The Romantic Experiment As Fragment

  • Robert Michael Brain
Part of the Boston Studies In The Philosophy Of Science book series (BSPS, volume 241)

Historians of science often refer loosely to Naturphilosophie as “romantic”. Strictly speaking, however, there was a certain intellectual gap between the systematic philosophical thinkers and their romantic counterparts whose work they so deeply conditioned and shaped. Even in cozy Jena the philosophers stood at a certain intellectual and social distance from the romantic circles of the Schlegels, Novalis, Tieck, and others: Schelling did not write for the Athenäum, nor did Fichte and Hegel. Nor did the philosophers write much of significance in the literary genres usually thought to be most characteristic of romanticism: the novel, poem, and fragment. Nevertheless, philosophy—the different idealistic philosophies of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling—served as a condition for the possibility of early romanticism. But the romantics parted company with Schelling’s philosophical idealism in their conviction that a purely theoretical completion of the System is impossible, that its infinite progressive process is asymptotic to its infinitely distant goal.


Crucial Experiment Romantic Experiment Speculative Philosophy Active Empiricism Romantic Author 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Throughout this article I will use the word “romantic” to refer to the so-called “early romantics” in Jena, as as a few of their direct intellectual descendents, such as Lorenz Oken and Robert Schumann.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Walter Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973), p. 40.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Andrew Wilson, “Introduction”, Jelved, Jackson, and Knudsen (eds), Selected Scientific Writings of Hans-Christian Ørsted (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); and Michael Friedman, “Kant—Naturphilosophie—Electromagnetism”, (in this volume).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ritter to Ørsted, 16 and 17 August 1805, in M. C. Harding (ed.), Correspondance de H. C. Örsted avec divers savants, 2 vols. (Copenhagen: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1920), p. 114. On Ritter and Ørsted’s artistic aspirations and the Jena context see also Dan Ch. Christensen, “Physics as a Branch of Art: The Romantics in Jena”, in Mogens Bencard (ed.) Intersections. Art and Science in the Golden Age (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2002).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Die Physik als Kunst (Muenchen: J. Lindauer, 1806).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik … pp. 48–56.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Novalis: “Was zugleich Gedanke und Beobachtung ist, ist ein kritischer… Keim”. See Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik…, p. 60.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The highlights of this literature begin with Robert Stauffer’s “Speculation and Experiment in the Background of Ørsted’s Discovery of Electromagnetism”, Isis 48 (1957), pp. 33–50, whose arguments were made central to 19th-century physics by Thomas Kuhn, “Energy Conservation as an Example of Simultaneous Discovery”, in M. Clagett (ed.), Critical Problems in the History of Science (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959). It was further extended by L. Pearce Williams in The Origins of Field Theory (New York: Random House, 1966) and “Kant, Naturphilosophie and Scientific Method”, in R. Giere and R. Westfall (eds.), Foundations of Scientific Method in the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973). Barry Gower challenged these readings in “Speculation in Physics: The History and Practice of Naturphilosophie”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 3 (1973), pp. 301–356; as did Timothy Shanahan, “Kant, Naturphilosophie, and Ørsted’s Discovery of Electromagnetism: A Reassessment”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 20 (1989), pp. 287–305.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Kenneth Caneva gives a careful and nuanced affirmation in “Physics and Naturphilosophie: A Reconaissance”, History of Science 35 (1997), pp. 35–106; Michael Friedman gives a philosophically precise account in “Kant—Naturphilosophie—Electromagnetism”, in this volume. For recent dissenting views see Dan Ch. Christiansen, “The Ørsted–Ritter Partnership and the Birth of Romantic Natural Philosophy”, Annals of Science 52 (1995), pp. 153–185; and Maria Jean Trumpler, “Questioning Nature: Experimental investigations of animal electricity in Germany, 1791–1810”, Ph.D. dissertation Yale University, May 1992.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Hans-Christian Ørsted, “New Investigations into the Question: What is Chemistry? (1805)”, in Jelved, Jackson, Knudsen ( transl. and eds.), Selected Scientific Writings of Hans Christian Ørsted …, p. 199.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Wilson’s, “The Unity of Physics and Poetry: H. C. Ørsted and the Aesthetics of Force”, Journal of the History of Ideas…”, provides a fine account of several key phases of Ørsted’s literary and poetic activities.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Ørsted, quoted in Andrew Wilson, “The Unity of Physics and Poetry …”, quotation taken from a letter written by Ørsted to the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschlaeger some years later, on November 1, 1807, published in Breve fra og til Hans Christian Ørsted, edited by Mathilde Ørsted, 2 vols., (Kjobenhavn: Th. Linds Forlag, 1870), vol. 1, p. 226. For Ørsted’s familiarity with the Atheneum see Breve…, vol.1, p. 56 and Anders Sandoe Ørsted, Af Mit Livs og Min Tids Historie, forkortede Udgave (København: Arne-Frost-Hansens Forlag, 1951), pp. 40, 138–139. Wilson also cites Ørsted praising Novalis’s “great and free overview” of nature and “well-ordered knowledge of the most important parts of all the sciences”, and declaring that the romantic’s poetic and scientific works had given him “so many richly enjoyable hours”. Wilson, ibid, p. 8. I thank Andrew Wilson for providing me with the manuscript of his splendid paper, which contains further Danish archival references to Ørsted’s literary relations with the Jena circle.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    The Athenaeum, which appeared twice a year between 1798 and 1800, was the theoretical organ of the early Romantic movement in Germany. It was edited by Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, and included contributions by Novalis, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the editors. In 1803 Friedrich Schlegel founded the journal Europa as the successor to the Athenaeum, to which Ørsted contributed. In the first issue of Europa, Schlegel described the transition as follows: “In the early issues [of the Athenaeum], critique and universality are the primary goal; in the later parts, the spirit of ‘mysticism’ is essential. One shouldn’t shrink from using this word”. Schlegel, quoted in Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik…, pp. 90–91.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Ørsted, Breve, vol. 1, 37, quoted in Wilson, “The Unity of Physics and Poetry.…”.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Wilson, “The Unity of Physics and Poetry…”.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    On the Ritter-Ørsted collaboration see Dan Ch. Christensen, “The Ørsted-Ritter Partnership and the Birth of Romantic Natural Philosophy”, Annals of Science 52 (1995), pp. 153–185.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    For Ørsted’s reading of Kant, see Friedman, “Kant–Naturphilosophie–Electromagnetism”, (in this volume), [p.] and especially fn. 40.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    As a biographical matter, it is worth noting that Ritter’s letters to Ørsted (we only have one side of the correspondence) frequently included greetings from Schlegel, or, when Ørsted was with Schlegel in Paris, offer greetings to be extended through Ørsted. The overall impression is that these men understood themselves as a close-knit circle of friends. See Ritter’s letters to Ørsted in M.C. Harding (ed.), Correspondence de H.C. Örsted …, pp. 8, 31, 40, 43, 45, 51, 57.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    For recent reappraisals of crucial experiments, see Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 246–261.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Bacon, quoted in Hacking, Representing …, p. 250.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Isaac Newton, Opticks, or a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections & Colours of Light (New York: Dover, 1952 [based on the fourth edition published by William Innys of London in 1730], pp. 32–33. On Newton’s crucial experiment and its place in its optics see Z. Bechler, “Newton’s 1672 Optical Controversies. A study in the grammar of scientific dissent”, in Y. Elkana (ed.), The Interaction between Science and Philosophy (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1974), pp. 115–142; Bechler, “A less agreeable matter”. The disagreeable case of Newton and achromatic refraction”, British Journal for the History of Science 8 (1975), 101–126; Geoffrey Cantor, “The Rhetoric of Experiment”, The Uses of Experiment. Studies in the natural sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 159–180; Peter Dear, Totius in verba: Rhetoric and authority in the early Royal Society”, Isis 76 (1985), pp. 145–161; Simon Schaffer, “Glass works”, in David Gooding, Trevor Pinch, and Simon Schaffer (eds.), The Uses of Experiment…, pp. 67–104.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Isaac Newton, Correspondence, 7 vol., (eds.) H.W. Turnbull, J. F. Scott, A. R. Hall and L. Tilling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959–1977), I, pp. 96–97.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    On relations between Goethe and the Jena romantics see Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    J. W. Goethe, Farbenlehre: Theoretischer Schriften (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1953). On Goethe’s polemics, see Myles W. Jackson, “A Spectrum of Belief: Goethe’s ‘Republic’ versus Newtonian ‘Despotism’”, Social Studies of Science 24 (London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi: SAGE, 1994), pp. 673–701; Frederick Burwick, The Damnation of Newton: Goethe’s Color Theory and Romantic Reception (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1986); Dennis Sepper, Goethe Contra Newton: Polemics and the Project for a New Science of Color (Cambridge, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne and Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Ruppert Matthaei, Goethe’s Farbenlehre (Ravensburg: Otto Maier Verlag, 1971); “Experiment”, Goethe Wörterbuch (ed.) Akademie der Wissenschaften der (vormaligen) DDR/Akademie der Wissenschaften in Goettingen/Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Bd. 3 (Stuttgart, 1993), pp. 499–502.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Ørsted, “Experiments on Acoustic Figures”, in Jelved, Jackson, and Knudsen (eds.), Selected Scientific Works of Hans Christian Ørsted…, p. 266.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Ørsted, “First Introduction to General Physics (1811)”, in Jelved, Jackson, and Knudsen, Selected Scientific Works of Hans Christian Ørsted …, p. 284.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Wilson, “The Unity of Physics and Poetry…”.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), translated by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 161.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Friedrich Schlegel, “Athenäums-Fragmente”, in Kritische Schriften, ed. Wolfdietrich Rasch, second expanded edition (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1964), pp. 38–39.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Friedrich Schlegel, “Kritische Fragmente,” in Kritische Schriften…, p. 22.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik…, p. 55.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    “Es ist gleich toedlich fur den Geist, ein System zu haben, und keins zu haben. Er wird sich also wohl entschleissen muessen, beides zu verbinden”. Friedrich Schlegel, “ ‘Athenäeums’ Fragmente”, in Kritische Schriften …, p. 31.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Friedrich Schlegel, Briefe an seinen Bruder, August Wilhelm (Berlin, 1890), p. 111.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Phillip Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism, trans. with an introduction and additional notes by Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester (State University of New York Press,). My understanding of the romantic fragment has been substantially shaped by this text.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, The Literary Absolute.…, p. 45.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 41–99.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Rosen, The Romantic Generation.., p. 70.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Elizabeth Wanning Harries, The Unfinished Manner. Essays on the Fragment in the Later Eighteenth-Century (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994); J. A. Schmoll, Eisenwerth (ed.), Das Unvollendete als Kuenstlerische Form: Ein Symposium (Bern: Francke, 1959).Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Friedrich Schlegel, “Athenäums-Fragmente”, Friedrich Schlegel Kritische Schriften, ed. Wolfdietrich Rasch (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1970), p. 47.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation …, p. 48.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Rosen, The Romantic Generation.…, p. 58.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Ørsted, “What is Chemistry?…”, p. 198.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    On Ørsted’s practices of recontextualizing the work of others, see Kenneth L. Caneva, “Ørsted’s Presentation of Others’—and his Own—Work”, (in this volume).Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Friedrich Schlegel, “Kritische Fragmente”, in Kritische Schriften…, p. 22.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Rosen, The Romantic Generation.…, p. 51.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Friedrich Schlegel, “Athenäums-Fragmente”, in Kritische Schriften…, p. 31.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Helmut Mueller-Sievers, Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy, and Literature around 1800 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Ørsted, “Introduction to General Physics …”, p. 285.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Ørsted, “What is Chemistry?…”, p. 199.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    On the problem of experimenter’s regress see H.M. Collins, Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice (London and Beverly Hills: Sage, 1985).Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Fergus Henderson, “Novalis, Ritter, and Experiment. A Tradition of Active Empiricism”, in Elinor S. Shaffer (ed.), The Third Culture: Literature and Science (Berlin: 1998), pp. 153–170. On Novalis’s notion of experiment see also Jürgen Daiber, Experimentalphysik des Geistes. Novalis und das romantische Experiment (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001).Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Novalis [Friedrich von Hardenberg], cited in Walter Benjamin, Der Begriff der Kunstkritik.…, p. 54–55.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Stuart Walker Strickland, “Circumscribing Science: Johann Wilhelm Ritter and the Physics of Sidereal Man”, (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 92).Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Ritter to Ørsted, Correspondance de H.C. Örsted…, vol. 2, pp. 228–229.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    “Ich würde–fast–in Aphorismen schreiben. Vor dem Construiren fürchte ich mich, wie vor dem Tod. Wenigstens stetze ich mich nie zum Construiren besonders hin. Ich muss die ächte Construction erst entdecken, dann reconstruire ich, u. stelle mich als Physiker freylich, als construirte sogleich”. Ritter to Ørsted, Correspondance de H.C. Örsted…, vol. 2, p. 109.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Ritter to Ørsted, Correspondance de H.C. Örsted…, vol. 2, p. 228. For a similar view of the communication crisis brought on by romantic experiment see Simon Schaffer, “Self-Evidence”, Critical Inquiry 18 (Winter 1992), 327–362; and Stuart Walker Strickland, “The Ideology of Self-Knowledge and the Practice of Self-Experimentation”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 31:4 (1998), pp. 453–471.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Ørsted made these sorts of remarks in many different writings, but I have drawn this account exclusively from his 1811 “First Introduction to General Physics”, which Ørsted described as an extended version of the introduction to his textbook published two years earlier. It was also published in Schweigger’s Journal für Chemie und Physik vol. 36 (Nuremberg, 1822), pp. 458–488, with an editorial comment that states “From this fragment, here offered for public evaluation, the readers will realize what and how much they can expect from this new work by one of the most brilliant … contemporary physicists…” See Ørsted, “First Introduction to General Physics. A Prospectus of Lectures on this Science”, in Jelved, Jackson, and Knudsen, Selected Scientific Works of Hans Christian Ørsted…, pp. 282–309.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    H. C. Ørsted, “First Introduction to General Physics…”, p. 286.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    H. C. Ørsted, “Experiments on Acoustic Figures (1810)”, in Jelved, Jackson, and Knudsen (eds.), Selected Scientific Works of Hans Christian Ørsted…, pp. 264–281.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Ørsted, “Experiments on Acoustic Figures”, …, pp. 280–281.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Rosen, The Romantic Generation…, pp. 112–115.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Schlegel, “Athenäums-Fragmente”, Kritische Schriften…, p. 67.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Ritter, quoted in Strickland, “The Ideology of Self-Knowledge…”, p. 461.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Michael Brain
    • 1
  1. 1.Harvard UniversityUSA

Personalised recommendations