- The Remains of the Romantic Philosophy of Nature:Being as Life, or the Plurality of Living Beings?
What remains of the Romantic philosophy of nature that was developed mainly by Schelling and Hegel?
For a long time, the standard answer was: absolutely nothing. The general public had more or less assimilated the speculative Naturphilosophie to New Age reveries: it was proved to be scientifically false and in its very principle overthrown by positivism. Although it is also accurate to say that exploiting it technologically and industrially has been difficult.
It is noteworthy, however, that the influence of Naturphilosophie has been constant—albeit often unacknowledged, unconscious, or ignored even by the authors themselves—in certain slightly marginal areas of twentieth-century biology in which, like in Naturphilosophie, life was defined from the point of view of the singular living being interpreted as a self-forming subject (e.g., Uexküll 1982; 1992; Maturana and Varela 1980), and in the so-called continental philosophy, in the domain of which the authors have generally preferred to comment on the above-mentioned twentieth-century biologists rather than [End Page 37] their dusty nineteenth-century predecessors (e.g., Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze). The bad scientific reputation of the Romantic Naturphilosophie has left it to oblivion; likewise, its considerable contribution to the philosophical question of nature was also simply deposited in the scattered memories of these academic inheritances.
These lines of inheritance have been patiently sorted out in a couple of recent works (e.g., Lenoir 1982; Bonsiepen 1997; Richards 2002; Buchanan 2008; and Huneman 2006). Within the limits of a simple article, my ambition is not to contribute to this historical inquiry. Instead, I would like to ask on a systematic level what remains philosophically compelling in the German Romantic Naturphilosophie. I propose to show that, although Naturphilosophie does not offer any alternative science, it provides a noteworthy ontology of nature that can also clear the domain for contemporary existential and political reflections upon nature. I think that such a viewpoint is welcome today to complete the most common techno-scientific views on nature, for the latter cannot articulate their own existential and political implications. Or, as Philippe Huneman puts it, Naturphilosophie provides an outline for a hermeneutic of nature, which is compatible with the recent ecological turn in phenomenology; I could add that it is also in line with the increased interest in animality in recent debates on the nature of the political, which stem from Derrida, Deleuze, and Foucault.
I. Excessive Knowledge of Nature
I start by situating briefly the Romantic Naturphilosophie in its historical context of an epistemological revolution; for more ample information, I refer to the careful historical works of Bonsiepen (1997), Richards (2002), and Renault (2001; 2002).
Although Romantic Naturphilosophie was essentially a work of philosophers (in particular Schelling, but also Hegel) who were close to a number of scientifically minded poets (Goethe and Novalis) and to philosophically and poetically minded scientists (like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who explained life through a Bildungstrieb, or Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer, whose lectures on organic forces were very influential at that time), it results from [End Page 38] a genuine scientific revolution. Since Newton, the essence of nature had appeared through mathematics, which was eventually enhanced by physics, which were then, regarded as the only true sciences. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, naturalists got more and more fascinated by a number of phenomena that could not be adequately explained through Newtonian mechanics, in particular chemistry, electricity, and magnetism; beyond the scope of mechanics was also biology, which was born as a science around 1800, accompanying remarkable progress in medicine. Schelling and Hegel were well informed of this effervescence, and Schelling really took part in it. They gave a philosophical formulation to the changing situation in natural sciences when they stated with force: the very essence of nature is life. Knowing that in mechanist theories, matter is the ultimate constituent of reality, Schelling explains in Weltseele that life is not a special case of matter, but on the contrary, matter is only a special (dead) case of life (Schelling SW I/2.500 1 ; see also Hegel 1970, §§248 and...