Science and the Literary Imagination: Voltaire and Goethe

By Gillispie, Charles Coulston | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, September 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Science and the Literary Imagination: Voltaire and Goethe


Gillispie, Charles Coulston, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


(ProQuest-CSA LLC: ... denotes formula omitted.)

THIS ESSAY WAS COMMISSIONED in the later 19608 by a letter from Anthony Thorlby, one of the editors of the collection Literature and Western Civilization cited in the note below. The other, and I gathered senior, editor was David Daiches. I no longer have the file of correspondence, but recall that one or both of them had come upon The Edge of Objectivity (1960) and had liked the chapter on Science and the Enlightenment. The essay that follows is an enlargement on the treatment of Voltaire and Goethe, two of the three principal writers-the third is Diderot-who figure in that chapter with respect to their engagement with the science of their time.

My impression was that this essay was not what they expected and that they did not like it much. At least Thorlby, who conducted the correspondence from their side, never said they did. Looking through the collection now, I suspect that they had in mind something more like Marjorie Nicolson's well-known Newton Demands the Muse1 or the elegant chapter that David Daiches contributed to the next volume, "Literature and Science in 19th-century England."2

In fact he there ranges right back to Newton and draws upon an encyclopedic knowledge and tempered judgment first of poets and then of such prose writers as Huxley, Arnold, Butler, and Shaw. For the poets he exhibits the poetic inspiration and for the pundits their cultural response to the findings of contemporary science, principally those of Newton and Darwin. He does see, as do I, a hostility to science or at best a wariness setting in with the romantic movement in the late eighteenth century. His interest is in the poetic imagery itself, whether in Pope or Blake, and in the moral attitudes, whether of Huxley or Arnold, and not at all in the cogency of the readings of science and its findings, either favorable or adverse. In brief, Daiches's concern is with the literature, not the science. I was and am insufficiently versed in the entire literature of the Enlightenment to write such a piece, and my interest was both in the writers and the cogency of their readings of science.

At all events, I have never seen a citation to my chapter, and only one person has ever mentioned it. I doubt that the collection as a whole succeeded very well. The volumes have been checked out of the Princeton University Library only once or twice in the last thirty years. It appeared on the verge of the transition between literary scholarship and literary theory, and would have been ignored as pedantic in the latter phase. Readers might do well to turn to it now. Among the contributors are eminent scholars, and I find a sampling full of interest.

Notes

1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936.

2. Vol. 3, part 2, pp. 441-460.

EIGHT

Science and the Literary Imagination: Voltaire and Goethe*

I

It has become a convention of the history of ideas that, following the triumph of Newtonian physics in the seventeenth century, thought, letters, and science came together in a common movement of culture that distinguished the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment. Did not Voltaire's Élémens de la philosophie de Neuton establish Newton in the French-reading continental world, and the foremost French writer thereby participate in the work of science? Did not Goethe, the greatest of German writers, augment the knowledge of anatomy with an actual discovery, enrich the study of botany with profound morphological insights, and anticipate the complement that the psychology of perception would bring to the science of colour only in our own day? The argument of the present essay will be that on the whole they did not, and that deep and important though the interactions of science and the literary imagination have been and are, their actuality is not to be seized by taking too seriously the forays that writers felt freer in the eighteenth century than in more recent times to make into scientific subjects, nor even through exhibiting the deployment of Newtonian imagery in the poetry and prose of their proper writings, but rather through considering their scientific sensibility as a function of their purposes in literature itself. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Science and the Literary Imagination: Voltaire and Goethe
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.