Creating Nature: German Science, Literature,
and Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century

Astrida Orle Tantillo


This course, Creating Nature: German Science, Literature, and Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century, attempts to broaden students' understanding of the eighteenth century by integrating scientific materials into discussions about "nature." It examines the more serious scientific debates (including epigenesis versus preformation, the proper treatment and diagnosis of the insane, etc.) as well as those "scientific" trends that quickly became parlor games (physiognomy, mesmerism, etc.). This seminar has five main goals: involving students directly in the discourse of the period by having them replicate scientific experiments; fostering cross-disciplinary study of particular authors, artists, and cultural trends; opening students' scholarly inquiry beyond the written text (including the examination of fine art, medical drawings, etc.); enabling students to trace the influence of scientific writings upon such issues as gender, "natural" human beings, landscape painting, garden design, and nature poetry; and demonstrating the influence of the more humanistic fields upon the sciences.

More generally, this course attempts to explore the relationship between the disciplines in the eighteenth century. By concurrently studying the literary, philosophical, aesthetic, and scientific works of various German eighteenth-century figures, students will explore what these fields meant in the eighteenth century and what kinds of philosophical or aesthetic concerns were associated with each field. Many of the most influential thinkers in German speaking countries of this period were simultaneously scientists and literary figures, philosophers, or artists. Because this seminar proceeds by comparing various fields, students will be encouraged to study the scientific works of (and the scientific influences upon) these authors. They will therefore have the opportunity to discuss many topics, including the influence of Schiller's medical, Büchner's anatomical, or Novalis' mining education and training upon their more literary works. They will also be able to compare Albrecht von Haller's and Karl Phillip Moritz's scientific works with their literary or aesthetic ones.

The comparative approach of this course will also provide the students with first-hand experience of the basis for the eighteenth-century German view of the unity of nature. For example, several German scientists and authors of this period, especially those members of the Jena Circle, fought against the developing trend to separate the arts and the sciences and attempted to link the discussions of the two fields. Many Romantic scientists further rejected Enlightenment science's emphasis on cause and effect and mathematical formulas. Instead, they stressed the phenomena themselves, dynamic principles, and nature's ability to create new forms and evolve. By comparing and contrasting themes, visual images, and means of expression among the various disciplines, students will critically examine the attempt of late eighteenth-century science to unite the arts and the sciences.

Proposed Course

Although the majority of texts are by German speaking authors, the course is designed to be open to students outside of a German Department and could be cross-listed with History (as an eighteenth-century history of science/culture course). It is intended to be an upper-division seminar. Students who would register for this course as part of their German major requirements would have to do all of the readings and some of the written work in German. Class discussions, however, would necessarily be conducted in English. Students will have a great deal of freedom in choosing their paper topics to correspond to their own interests and fields. For schools having archival resources or access to rare book collections, students could also be encouraged to work directly with some of the eighteenth-century sources as part of their research papers. Students from different departments would also be encouraged to work together on the group projects so that they could experience first-hand some of the different perspectives associated with the different fields.

Most of the works on the syllabus are short: poems, a short play, essays, novellas and excerpts from longer works. I have chosen primarily shorter works so that students will have enough time to study and compare several different texts each week. I have also attempted to select scientific works that would be comprehensible to an undergraduate without a science background. One difficulty of this course is that in trying to emphasize the similar trends and themes among the various disciplines, the individual contexts of the particular texts (especially the scientific and historical ones) may need to be provided for the students. As a remedy, I will give a very brief overview in the form of a short lecture at the beginning of each component in order to try to fill in some of the possible gaps. In addition, student presentations may also geared toward covering some of the historical or scientific contexts necessary for understanding the particular texts. Students will be required to turn in a written version of their oral presentation at least one week in advance, so that I would know when to supplement the class with additional background materials.

As demonstrated in my course outline, the seminar is divided into eight main topics associated with eighteenth-century discussions about nature: 1) Archeology, 2) Gender and Reproduction, 3) Romantic Science and Romantic Literature, 4) Electricity and the Supernatural, 5) Physics, 6) Reading Nature, 7) Psychology, and 8) Alchemy, Religion, and the Scientist. To focus the discussion, each of these topics is then sub-divided into more specific themes, ranging from "Ruins and Fragments" in the "Archeology" section (contrasting the fascination with ruins and fossils to the development of literary fragments) to "Physiognomy and Phrenology" in the "Reading Nature section (studying some of the controversies surrounding the attempts to interpret nature).

This seminar will integrate several pedagogical approaches to the study of nature in the eighteenth century. Each component of the seminar examines scientific or technical texts alongside non-scientific texts and materials. Students will therefore be able to compare and contrast several themes within such broad areas as Romantic science and Romantic literature (Weeks 6_7) and explore the portrayal of new scientific discoveries (electricity, chemical theories of attraction, etc.) within literary texts. Throughout the semester, students will study paintings, landscape plans, physiognomical drawings, and illustrations from medical, botanical, and literary works in order to examine how the scientific theories influenced or reflected aesthetic, gender and/or moral theory.

For example, you will notice that the first main component on my course outline, "Archeology," contrasts a manual for garden design with several different literary texts. Hirschfeld's book on creating sentimental gardens covers every aspect of design from the planting of trees to the creation of monuments. Students would compare designs for ruins as garden ornaments to the intentional literary fragments created by several Romantic authors. Students could then discuss the role of the viewer/reader in relating to each of the fragments and discuss whether the individual is to complete the given object in his or her own mind or question the very possibility of completion or closure in either architectural designs or literary works. Through this comparison, the students could also debate the meaning and importance of time for each format, including the notion of decay, of coming to be, and of permanence. Similarly, Hirschfeld's designs for improving or completing nature, such as his "natural" designs for Hermits' huts (many of his designs tried to make the huts appear a part of nature, i.e., they were moss-covered, included trees as part of the walls, etc.), would be compared to Goethe's parody of similar designs in his play, The Triumph of Sensibility. This comparison could bring to life some of the debates that were occurring in the eighteenth century about the relationship between art and nature.

This course further encourages students to approach topics from several different perspectives. For example, in the "Psychology" component (Weeks 12-13), students will analyze various accounts of insanity. The course would especially focus upon the author J.M.R. Lenz. Today, we might speak of Lenz as being psychotic or schizophrenic. On the one hand, Goethe, in discussing his own relationship to Lenz, focuses on Lenz's foibles and characterizes him as "whimsical" (Goethe uses the English word). He also writes of Lenz's behavior as intentional. Büchner, on the other hand, although basing his literary version of Lenz's illness upon eye-witness reports, attempts to illustrate what might have been going on in Lenz's mind while he was struggling to maintain his connection with reality. As a means of counter-balancing these two more literary accounts, students would then turn to more "scientific" accounts of mental illness in Moritz's psychological journal, the first of its kind in Germany. Similarly, in the component of "Romantic Science and Romantic Literature" (Weeks 6-7), students will examine the Romantic rejection of a mechanistic natural model and Romantics' subsequent treating of nature as a free, rather than a necessitous, entity. Schelling argues through his philosophical work, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, as Goethe through his novel, Elective Affinities, and Ritter throughout his scientific works that nature is not simply a necessitous force, but also includes the possibility of free and creative activity. Students will therefore have the opportunity to discuss the implications of attributing freedom to nature and of treating the universe not as a cosmic mechanism, but as a cosmic organism.

Students will be required not only to read texts from a variety of disciplines, but also to recreate and analyze scientific experiments. Through this approach, they may discover more immediately what it might have meant to a person in the eighteenth century to claim that all of nature was interrelated. This comparison is especially important when the students turn to Lavater's physiognomical "experiments" (Week 11). Because the students will be asked to conduct several of the experiments themselves, they will become familiar with some of the more controversial aspects of the emphasis upon the unity of nature. For example, the class could be divided into several small groups, and each group could be given an unidentified silhouette to analyze according to Lavater's principles. When teaching Lavater in the past, I have chosen silhouettes of famous eighteenth-century figures that are not readily recognizable and would reveal their identities only after the groups have presented their findings. In addition, students could take and analyze some of the "tests" that Lavater's himself provides within his work. (He tests the reader by posing questions about particular drawings and then provides the "correct" answers.) After the students have read and conducted several different experiments, we would then discuss the problems associated with Lavater's "experiments" as well as the reasons behind their popularity. The class would then focus on some of the eighteenth-century applications of them, especially on such issues as classifying the races, determining criteria of beauty, and differentiating the sexes.

Students will also conduct several other experiments. For example, in the "Physics" component on my course outline (Weeks 9-10), students will compare Newton's and Goethe's experiments. Goethe, the Naturphilosophen, and several scientists and authors of this period primarily objected to Newton's method rather than to his findings. Many believed that Newtonian science falsely championed scientific objectivity, placed far too much emphasis upon formulas and laboratory experiments, and robbed nature of its beauty and complexity. To address Newtonian shortcomings, they developed scientific experiments that emphasized the visual aspects of nature and the necessity of conducting experiments in more natural settings. In order to follow this debate, the class will conduct the first experiment of Newton's Opticks (examining red and blue squares on a black background through a prism). We will then conduct Goethe's version of the same experiment from his Theory of Colors. As a class, we will discuss the differences in method and the significance of their different conclusions.

By first conducting and analyzing these two experiments together as a class, the students will have a model to follow when they are required to conduct their own experiments. The class will be divided into several groups, and each group will be given a different experiment from Goethe's Theory of Colors. (Everyone in the class, however, is responsible for reading all of the experiments.) Each group is then required to stage the experiment, explain its significance to Goethe's theory, and critique the experiment (Has Goethe proven his point? Are his methods and results valid?). Goethe's experiments are very easy to replicate. (One of his main arguments against Newton was that he made his findings and experiments unnecessarily complicated. Goethe therefore tried to make the experiments as accessible as possible). They involve measuring the eye's response to bright light, looking at colors against different kinds of backgrounds, examining the colored shadows produced by candles, and simple prism experiments looking at black, white, and colored figures. I provide the class with prisms. All the other materials for the experiments are readily available. Before assigning the experiments, I ask the students to let me know if anyone is color-blind. I assign color-blind students to experiments that require them to work only with black and white figures. I give one grade for the presentation itself and another for the written report. For the oral portion, the majority of the grade is based upon the explanation and not upon the actual performance of the experiment. The written portion of the assignment is due a week after the groups have presented their findings to allow them to include class reaction and discussion into their final report. After all of the experiments have been done, the class will then debate the questions that Goethe raises about scientific objectivity, the role of experimentation, and the problems associated with natural symbolism. In comparing the competing theories of colors and optics, students will also have the opportunity to trace the influence of the scientific debate within the works of several visual artists (including J. M. W. Turner, who overtly refers to the influence of the Goethe/Newton color debate).

Course Requirements and Assignments

Assignments in this class would emphasize interdisciplinary research on the part of the student. Students would be required to work on two group projects: analyzing and conducting Lavater's and Goethe's experiments. The Lavater findings would be presented orally, while the findings from Goethe's experiments, as discussed above, would be presented both orally and in writing. Apart from the group activities, students have two main assignments that they complete on their own: a ten to fifteen minute oral presentation and one final seminar paper. The presentation would require the student to analyze either a short literary or visual text and place it within a theoretical, historical, or cultural context. All of the topics for the final paper would require the students to deal with more than one "field" within their analysis. The students would have a broad choice of topics. They could either choose something already on the syllabus, or they could pursue their own interests--provided that their chosen topic would attempt to integrate at least two different disciplines or media. Possible topics might include a discussion of English and French landscaping theories and their significance to Goethe's novel, Elective Affinities, an analysis of the supposed roles of the egg and the sperm in eighteenth-century reproductive theory versus Humboldt's characterization of gender characteristics in his anthropological essay, a study of the excavation of Pompeii and its influence on architecture and garden design, or an examination of the influence of The Theory of Colors on a particular artist or work of art. Students would be encouraged, but not required, to link their oral presentation to their final paper.

I emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to the final paper, not only because it is a theme of the entire seminar, but also because it would help teach students general methods of approaching, researching, and writing about interdisciplinary topics. The optional reserve list of books at the end of my course outline is designed to help students find sources and ideas for their own individual projects.

Course Outline/Syllabus

Week 1 - Introduction to Course

The European Context of German Science and Natural Philosophy: Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and Rousseau.

[Objective: Provide historical and philosophical background for eighteenth-century scientific discussions in Germany. Topics will include induction versus deduction, the mind/body dichotomy, and the "natural" human being.]

Weeks 2 & 3 - Archeology

Themes: Ruins and Literary Fragments. Gardens and Sentimentality.

Texts: Excerpts from C. C. L. Hirschfeld's Theorie der Gartenkunst (Theory of Garden Design). Selections from Friedrich Schlegel's Fragmente. Selections from Novalis' Fragmente. Goethe's farce, Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit (The Triumph of Sensibility).

[Objectives: Have students 1) compare the eighteenth-century fascination with archeology and ruins with the literary form of the fragment; 2) examine the concept of the "fake" ruin via garden designs; 3) analyze Goethe's parody of a) fascination for antiquity, b) sentimental garden designs (which include fake ruins, English garden designs, and such elaborate structures as Oriental tea houses and hermits' huts), c) new, sentimental forms of literature (including Rousseau's novels and Goethe's own Sorrows of Young Werther.]

Weeks 4 & 5 - Gender and Reproduction

Themes: The Haller-Wolff Debate on Preformation versus Epigenesis. The Androgynous Ideal.

Texts: Part I, Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities). Schiller's poem, "Würde der Frauen" ("The Dignity of Women"). Illustrations from Albrecht von Haller's and Lorenz Oken's medical texts. Wilhelm von Humboldt's Essay: "Über den Geschlechtsunterschied und dessen Einfluss auf die organische Natur" ("On Gender Difference and its Influence upon Organic Nature").

[Objectives: Have students 1) become familiar with the main scientific debate on procreation along with its religious and cultural ramifications; 2) compare "scientific" characterizations of gender with literary ones; 3) analyze the notion of androgyny as an ideal in both scientific and literary texts.]

Weeks 6 & 7 - Romantic Science and Romantic Literature

Themes: The Unity of Nature. The Role of Experimentation.

Texts: Excerpts from F. W. J. Schelling's Ideen zur Philosophie der Natur (Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature). Excerpts from Johann Wilhelm Ritter's Die Physik als Kunst (Physics as Art). Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Part II). Goethe's "Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt" ("The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject"). [Objectives: Have students 1) become familiar with the main characteristics of Romantic science, including the emphasis upon the interrelatedness of all of nature (human and non-human nature as well as organic and inorganic nature), the development of dynamic (rather than fixed or static) new natural principles, and the role of Idealism in shaping some of the premises of Romantic science; 2) examine science from a humanistic perspective and humanism from a scientific perspective; 3) analyze the role of "freedom" and nature from several different perspectives.]

Week 8 - Electricity and the Supernatural

Discovering the Vital Principle. Polarity. Organic versus Inorganic Nature.

Texts: Excerpts from Ritter's "Das elektrische System der Körper" ("The Electrical System of Bodies"). Excerpts from Franz Anton Mesmer's "Catechism on Animal Magnetism." Haller's poem, "Gedanken über Vernunft, Aberglauben und Unglauben" ("Thoughts on Reason, Superstition, and Unbelief"). Ludwig Tieck's Der Runenberg.

[Objectives: Have students 1) compare and debate the borders between "science" and "pseudo-science"; 2) trace the influences of scientific developments in a literary text; 3) become familiar with scientific experiments involving the human body; 4) gain basic knowledge of some of the issues surrounding the discussion of vital principles.]

Weeks 9 & 10 - Physics

Themes: Newton versus Goethe. Scientific Objectivity. Phenomena versus Formulas.

Texts: Selections from Newton's Opticks and Goethe's Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors). J.M.W. Turner: "Colour Circle No. 2" and "Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)—the Morning after the Deluge"; Caspar David Friedrich: "Landscape with Lunar Rainbow"; Phillip Otto Runge: "Color Sphere" and "The Morning"; Goethe and Schiller's "Temperamentrose" ("The Temperament Vane"); and Blake's illustration of Newton.

*Students to replicate Newton's and Goethe's experiments in class (group activity).

[Objectives: Have students 1) compare two different, competing scientific theories; 2) analyze the ethical, aesthetic, and methodological implications of both theories; and 3) trace the influence of this debate in the arts.]

Week 11 - Reading Nature

Themes: The Microscope. Physiognomy and Phrenology.

Texts: Selections from J. C. Lavater's Physiognomical Fragments (Illustrations and text). Selections from G.C. Lichtenberg's parody of physiognomy (Illustrations and text). Poems by B. H. Brockes (accompanied by illustrations). Paintings by Runge. Letter dated 10 May from Part One of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Selections from George Adams, Essays on the Microscope.

*All students to conduct and analyze physiognomical "experiments."

[Objectives: Students to 1) familiarize themselves with several different eighteenth-century techniques of "reading" and "interpreting" nature; 2) discuss the ethical and philosophical consequences of these techniques; 3) discuss the underlying premise of the unity of nature; 4) study the controversies surrounding the technology of the microscope, including the notion of "expert" testimonies, visual "truth," and the manipulation of data.]

Weeks 12 & 13 - Psychology

Themes: "Case Studies." The Soul. Genius versus Insanity.

Texts: Selections from Karl Phillip Moritz's journal on psychology (Magazin zur Erfahrungseelenkunde als ein Lesebuch für Gelehrte und Ungelehrte). Georg Büchner's Lenz. Goethe's account of Lenz in Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth).

[Objectives: Have students 1) compare the "reading" of character from the previous week to Moritz's "case studies"; 2) become aware of eighteenth-century methods of diagnosing, discussing, and treating insanity; 3) compare and contrast the presentation of creativity, insanity and inspiration in scientific and literary texts.]

Weeks 14 & 15 - Alchemy, Religion, and the Scientist

Themes: Manipulating Nature. Religion and Science.

Texts: Goethe's "Metamorphose der Pflanzen" ("Metamorphosis of Plants"). Illustrations commissioned by Goethe to accompany his botanical essays. E.T.A. Hoffmann's "Der Sandmann" (The Sandman). Goethe's "Das Märchen" ("The Fairy-Tale"). Kant's "Muthmaasslicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte (Conjectural Beginning of Human History).

[Objectives: Student to 1) become aware of certain religious and alchemical influences upon scientific research and writing; 2) discuss eighteenth-century concerns about the power of the scientist and new scientific developments; 3) study Kant's anthropological use of a religious text.]

Books Placed on Reserve:
(Optional Reference Materials)

Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine (eds.), Romanticism and the Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Maurice Daumas, Instruments of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries and Their Makers. Trans. by Mary Holbrook. London: Batsford, 1972.

John Farley, Gametes & Spores: Ideas about Sexual Reproduction 1750-1914. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Sander Gilman, Seeing the Insane. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1982.

Clara Pinto-Correia, The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Stefano Poggi and Maurizio Bossi (eds.), Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.

Shirley A. Roe, Matter, Life, and Generation: Eighteenth-Century Embryology and the Haller-Wolff Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Walter Schatzberg, Scientific Themes in the Popular Literature and the Poetry of the German Enlightenment, 1720-1760. Berne: Herbert Lang, 1973.

Londa Schiebinger, Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Dennis Sepper, Goethe Contra Newton: Polemics and the Project for a New Science of Color. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Ann B. Shteir, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora's Daughters and Botany in England 1760-1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Barbara Marie Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.

 

 

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