- Acolytes of Nature: Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770–1850 by Denise Phillips
Intellectual and cultural developments in the German lands of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have long constituted a contentious and confusing area of historical analysis, not least when they involved the interaction of the history of science, philosophy, and intellectual history more generally. The era is associated of course with systematic but idiosyncratic thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Alexander von Humboldt, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well by their eponymous systems of thought; and by the vague but all-pervasive presence of Naturphilosophie and Romanticism and their supposed influences on science and culture. This intellectually and culturally perplexing era has left historians of science and culture with complementary as well as conflicting interpretations of how German men of learning, natural philosophers, natural historians, and others moved from the Enlightenment’s “learned estate” and “republic of letters” to an intellectual and academic life that, by 1850, was largely dominated by university-based disciplinary specialists.
Denise Phillips’s stimulating book offers a fresh approach to this historiographic question by purposely ignoring the great German philosophers and scientists of the era. It instead presents a straightforward philological and sociological study of the term and category of Naturwissenschaft in the German-speaking lands from the late Enlightenment to the mid-nineteenth century. It systematically traces, on the one hand, the emergence, evolution, and multiple meanings of the term Naturwissenschaft (e.g., as natural history, as natural philosophy, or even as physical objects and processes) until the term’s meaning settled on “science.” On the other hand, it studies the sociological history of how various individuals, as well as local societies and their journals, gradually created a modern meaning for the term and category within the broader context of expanding urban life and developing school and university systems. Following the evolution of the term and category, Phillips skillfully depicts the once porous boundaries between academic scientists and amateurs in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as the gradual hardening of those same boundaries after around 1800, as academics slowly appropriated the category of Naturwissenschaft for themselves alone.
Making good use of unpublished archival sources, as well as dictionaries, journals, and other published primary sources, Phillips devotes much of her study to local natural research societies, such as those in Dresden and Halle, and to the little-known individuals associated with them who embodied “low” (or popular) scientific culture and thus stood apart from what came to be regarded as “high” academic science. The category of “natural science,” Phillips shows, was originally “the border zone [End Page 165] where learned natural researchers met the broader public” (28). But that zone, and the associated relationships between “learned experts” and laymen, evolved—and to a good extent dissolved—into two different worlds. Along the way, Phillips notes, women were simultaneously excluded from academic science.
Phillips also argues that the period witnessed the gradual separation (not conversion, as some have held) of science and practice, that high (elite) science increasingly found its home in universities and sometimes even the new polytechnics, and that popular science became largely relegated to local societies. In contrast to the practices and goals of the Enlightenment, German Naturwissenschaftler gradually distanced themselves from the local utilitarian societies, increasingly composed of apothecaries, gardeners, botanical specimen collectors, medical men, schoolteachers, practical chemists, public lecturers of all sorts, and other amateurs—even as these societies were often presided over by local university professors. In the early nineteenth century, these societies—which had once, like the Enlightenment itself, aimed at national and even international audiences—became increasingly local, losing their broader appeal throughout the German lands. Science and “practice,” and their associated practical and economic societies, now went in different directions. This development helped further define Naturwissenschaft by making it more separate from practical matters. “By 1830,” Phillips writes, “two previously interwoven projects—general Naturforschung (natural research...