- Acolytes of Nature: Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770–1850 by Denise Phillips
In the history of science, the tide may be turning against the explanatory power once accorded concepts like power and ideology. Phillips’ book about the “acolytes of nature,” the multiple and varying ways by which German advocates of learning about, or of examining, nature explained the slippery term “science,” enlists passion, pleasure, curiosity, and social hierarchies as explanatory categories (258). The approach is a breath of fresh air, though at times a confusing one.
There is nothing simple or easy about the uses of the German words naturwissenschaft and wissenschaft. Much of this book centers on the evolution of these terms from roughly the 1770s to the 1850s. Throughout, the author looks over her shoulder at the meaning of English and French equivalents, but her lack of in-depth knowledge of those other national histories clouds her discussion. She suggests that the term “science” possessed a similar instability in English well into the nineteenth century, but on the whole, such is not the case. In the 1780s, James Watt could casually refer to himself as a “man of science,” similar to Antoine Lavoisier, apparently without the least discomfort. It is a mystery to this reviewer as to why the language of comparison with German would not be Dutch instead of either French or English.
One of the great strengths of the book rests on the bridge that it creates between the enlightened republic of letters of the eighteenth century and the vast expansion of print culture and scientific and naturalist associations after 1815. In this complex social universe, “science” gradually shed “its earlier status as a vague neologism and [became] an indispensable intellectual reference point for educated German speakers” (10). In other words, by 1800 naturwissenschaft emerged as the term covering all of the disciplines that studied nature. Wissenschaft had lost any Baconian associations that it once had; it was now pure, referring to any discipline that was creative and generative of novelty.
Indeed, Phillips argues that science, more than any other activity, even more than classical learning or industrial prowess, defined membership in the learned public. The learned elites with their foundation in university-based academic training retained their preeminence; they were now central stars within galaxies of admirers who shared their values and even, on occasion, married into their ranks. Decade by decade, a [End Page 263] schooling revolution that began late in the eighteenth century expanded the learned public, and by the 1790s (just as in the Dutch Republic), its goals combined the study of nature with patriotism and practical economic reforms. As philosophical idealism and the integrated personality of the gebildeten came to dominate, the utilitarian focus of the learned persona melted away. By 1830, a scientific elite dedicated to academic publication and research occupied pride of place in German intellectual life. As a consequence, the skilled artisan had been displaced from learned society.
Acolytes of Nature concentrates upon local journals and societies, as represented by a few individuals and their writings, paying particular attention to Dresden and Berlin and never discussing the science actually practiced by any of the learned people who appear in its pages. Since its analysis is entirely linguistic, every statement must be nuanced and qualified: Learned societies could be both local and cosmopolitan (145); natural history societies belonged to a lower place in the social hierarchy, though they represented true science and “were important precursors of the later nineteenth-century Heimat (homeland) movement” (179–182). The notion that two cultures coexisted in Germany by 1850, one classical and philological and the other scientific and centered in the laboratory, has been vastly overstated (250–251). In fact, both of them shared a common set of academic values and, on the level of families and individual lives, belonged to the same social universe.
Reading explications of texts and finding in them a way of establishing the status of something as concrete, yet complex, as science seems a methodology destined to distance the...