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The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Science & Its Conceptual Foundations (Paperback)) Paperback – 21 Sep 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 588 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; New edition edition (21 Sept. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226712117
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226712116
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 4.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 332,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"A very important book which will be a milestone in the study of Romanticism and nineteenth-century biology. Extremely well written and very readable, The Romantic Conception of Life covers figures central to the development of modern biology who have hardly been treated at all in English. It will be useful to philosophers, historians of science, and Germanists alike." - Frederick Beiser, Syracuse University --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Inside Flap

"All art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one." Friedrich Schlegel's words perfectly capture the project of the German Romantics, who believed that the aesthetic approaches of art and literature could reveal patterns and meaning in nature that couldn't be uncovered through rationalistic philosophy and science alone. In this wide-ranging work, Robert J. Richards shows how the Romantic conception of the world influenced (and was influenced by) both the lives of the people who held it and the development of nineteenth-century science.
Integrating Romantic literature, science, and philosophy with an intimate knowledge of the individuals involved from Goethe and the brothers Schlegel to Humboldt and Friedrich and Caroline Schelling Richards demonstrates how their tempestuous lives shaped their ideas as profoundly as their intellectual and cultural heritage. He focuses especially on how Romantic concepts of the self, as well as aesthetic and moral considerations all tempered by personal relationships altered scientific representations of nature. Although historians have long considered Romanticism at best a minor tributary to scientific thought, Richards moves it to the center of the main currents of nineteenth-century biology, culminating in the conception of nature that underlies Darwin's evolutionary theory.
Uniting the personal and poetic aspects of philosophy and science in a way that the German Romantics themselves would have honored, "The Romantic Conception of Life" alters how we look at Romanticism and nineteenth-century biology."

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Format: Paperback
This is a truly wonderful book.
Goethe for most people is a German poet who tinkered with science as a dilettante.For a few others including Steiner enthusiasts Goethe and Goetheanism is the name for a sort of methodical thinking technique which can be 'practised' and then joined up with Anthroposohy (Rudolf Steiner's work).
Not that these views are exhaustive or even wrong.But Richards(who does not mention Steiner at all and may never have heard of him) most remarkably joins Goethe ,his personality ,his plays ,poems and science ,all into one whole and organically relates it to his milieu and age and context.
Goethe grows out of all this ,is influenced by Romanticism and German Idealism but also by figures such as Erasmus Darwin and from this emerges with a sort of historical necessity the wondrous organic growth of Goethe's life and workand loves.
Goetheanism ceases to be a sort of technique and becomes the natural expression of a full human being and one with this human being's love and self- expression .
Richard's books (as I have read them) seem enormously important.They contain themes which repeat ,it is true ,but in metamorphoses ,as leaves do into flowers and stamnens or as 'Werther' into ' Faust and Gretchen ,or 'Wilhem Meister and Mignon.In short this is about LIFE.The unfolding of organic metamorphoses and polarities.
I cannot recommend this book enough and also the author's book on HaeckelThe Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought they are both superb,epic almost and deeply stirring..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x8e2535a0) out of 5 stars 6 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8db90210) out of 5 stars Hidden dimension of evolution 15 Feb. 2008
By Shaun Johnston - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I got a lot more from this book than I expected, though it's less than it promises. It reads like droppings from the author's hobbies of researching German romanticism and evolutionary theory. It comes in disconnected chunks that could be separate books.

But I loved learning about "Bildungstreib," the romantic root behind Humbolt's travels and his journals of those travels that so inspired Darwin. It accounted for the "grandeur" Darwin saw in his evolutionary theories that is so at odds with the grubby mechanism of natural selection he came up with. That sense of grandeur Darwin got from German romanticism he used to sell his mechanism along with the really-grand theory of evolution itself.

I have long been curious about Goethe, but the extended treatment in this book read as if for specialists. In general I felt there was material here for a popular book on the German-romantic contribution to biology pre-evolutionary theory, but this book isn't it. There is in fact little about Humbolt.
28 of 38 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e68ae7c) out of 5 stars Well-meant but unbalanced 2 Jun. 2004
By Pat Lamken - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Richards presents two major theses here. First, that German Romantic science was not a dead end, but led directly to Darwin's theories of evolution. Second, that the personal sexual behavior of the Romantics was linked to a view of nature itself as sexualized. The present reviewer actually agrees with Richards on these points, yet still found this a disappointing and unbalanced book.
Richards is obsessed with Goethe. This is all very proper and German, and no doubt leads to brownie points in the form of research grants. It is also a woefully unfair and lopsided view. We get all the details about Goethe's mistresses, such deathless poetry as "I have fallen so in love with her/It's if I had drunk her blood" (where is Buffy when you really need her?), the intermaxillary bone, the Urplanze, and so on and on. This maximization comes at the price of minimizing every other contemporary thinker. Herder is dismissed as merely a sidekick of Goethe - indeed, since the bibliography doesn't list the Suphan edition (page 562) one may wonder if Richards even bothered to read the "Ideen" in full. Among the younger Romantics, only Schelling receives anything like a fair discussion. Alexander von Humboldt, who as a scientist and explorer had enormous and lasting influence not only on the German but European and American scientific scene, and whom Darwin himself credited with inspiring him, is given particularly derisive and cursory treatment, and one suspects more than a whiff of homophobia here. Chamisso, who was inferior to Goethe as a poet, but overwhelmingly superior to him as a scientist, doesn't even get so much as a footnote.
There could be a good book written on romantic science and its continuing if unacknowledged influence - but this isn't it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8df27e6c) out of 5 stars A Multi-Faceted Affair 12 July 2008
By A. Hooper - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
By Richards' own account this book is not your traditional history of the philosophy of science. It is trying to please many masters, is trying to be accessible to people interested in many different types of things, and I think that it does it very well.

The first point that I wish to focus on is the biographic information presented in this work. This is the most impressive and well-executed part of the text. Much of it (around 200 odd pages) is simply and unabashedly a biography of several key figures in the history of Romanticism. The first 100 pages of the book gives an account of the lives of the main Romantics, and towards the end we get another impressive slog of information specifically about Goethe. Interspersed through the other sections, however, are discussions on the biography of the key scientists of the time, so that section seems more like an intellectual biography. The weight of information that he brings to bear on these discussions is impressive. My only concern is why Kant and Schiller were left out of this. Kant's first and third critique get continual mention throughout, and the reactions people had to the third critique was what really glued this book together. I would have liked to have seen more of a discussion of Kant, but then most people who would read this book should know it already, so its probably not a big issue. But my main concern was Schiller's absence. Many authors (Pinkard, Beiser, Henrich etc.) write books on this time, and all mention how big an influence Schiller is, and yet no-one ever dedicated a whole chapter to him. You find out a lot about him here, but its spread our throughout the work.

The second emphasis on this text is the history of the philosophy. By philosophy here I am referring to the metaphysics and the idealism of the time, rather than the philosophy of science. Given the difficulty of the philosophy he is dealing with Richards does a very admirable job of making it lucid, and treading that fine line between detail and generalisation. My only concern is that the idealist conception of nature, and how representations gain their content without referring to a thing-in-itself, though central to the thesis, was probably underdeveloped. But besides that, this is a really excellent introduction, particularly to the works of Schelling, and it has some great gems about Kant's third critique.

Finally this book is a history of the philosophy of science. This is the area I know least amount, but it is the centre of this work. I can't comment too much on the accuracy of the work, but I thought that the discussion of the development of the concept of organicism was incredibly interesting, and I thought that the concluding arguments of the book, regarding Darwin's relationship to the Idealists, was well put forward. It certainly made me interested in exploring these issues more.

One last comment I'd like to make, which I see has been made by other reviewers, regards why Goethe was chosen as the focus of this book. He was a great poet, indeed, but I do think that his scientific nor philosophical acheivements were so great that fully half of the book should be dedicated to him specifically. He was an integral figure in these times, and for someone of his stature to have supported a Romantic conception of organicism would certainly have put it in good stead on the Continent, and beyond (as it seemed to have done). But I really thought more focus on Reil and the other biologists would have been welcome.

Overall this is a very impressive work, and in structure it is a testament to philosophical simplicity. Give a personal biography, then an intellectual biography, then examine the impacts on others. It is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Romanticism, or the philosophy of science, and even, as I mentioned, for those who like to read intellectual biographies (which I love).
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e051c78) out of 5 stars Darwin Owes Germans A Debt 16 Mar. 2011
By John T. Mulqueen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a dense,fascinating look at the influence of German romantic philosophers and poets on Darwin's theory of evolution. Kant can't be absorbed easily, and his followers/critics, e.g Fichte, don't make it any easier, but stay with it. The book is worth it.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8df27f74) out of 5 stars Science and aesthetics 3 Mar. 2008
By Viktor Blasjo - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The romantics envisioned a unity of science and aesthetics. Their vision can be seen as an extrapolation of Kant's theories.

According to Kant, aesthetics and science are connected as follows. "Organisms and aesthetic objects both exemplify purposiveness in their constructions---their parts harmonize and stand in reciprocal relation to one another. Such purposiveness could not arise by accident ... or at least our human reason balks at such notion." (p. 70). "In our appreciation of an artistic work, our understanding considers its various parts, allowing the free play of imagination, to get a sense of the harmony of forms; as imagination recreates those forms and compares their arrangements with the requirements of understanding, a feeling of purposiveness arises, an aesthetic feeling that we generically call a feeling of beauty. ... The situation of the biologist is comparable. When he assesses the traits of an organism, the same reflective procedure occurs: through an initial exploration of the parts, he formulates an idea of the whole---though now a conscious and articulate conception of the whole, an archetype---and thereby understands the organism's particular traits in relation to the whole. Indeed, the student of nature must, according to Kant, judge the structures investigated as if they came to exist by reason of the archetype... But in this instance the biologist makes only a heuristic assessment, and does not---cannot---presume the idea at which he arrives to have actually caused the structure." (pp. 488-489).

But elsewhere Kant had showed that the way we perceive the world is coloured by our cognitive apparatus. This prompted Fichte to claim that "Kantianism properly understood" implied the absolute subjectivity of nature: "even the manifold of sense has been produced by us out of our own creative faculty" (p. 79). Kant of course protested, as did Schiller: "The world is for [Fichte] only a ball, which the I has thrown and which it again catches in reflection!! He ought, therefore, to have simply declared his divinity, something we expect any day now." (p. 83). Nevertheless, Fichte's ideas took hold among the younger generation. Schelling, "the philosopher king of the Romantic circle," maintained similarly that "'the objective world is only the original, though unconscious, poetry of the mind.'" "Hence, the biologist's great aid in comprehending nature would be poetic, that is, aesthetic judgement" (p. 114), or, in Schelling's words, "'the common organ of philosophy---and the keystone of the whole arch---is the philosophy of art'" (p. 160).

These ideas had significant impact on biological research. "Most biologists of the period ... believed, in part due to Schelling, that teleological processes could be found governing natural phenomena and that valid laws could be formulated to capture such relationships," contrary to Kant who "maintained that biology could never really be a science, but at best only a loose system of uncertain empirical regularities" (p. 231). One example is Blumenbach, who claimed that "there exists in all living creatures, from men to maggots and from cedar tree to mold, a particular inborn, lifelong active drive. This drive initially bestows on creatures their for, then preserves it, and, if they become injured, where possible restores their form. ... I give it the name of Bildungstrieb. (pp. 218-219). He hoped to uncover laws governing this force, such as, "for instance, that the strength of the Bildungstrieb was inversely related to the age of the organism" (p. 226).

Goethe was also a scientist of this type. As the above romantics, "Goethe resonated to several features of Kant's conception" (p. 430), but he was also influenced by Spinoza. "Spinoza's conception of the amor Dei intellectualis, that deeply intuitive relation of the individual min to God-Nature, became emblematic of Goethe's own love and pursuit of nature. The identification of the self with nature meant, as Goethe came to believe, that deep within the soul pathways could be found to hidden aspects of nature and that discoveries within one world would lead to revelations in the other." (p. 377).

One philosophically motivated discovery made by Goethe was the intermaxillary bone in man. "Contemporary authorities ... had denied the existence of [the intermaxillary bone] in human beings [and] offered up this bone as a natural sign of man's radical separation from the animals" (p. 369). Goethe proved them wrong: "I have found---neither gold, nor silver, but something that makes me unspeakably glad---the os intermaxillare in man!" (p. 369). This was in line with his philosophical convictions. "For Goethe, the Spinozistic approach to anatomy meant that one had to examine the range of animal skeletons in comparative fashion in order to come to an adequate idea, or archetype, of the animal skeleton. Having achieved such an idea would then indicate how each of the skeletal parts related internally. If the human skeleton, for instance, exhibited a pattern comparable to other vertebrates, then one would expect that every kind of bone would be represented in the human frame ... Hence the expectation that human beings also exhibited an os intermaxilliaris." (p. 380).

Goethe followed the same principle in his botanical researches. During his first Italian journey, when in Palermo, "Goethe went to the public gardens in the city to relax with a copy of the Odyssey. ... But as he sat down ..., as he recalled, 'another spirit seized me...' He gazed around the garden, and inquired of himself: 'Whether I might not find the Urpflanze within this mass of plants? Something like that must exist! How else would I recognize that this structure or that was a plant, if they were not all formed according to a model'" (p. 395). This "quasi-Platonic principle ... carried enormous weight within him" (p. 416). When he tried to explain his Urpflanze to Schiller, however, "Schiller listened politely, shook his head, and exclaimed: 'that's no observation, that's an idea.' Goethe recalled being struck by this remark and not a little irritated. He replied: 'Well, I am quite happy that I have ideas without knowing of them and that I can even see them.'" (p. 424).

But Goethe did not willingly call himself a romantic, famously saying "The classical I call healthy and the Romantic sick" (p. 458). "With the Romantic there is nothing natural, original, but something contrived, labored, overblown, overdone, and bizarre, descending into the grotesque and into caricature." (p. 458). In science, the antidote to such "Schwärmerei and obscurity" (p. 463) was to be empiricism, while maintaining the unity of art and science. "'These great works of art are comparable to the great works of nature; they have been created by men according to true and natural laws. Everything arbitrary, imaginary collapses. Here is necessity, here is God.'" (p. 402). Goethe's emphasis on empiricism was surely healthy, but he went too far. The culmination of his empirical work is his optics, where he thought that "Newton sinned" in that he "selectively employed a few experiments to prove what he had already assumed" (p. 437). "He believed that as a result of the multitude and variety of experiments he was conducting that Newton's hypothesis would 'collapse like an old wall as soon as I will have undermined its foundation'" (p. 441). This of course did not happen and "with blighted hopes..., Goethe returned to literature to expiate his depressed cynicism about human folly" (p. 441). In the end he revised his views on empiricism (p. 438) and had to admit that he was a romantic after all. "Schiller 'demonstrated to me that I myself, against my will, was a Romantic'" (p. 458).

In the epilogue, Richards notes that Darwin had a rather romantic outlook. "Darwin never referred to or conceived natural selection as operating in mechanical fashion" (p. 534), instead natural selection "was cast in the image of a divine Being, whose 'forethought' might teleologically produce creatures of great 'beauty' and with progressively intricate 'adaptations.' Natural selection, in its original, metaphorical conception, was hardly machinelike, rather godlike" (p. 536). "Indeed, one might even say, without distortion, that evolutionary theory was Goethean morphology running on geological time" (p. 407).
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