurrences. This distinction began to solidify around the middle of the nineteenth century, prior to and during which time the terms “natural history,” “natural science...


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