Hans Christian Ørsted's Spiritual Interpretation Of Natural Science

  • Frederick Gregory
Part of the Boston Studies In The Philosophy Of Science book series (BSPS, volume 241)

This paper began as something different from what it has turned out to be. I began by thinking I would try to show what aspects of Schelling’s work were influential in shaping Ørsted’s understanding of science and religion, suspecting that it was Schelling and not Kant who was important here. I will do some of that; in fact, I now think both Kant and Schelling were significant influences, although in different ways. But what I found myself really doing as I proceeded was thinking about Ørsted’s uniqueness, and that led me to think more about ways that Ørsted reflected wider issues in the development of science during the first half of the 19th century. To begin with, Ørsted’s career spanned a most amazing period, from the beginning of the century to its midpoint. The changes in German science in this period, to say nothing of the changes in the German states themselves, were profound.


Natural Science General Truth Scientific Materialism Fossil Bone Religious Sense 
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  1. 1.
    Cardwell reports that the German professor H. M. Jacobi’s 1835 paper describing a rotating electromagnet with two fixed electromagnets around it and a commutator to reverse current was translated into the major European languages and attracted widespread attention, in part because of the lack in theory of an upper limit to the speed of rotation that might be produced. He writes: “A near-infinite velocity suggested a near-infinite power”. Donald S. L. Cardwell, James Joule. A Biography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), pp. 23–24.Google Scholar
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    Cf. here my Scientific Materialism in Nineteenth Century Germany (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1977). Cf. also my The Mysteries and Wonders of Natural Science: Aaron Bernstein’s Naturwissenschaftliche Volksbücher and the Adolescent Einstein, pp. 23–41 in Don Howard and John Stachel, eds., Einstein: The Formative Years, 1879–1909 (Boston, MA: Birkhäuser, 2000); Alfred Kelly, The Descent of Darwin : The Popularization of Darwinism in Germany, 1860–1914 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981); David Knight, “Getting Science Across”, British Journal for the History of Science, 29(196), pp. 129–138.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For a recent treatment of Oken’s role as editor of Isis and of his role in founding the Gesellschaft, see chs. 4 and 5 of the Ph.D. dissertation by Heiderose Brandt Butscher, Lorenz Oken and Nineteenth-Century German Romantic Science, York University, 2001.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago press, 2000); Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998).Google Scholar
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    For example, the challenge for the Naturforscher is to show the truths that reflection and observation teach contain rich material for the imagination. In so doing the Naturforscher assumes the responsibility for making clear the truths gained from wissenschaftliche Naturforschung and representing the Naturleben they contain to others. Cf. the essay identified in its subtitle as submitted to the meeting of Scandinavian philosophers in Christiana in 1844, Die Naturauffassung des Denkens und der Einbildigkeit, in Der Geist in der Natur. 2 vols. (Munich: Cottaschen Buchhandlung, 1850), I, pp. 99–100. A one-volume English translation of this work, which contains several additional essays not in the German edition, appeared in 1852 and was later reprinted. The Soul in Nature, trans L. and J. B. Horner (London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1966). Although all translations from Ørsted’s original German edition that are given in this paper are my own, locations in the 1852 English translation are also provided as ET, here p. 43.Google Scholar
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    A brief summary of Grundtvig’s meaning for Denmark may be found in F. J. Billeskov Jansen, “Copenhagen—City of the Muses”, pp. 14–17 in the Ørsted commemorative special issue of Danish Journal (Copenhagen: Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1997).Google Scholar
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    For an account of his flirtation with Schelling, his personal crisis, and his recovery, see Hal Koch, Grundtvig, trans. L. Jones (Yellow Springs, OH: Antioch Press, 1952), chs. 2 and 3. For an example of his defense of a literal reading of the Bible, see his What Constitutes Authentic Christianity? trans. Ernest D. Nielsen (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 17 ff. This work, which originally appeared in 1826, responds to the rationalistic interpretation of scripture that predated the emergence of what is known as Higher Criticism. Cf. My Nature Lost? Natural Science and the German Theological Traditions of the Nineteenth century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 28 ff.Google Scholar
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    Lewellyn Jones, Introduction, in Koch, Grundtvig, p. ix.Google Scholar
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    A. M. Allchin, N. F. S. Grundtvig: An Introduction to his Life and Work (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1997), pp. 12–13.Google Scholar
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    Oken had sketched out a system of nature philosophy in 1802 and made the mistake of sending it to one of his empirically oriented medical teachers, J. M. A. Ecker. Ecker’s response is cited in a letter of Oken to a friend: “What do you want with this mysticism? No one understands it but a few of the new nature philosophers who are despised everywhere! I can tell you, my friend, that this piece must not be printed here because everything Schellingian leads to atheism!” Letter cited in Emil Kuhn-Schnyder, Lorenz Oken: Erster Rektor der Universität Zürich (Zürich: Verlag Hans Rohr, 1980), p. 13.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    As reported by Jones in Koch, Grundtvig, p. xii.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    “Christianity and Astronomy”, in The Soul in Nature, p. 436. This essay, indicated as taken from the Danish Popular Journal of 1837, is not included in the original German edition.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Ibid. p. 443. The verse is II Corinthians 3:6.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Ibid. p. 443.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ibid. p. 444.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Ibid. p. 445.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Die Kultur der Wissenschaft als Religionsübung betrachtet,” Geist der Natur, I, pp. 318, 320–321; ET, pp. 135–136.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Ibid. I, p. 322; ET, p. 136.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Cf. Das Geistige in der Körperlichen. Ein Gespräch, in Der Geist in der Natur, I, p. 11; ET, p. 5.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Kultur der Wissenschaft, Geist in der Natur, I, p. 322; ET, p. 136.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Later in the address Ørsted associates the contemplative existence of the divine harmony as reason while its active existence is love. Geist in der Natur, I, pp. 328–329; ET, p. 139.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Ibid. I, p. 333; ET, p. 141.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Geistige in der Körperlichen, Geist in der Natur, I, pp. 26–27; ET, p. 11.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Ibid. I, p. 31; ET, p. 13.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Ibid. I, p. 32; ET, p. 14.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Ibid. p. 41; ET, 18. The same issue, with a similar use of the planet Jupiter, is dealt with in Das Ganze Daseyn ein Vernunftreich, Geist in der Natur, I, pp. 230 ff.; ET, 97 ff.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Geistige in der Körperlichen”, Geist in der Natur, I, p. 42; ET, p. 18. In “Die Naturauffassung des Denkens und der Einbildigkeit”, Ørsted contemplates the era of precivilized human life. He refers to the developmental history of the earth with its succession of eras, each with new and more perfect beings. The human race did not come into being prior to the last great transformation of the earth. Cf. Geist in der Natur, I, pp. 104–105, 122–123; ET, pp. 45, 53.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
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    Ibid. pp. 44–45; ET, p. 19. Alfred goes on to denounce contemporary philosophers who pay no attention to natural science.Google Scholar
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    Die Naturauffassung des Denkens und der Einbildigkeit, Geist in der Natur, I, pp. 123–124; ET, p. 53.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Geistige in der Körperlichen, Geist in der Natur, I, p. 45; ET, p. 19. In this connection see Ørsted’s essay, Überglaube und Anglaube in ihrem Verhältnis zur Naturwissenschaft, Geist in der Natur, I, pp. 131–214; ET, pp. 56–90.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    See comment at the beginning of the essay in the German text, Geist der Natur, II, p. 431.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Über Geist und Studium der allgemeinen Naturlehre, Geist in der Natur, II, p. 445; ET, p. 452.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Fries credited Schelling with this insight and frequently emphasized its importance by printing in large letters the words “NATURE IS AN ORGANIZED WHOLE”. Cf., for example, Fries’s Reinhold, Fichte und Schelling [1803] in Sämtliche Schriften (Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1969ff), XXIV, pp. 179–180. Ørsted too identified Schelling’s genius and contribution with his seeing nature as a single organism. See quotation of Ørsted’s 1807 letter to Oehlenschläger by Andrew D. Jackson, “Introduction”, Selected Scientific Works of Hans Christian Ørsted, edited by Karen Jelved, Andrew D. Jackson, and Ole Knudsen (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. xxv.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    For a general examination of Fries in is relation to Schelling see my Die Kritik von J. F. Fries an Schellings Naturphilosophie, Sudhoffs Archiv, 67(1983), pp. 145–157, here p. 149. Cf. also Wolfgang Bonsiepen, Die Begründung einer Naturphilosophie bei Kant, Schelling, Fries und Hegel (Frankfurt:Klostermann), passim.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Cf. my “Romantic Kantianism and the End of the Newtonian Dream in Chemistry”, Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences, 34(1984), pp. 108–123, as well as my essays “Nature is an Organized Whole: J. F. Fries’s Neo-Kantian Reformulation of Kant’s Philosophy of Organism”, pp. 91–102 in Maurizio Bossi and Stefano Poggi, Romanticism in Science: Science in Europe 1790–1840 (Amsterdam: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994), and “The Newtonian Vitalism of J. F. Fries”, pp. 143–155 in Guido Cimino and François Duchesneau, eds., Vitalisms from Haller to Cell Theory (Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1997). Schelling’s role is discussed in the context of his influence on Fries.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Über Geist und Studium der allgemeinen Naturlehre, Geist in der Natur, II, p. 456; ET, p. 457.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Ibid. II, p. 469; ET, p. 459.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Ibid. II, p. 471; ET, pp. 463–464.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Ibid. II, p. 463; ET, p. 460.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    See the Introduction to The Soul in Nature, pp. xvii–xviii.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Scientific Materialism, pp. 145–146.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Like Ørsted, Helmholtz opposed materialism. But he also railed against “the tyranny of spiritualistic metaphysics”. “In order to acquire the foreknowledge of what is coming … no other method is possible than that of endeavoring to arrive at the laws of facts by observations; and we can only learn them by induction, by the careful selection, collation, and observation of those cases which fall under the law”. “On Thought in Medicine”, in Hermann von Helmholtz, Science and Culture. Popular and Philosophical Essays, edited by David Cahan (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 322.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    See in this regard my “Extending Kant: The Origins and Nature of J. F. Fries’s Philosophy of Science”, which examines Fries’s views in light of his Moravian roots in Kant’s Scientific Legacy in the 19th Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), forthcoming.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frederick Gregory
    • 1
  1. 1.University of FloridaGainesvilleUSA

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