Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Science and the Literary Imagination: Voltaire and Goethe

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Science and the Literary Imagination: Voltaire and Goethe

Article excerpt

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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.


1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936.

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


Science and the Literary Imagination: Voltaire and Goethe*


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. …

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