Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment

Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment

Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment

Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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. In my opinion this conceptual shift had been too narrowly associated with the “German historicist” form pioneered by Ranke and his followers and often mistakenly interpreted as a rebellion against the Enlightenment. I also suggested that the solutions Enlightened historicists offered to conceiving history were in many ways more compatible with the type of historical thought developed since the middle of the twentieth century than those advanced by “German historicism.”

Although I still stand by the general outlines of this argument, I have since realized that I didn’t go far enough in making my case. While rejecting traditional interpretations of the rise of historicism, I was still influenced by the German historicist assumption that posited a radical differentiation between the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and the humanistic ones (Geisteswissenschaften). According to this vision, “true” historical understanding can occur only when historians shake off any attempt to emulate the natural sciences. I assumed that the mid- to late Enlightenment thinkers I investigated had begun to draw this distinction. Stimulated by the discussions my book generated in Germany, however, I was forced to look more closely at the general outlines of Enlightenment thought, which led . . .

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