The Way From Nature To God

The theological foundations of H. C. Ørsted's philosophy of nature
  • Andrew D. Wilson
Part of the Boston Studies In The Philosophy Of Science book series (BSPS, volume 241)

For well over a century, scholars have traced the source of Hans Christian Ørsted’s metaphysics of nature to Immanuel Kant’s dynamical theory of matter and Friedrich Schelling’s romantic Naturphilosophie, both of which he first encountered as a student at the University of Copenhagen during the second half of the 1790s. Without question, Ørsted eagerly espoused the general tenets of Kant’s and Schelling’s force-based metaphysics; and, as is well known, Schelling’s Naturmetaphysik was one of the key inspirations behind Ørsted’s discovery of electromagnetism in 1820. To date, however, no one has attempted to explain in any detail why Ørsted so readily embraced an antiatomistic, dynamical physics and metaphysics of nature at a time when the majority of natural scientists were soundly opposed to such an understanding of the physical world (except in the sense that Kantianism was “in the air” in Denmark during the 1790s).


Natural Theology Balloon Flight Divine Revelation Natural Religion General Tenet 
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    For an early instance of recognizing the influence of Schelling on Ørsted’s thought see O. Waage, J. P. Mynster og de Philosophiske Bevaegelser paa hans Tid i Danmark (Kbn: C. A. Reitzel, 1867). “…Ørsteds Anskuelse har udviklet sig under Paavirkning af den schellingske Naturphilosophie”, p. 162.Google Scholar
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    Bruce Kirmmse, Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 176. For the quotation from Martensen, see ibid. p. 80. For the quotation from Ørsted, see To Capitler af det Skjönnes Naturlaere (Kbn: J. H. Schultz, 1845), p. 16.Google Scholar
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    Chr. Bastholm, Den Christelige Religions Hoved-Laerdomme, p. 57. Ørsted expressed much the same view in letters he wrote in February and June of 1808 as he began to work on a long narrative poem on the discovery of balloon flight. As Ørsted described his poetic endeavor in February, he intended to put in the poem, “what natural science has taught me, what inner experiences have developed in my soul, in short, what nature has revealed to me”. He therefore would present the invention of balloon flight as “a natural revelation” (Naturaabenbaring). By June, he had changed his language, shifting his perspective from the natural to the divine. As he told Adam Oehlenschläger, “My purpose is to present this discovery as a divine revelation through nature, which without doubt every discovery is”. For Ørsted, to discover something new in nature is also at the same time to discover something new about God. See Mathilde Ørsted, Breve, vol.1, pp. 261 and 274.Google Scholar
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    On the concept of Urkraft in Ørsted’s thought see my introductory essay in Selected Scientific Works of Hans Christian Ørsted, translated and edited by Karen Jelved, Andrew D. Jackson, and Ole Knudsen, with an introduction by Andrew D. Wilson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. xxxvii–xl.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew D. Wilson
    • 1
  1. 1.Keene State CollegeUSA

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