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Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment

Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment

Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 398
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  • Book Info
    Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment
    Book Description:

    This far-reaching study redraws the intellectual map of the Enlightenment and boldly reassesses the legacy of that highly influential period for us today. Peter Hanns Reill argues that in the middle of the eighteenth century, a major shift occurred in the way Enlightenment thinkers conceived of nature that caused many of them to reject the prevailing doctrine of mechanism and turn to a vitalistic model to account for phenomena in natural history, the life sciences, and chemistry. As he traces the ramifications of this new way of thinking through time and across disciplines, Reill provocatively complicates our understanding of the way key Enlightenment thinkers viewed nature. His sophisticated analysis ultimately questions postmodern narratives that have assumed a monolithic Enlightenment—characterized by the dominance of instrumental reason—that has led to many of the disasters of modern life.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93100-8
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    The initial impulse for this study arose from debates generated by my book on the rise of historicism in Germany during the Enlightenment,The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism. In this earlier study I argued that the shift from a static to a dynamic worldview, central to modernity and usually called historicism, was conceptualized in the Enlightenment by Enlightenment thinkers. To make this shift clearer, I drew a distinction between Enlightenment historicism and Romantic historicism, each having its own agenda and methodological assumptions, but united by the larger view that history offers the basic mode to understand humanity....

  5. Prologue: The Humboldt Brothers Confront Nature’s Sublimity
    (pp. 17-32)

    Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt occupy a unique place in German intellectual history. Ranked among the age’s most important luminaries, they often have been seen as embodiments of contradictory but complementary visions of knowledge (Wissenschaft). Wilhelm is considered the theoretician who broke Enlightenment natural science’s spell on the cultural sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), thereby laying the foundations for the rise of modern historicism. Alexander is usually acclaimed as the person whose exacting empiricism inspired the tremendous flowering of German natural science during the nineteenth century. For many German intellectuals the Humboldt brothers symbolized the split between the natural and humanistic sciences, a...

  6. 1 Storming “the Temple of Error”: Buffon, the Histoire naturelle, and the Midcentury Origins of Enlightenment Vitalism
    (pp. 33-70)

    The publication of the first three volumes of Buffon’sHistoire naturelle, générale et particulièrein 1749 marked a significant moment in both eighteenth-century intellectual history and the history of book publishing. Along with Montesquieu’sL’esprit des lois, (1748) and theEncyclopédie, which began its publication career in 1751, theHistoire naturelleannounced a new approach to nature, knowledge, human nature, and society. All three works proposed a new language of nature that reached a very broad sector of Europe’s educated reading public, summarizing and clarifying positions advanced by some of Europe’s most daring writers on medicine, physiology, chemistry, natural philosophy,...

  7. 2 Learning to “Read the Book of Nature”: Vitalizing Chemistry in the Late Enlightenment
    (pp. 71-118)

    In 1777 the eminent Swedish naturalist Torbern Olof Bergman evaluated what he considered the major forms of natural philosophy in an introduction to Carl Wilhelm Scheele’s path-breakingA Dissertation on Air and Fire. Bergman ranked the forms of natural philosophy in a tripartite order of increasing importance. It began with Linneaen natural history, which directed one’s attention to surface phenomena and taught one to recognize external characteristics in order to classify them. The second, higher stage, was the study of physics, that body of knowledge acquired when one investigated the universal properties of matter (extension, impenetrability, and inertia). The third...

  8. 3 “Within the Circle of Organized Life”
    (pp. 119-158)

    In 1775 the French physician Pierre Roussel sketched the recent history of the life sciences in his popular bookSystême physique et moral de la femme.¹ Sounding a theme analogous to that voiced by contemporary chemists, Roussel announced that the life sciences had been revolutionized in the mid-eighteenth century. Mechanism, whose “shaky edifice was already threatening to collapse,” had been dethroned. The leaders of this “learned revolution” were physicians from Montpellier and Paris who challenged “the power of established authority.” They accomplished for medicine what Buffon had achieved in natural history and Montesquieu in philosophy. Mechanism’s “prattle,” its “exaggerated,” “empty,”...

  9. 4 The Metamorphoses of Change
    (pp. 159-198)

    Organic interconnection constituted a basic pillar supporting Enlightenment Vitalism. It accounted for self-organization and complex interaction, and employed the metaphors of affinity, synergy, and sympathy that were proposed at midcentury but worked out extensively after the 1760s.¹ However, if left standing alone, this vision of nature’s economy easily could have been reduced to one espousing the static, mechanistic images of balance and equilibrium and mobilized to legitimate the status quo in religious, political, or social terms. To counter these dangers, Enlightenment vitalists evolved a theory of change over time to complement and modify their discussion of the circle of organization....

  10. 5 From Enlightenment Vitalism to Romantic Naturphilosophie
    (pp. 199-236)

    Until recently scholars, especially historians of science, have treated RomanticNaturphilosophiewith disdain, if not contempt. However, the emergence of postmodernism has led to its reevaluation. Postmodernism’s critique of the Enlightenment, its attack upon instrumental reason, and its apprehensions concerning the dangers of scientism and technical progress appear to recapitulate themes announced by theNaturphilosophen.¹ Many scholars now considerNaturphilosophiean important corrective to what Max Horkheimer called “the self-destructive tendency of Reason,” whose origins he located in the Enlightenment.² In this guise some contemporary critics characterizeNaturphilosophieas an attempt to reestablish our ties with nature, to recapture the...

  11. Epilogue: From the Foot of Chimzborazo to the Flatlands of Europe
    (pp. 237-256)

    When Alexander von Humboldt departed Germany in 1798 for his expedition to South America, many thought he was destined to become one of the age’s leading naturalists, someone who would reveal daring new insights about nature and its relations to humanity. Goethe, Georg Forster, Friedrich Jacobi, Lichtenberg, Blumenbach, Cuvier, Laplace, and countless others were fascinated by his intelligence, diligence, and dedication to uncovering the secrets of nature. He had published a number of important scientific treatises on a remarkable range of topics, including his two-volume study of the influence of galvanic electricity on muscles and nerves.¹ Alexander was conversant with...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 257-326)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 327-366)
  14. Index
    (pp. 367-388)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 389-391)