Romanticism, also known as the “Age of Reflection,” describes the intellectual movement from 1800-1840 that originated in Western Europe as a counter-movement to the Enlightenment of the late 18th century. Romanticism incorporated many fields of study, including art, music, poetry and drama, painting, prose, theology, and philosophy, yet it also had a major impact in sciences of the 19th century.[1]

European scientists, disillusioned with the mechanical natural philosophy of the Enlightenment as well as the Newtonian model of physics, supported the belief that observing nature meant understanding the self and that the answers that nature could give us should not be obtained by force. They warned that Enlightenment encouraged the abuse of the sciences and sought to advance a new way of increasing scientific knowledge, one they felt would be even more beneficial to not only mankind but to nature as well.[2]

Romanticism set forth different themes:l it was anti-reductionist (the whole was more valuable than the parts alone), championed epistemological optimism (man was connected to nature), and encouraged creativity, experience, and genius.[3] It also emphasized the scientist’s role in scientific discovery as understanding that acquiring knowledge of nature meant understanding man as well; therefore, these scientists had a profound respect for nature.[4]

The decline of Romanticism occurred because a new movement, Positivism, began to take hold of the ideals of the intellectuals around 1840 that lasted until about 1880. Like the intellectuals who were disenchanted with the Enlightenment and preferred a new approach to science, people lost interest in Romanticism and wanted to study science using a stricter process. (See Positivism.)

Romantic Science vs. Enlightenment Science

As the Enlightenment had a firm hold in France during the last decades of the 18th century, so the Romantic view on science was a movement that flourished in Great Britain and especially Germany in the first half of the 19th century.[5] Both sought to increase individual and cultural self-understanding by recognizing the limits in human knowledge through the study of nature and the intellectual capacities of man. The Romantic movement, however, resulted as an increasing dislike by many intellectuals for the tenets promoted by the Enlightenment; it was felt by some that Enlightened thinkers’ emphasis on rational thought through deductive reasoning and the mathematization of natural philosophy had created an approach to science that was too cold and that attempted to control nature, rather than to peacefully co-exist with nature.[6]

According to the philosophes of the Enlightenment, the path to complete knowledge required a dissection of information on any given subject and a division of knowledge into subcategories of subcategories, known as reductionism. This was considered necessary in order to build upon the knowledge of the ancients, such as Ptolemy, and Renaissance thinkers, such as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. It was widely believed that man’s sheer intellectual power alone was sufficient to understanding every aspect of nature. Examples of prominent Enlightenment scholars include: Sir Isaac Newton (physics and mathematics), René Descartes (philosophy), and Andreas Vesalius (anatomy).

Principles of Romanticism

Romanticism had 4 basic principles: “the original unity of man and nature in a Golden Age; the subsequent separation of man from nature and the fragmentation of human faculties; the interpretability of the history of the universe in human, spiritual terms; and the possibility of salvation through the contemplation of nature.”[7]

The above-mentioned Golden Age is a reference to the time in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall of Man, when it was believed that man was wholly united with nature. After the Fall, man was disconnected with nature, and so Romantic thinkers sought to reunite man with nature and therefore his natural state. By respectfully studying nature, humans could hope to understand their world and themselves and therefore gain entry back into Paradise, the epitome of natural perfection and harmony amongst all species, including man; this was their salvation. Romantics also attributed the Fall from grace to the “culmination of the analytic and judgmental approach” that marked Enlightenment thinking.[8]

To Romantics, “science must not bring about any split between nature and man.” Romantics believed in the intrinsic ability of mankind to understand nature and its phenomena, much like the Enlightened philosophes, but they preferred not to dissect information as some insatiable thirst for knowledge and did not advocate what they viewed as the manipulation of nature. They saw the Enlightenment as the “cold-hearted attempt to extort knowledge from nature" that placed man above nature rather than as a harmonious part of it; conversely, they wanted to “improvise on nature as a great instrument.”[9] The philosophy of nature was devoted to the observation of facts and careful experimentation, which was much more of a ‘hands-off’ approach to understanding science than the Enlightenment view, as it was considered too controlling.[10]

Natural science, according to the Romantics, involved rejecting mechanical metaphors in favor of organic ones; in other words, they chose to view the world as composed of living beings with sentiments, rather than objects that merely function. Sir Humphry Davy, a prominent Romantic thinker, said that understanding nature required “an attitude of admiration, love and worship, […] a personal response.”[11] He believed that knowledge was only attainable by those who truly appreciated and respected nature. Self-understanding was an important aspect of Romanticism. It had less to do with proving that man was capable of understanding nature (through his budding intellect) and therefore controlling it, and more to do with the emotional appeal of connecting himself with nature and understanding it through a harmonious co-existence.[12]

Important works in Romantic science

When categorizing the many disciplines of science that developed during this period, Romantics believed that explanations of various phenomena should be based upon “vera causa,” which meant that already known causes would produce similar effects elsewhere.[13] It was also in this way that Romanticism was very anti-reductionist: they did not believe that inorganic sciences were at the top of the hierarchy but at the bottom, with life sciences next and psychology placed even higher.[14] This hierarchy reflected Romantic ideals of science because the whole organism takes more precedence over inorganic matter, and the intricacies of the human mind take even more precedence since the human intellect was sacred and necessary to understanding nature around it and reuniting with it.

Various disciplines on the study of nature that were cultivated by Romanticism included: Schelling’s Naturphilosophie; cosmology and cosmonogy; developmental history of the earth and its creatures; the new science of biology; investigations of mental states, conscious and unconscious, normal and abnormal; experimental disciplines to uncover the hidden forces of nature – electricity, magnetism, galvanism and other life-forces; physiognomy, phrenology, meteorology, mineralogy, ‘philosophical’ anatomy, among others.[15]


Examples of Major Contributions

In Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, he explained his thesis regarding the necessity of reuniting man with nature; it was this German work that first defined the Romantic conception of science and vision of natural philosophy. He called nature “a history of the path to freedom” and encouraged a reunion of man’s spirit with nature.[16] (See Naturphilosophie.)

The “new science of biology” was first termed "biologie" by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1801, and was “an independent scientific discipline born at the end of a long process of erosion of ‘mechanical philosophy,’ consisting in a spreading awareness that the phenomena of living nature cannot be understood in the light of the laws of physics but require an ad hoc explanation.”[17] Mechanical philosophy sought to explain life as a system of parts that operate or interact like those of a machine. Lamarck stated that the life sciences must detach from the physical sciences and strove to create a field of research that was different from the concepts, laws, and principles of physics. In rejecting mechanism without entirely abandoning the research of material phenomena that does occur in nature, he was able to point out that “living beings have specific characteristics which cannot be reduced to those possessed by physical bodies” and that living nature was “un ensemble d’objets métaphisiques” (an assemblage of metaphysical objects).[18] He did not 'discover' biology; he drew previous works together and organized them into a new science.[19]

Other intellectuals who contributed to Romantic thought were men like Sir Humphry Davy, Johann Goethe, and Alexander von Humboldt. Davy was considered "the most important man of science in Britain who can be described as a Romantic."[20] His new take on what he called “chemical philosophy” was an example of Romantic principles in use that influenced the field of chemistry; he stressed a discovery of “the primitive, simple and limited in number causes of the phenomena and changes observed” in the physical world and the chemical elements already known, those having been discovered by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, an Enlightenment philosophe.[21] True to Romantic anti-reductionism, he claimed that it was not the individual components, but “the powers associated with them, which gave character to substances;” in other words, not what the elements were individually, but how they combined to create chemical reactions and therefore complete the science of chemistry.[22]

Goethe

Johann Goethe’s experiments with optics were the direct result of his application of Romantic ideals of observation and disregard for Newton’s own work with optics. He believed that color was not an outward physical phenomenon but internal to the human; Newton concluded that white light was a mixture of the other colors, but Goethe believed he had disproved this claim by his observational experiments. He thus placed emphasis on the human ability to see the color, the human ability to gain knowledge through “flashes of insight,” and not a mathematical equation that could analytically describe it.[23]

Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt was a staunch advocate of empirical data collecting and the necessity of the natural scientist in using experience and quantification to understand nature. He sought to find the unity of nature, and his books Aspects of Nature and Kosmos lauded the aesthetic qualities of the natural world by describing natural science in religious tones.[24] He believed science and beauty could complement one another. (See Humboldtian Science.)

Frankenstein

Another Romantic thinker, who was not a scientist but a writer, was Mary Shelley. Her famous book Frankenstein also conveyed important aspects of Romanticism in science as she included elements of anti-reductionism and manipulation of nature, both key themes that concerned Romantics, as well as the scientific fields of chemistry, anatomy, and natural philosophy.[25] She stressed the role and responsibility of society regarding science, and through the moral of her story supported the Romantic stance that science could easily go wrong unless man took more care to appreciate nature rather than control it.[26]

Natural history

Nichols (2005) examines the connections between science and poetry in the English-speaking world during the 18th and 19th centuries, focusing on the works of American natural historian William Bartram and British naturalist Charles Darwin. Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791) described the flora, fauna, and landscapes of the American South with a cadence and energy that lent itself to mimicry and became a source of inspiration to such Romantic poets of the era as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake. Darwin's work, including On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), marked an end to the Romantic era, when using nature as a source of creative inspiration was commonplace, and led to the rise of realism and the use of analogy in the arts.[27]

Mathematics

Alexander (2006) argues that the nature of mathematics changed in the 19th century from an intuitive, hierarchical, and narrative practice used to solve real-world problems to a theoretical one in which logic, rigor, and internal consistency rather than application were key. Unexpected new fields emerged, such as non-Euclidean geometry and statistics, as well as group theory, set theory and symbolic logic. As the discipline changed, so did the nature of the men involved, and the image of the tragic Romantic genius often found in art, literature, and music may also be applied to such mathematicians as Evariste Galois (1811-32), Niels Henrik Abel (1802-29), and János Bolyai (1802-60).

Physics: Electromagnetism

Christensen (2005) shows the work of Hans Christian Orsted (1777-1851) was based in FRomanticism. Orsted's discovery of electromagnetism in 1820 was directed against the mathematically based Newtonian physics of the Enlightenment; Orsted considered technology and practical applications of science to be unconnected with true scientific research. Strongly influenced by Kant's critique of corpuscular theory and by his friendship and collaboration with Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1809), Orsted subscribed to a Romantic natural philosophy that rejected the idea of the universal extension of mechanical principles understandable through mathematics. For him the aim of natural philosophy was to detach itself from utility and become an autonomous enterprise, and he shared the Romantic belief that man himself and his interaction with nature was at the focal point of natural philosophy.[28]

Organic chemistry

The development of organic chemistry in the 19th century necessitated the acceptance by chemists of ideas deriving from 'Naturphilosophie,' modifying the Enlightenment concepts of organic composition put forward by Antoine Lavoisier. Of central importance was the work on the constitution and synthesis of organic substances by contemporary chemists.[29]

Decline of Romanticism

The rise of Auguste Comte's Positivism, which arose in 1840, helped in the decline of the Romantic approach to science by offering a new philosophy to interpret and study science in nature. No longer were people seeking a unification between man and nature based on the ideals of harmony, but a more precise approach that eventually gave rise to the study of science that is prevalent today. (See Positivism.)

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.xxi.
  2. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.xii.
  3. ^ Molvig, Ole. History of the Modern Sciences in Society Lecture course, Sept. 26.
  4. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.xiv.
  5. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.xii; Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.22.
  6. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.3-4.
  7. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.4.
  8. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.2-4.
  9. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.4.
  10. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.xii-xii.
  11. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.15.
  12. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.xiv; Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.2.
  13. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.15.
  14. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.19.
  15. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.6.
  16. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.31.
  17. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.47.
  18. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.63.
  19. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.57.
  20. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.20.
  21. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.31-42.
  22. ^ Bossi, M., and Poggi, S., ed. Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe, 1790-1840, p.31-42.
  23. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.16-17.
  24. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.15.
  25. ^ Shelley, M. Frankenstein, p.26-27.
  26. ^ Cunningham, A., and Jardine, N., ed. Romanticism and the Sciences, p.20.
  27. ^ Ashton Nichols, "Roaring Alligators and Burning Tygers: Poetry and Science from William Bartram to Charles Darwin," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 2005 149(3): 304-315
  28. ^ Dan Ch. Christensen, "The Orsted-Ritter Partnership and the Birth of Romantic Natural Philosophy," Annals of Science 1995 52(2): 153-185
  29. ^ Reinhard Löw, "The Progress of Organic Chemistry During the Period of the German Romantic 'Naturphilosophie' (1795-1825)," AMBIX 1980 27(1): 1-10

References