Fact and Fiction: Literary and Scientific Cultures in Germany and Britain

By Clason, Christopher R. | Goethe Yearbook, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Fact and Fiction: Literary and Scientific Cultures in Germany and Britain


Clason, Christopher R., Goethe Yearbook


Christine Lehleiter, ed., Fact and Fiction: Literary and Scientific Cultures in Germany and Britain. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: Toronto UP, 2016. xii + 336 pp. + 5 illustrations.

In the Spring of 2011, a group of twelve scholars, whose interests cover a broad range of literary, philosophical, cultural-historical, and scientific areas, gathered at the University of Toronto to discuss a topic that lies at the very heart of academia: the divergent relationship between the knowledge production and organization systems of the humanities and the sciences. Their work is presented in this volume, under the editorship of Christine Lehleiter, who has produced a cohesive, unified, and timely collection of diverse essays. At a historical moment in the United States and elsewhere when political leaders debate the very nature of "fact" and "truth" and the future of the humanities appears to face significant challenges, an informed, public conversation on the essential value of our disciplines as knowledge-producing institutions seems essential. As a point of departure, Fact and Fiction provides an important perspective on the origins and development of the separation between the liberal arts and the sciences, from the eighteenth through the nineteenth century.

Lehleiter organizes the collection of essays into five sections, and announces the general theme of each with a binary sectional title that includes some sensual aspect or activity associated with the humanities in combination with specific sciences. I will identify each individually below. The associations are explained in Lehleiter's "Introduction," which traces the history of the division between disciplines and identifies significant attempts to bridge the gaps between them in an intelligent and provocative fashion. As one discovers from the outset, a notion of what constitutes "factual knowledge" necessarily takes on various subjective contexts and structures, which are defined historically through disciplinary-specific processes of epistemology engaged through critical reading, limited relatively by the reader's interpretation of the objects of study.

The first section on "Reading: Electricity, Medicine" begins with an essay by Jocelyn Holland. Holland examines historical definitions of terms for various nuances of "fact," including "Faktum," "Tatsache," "Tathandlung," and what Fichte referred to as a "Leiter," a term derived from the contemporary language around discoveries in physics, specifically regarding electricity. Implicit is the great potential for the "fact" to serve as "conductor" of thought, a notion that the Romantics explore broadly in their fiction while elaborating on its possibilities in their philosophical essays and fragments. Alice Kuzniar completes the section with an investigation of the thought processes employed by the late eighteenthcentury physician, Samuel Hahnemann, in elucidating his practice of homeopathy through application of the principle that "like cures like." Kuzniar shows that Hahnemann's free-association of analogy and practice echoes Romantic theories of language and nature, connecting diagnosis and treatment with the homeopath's imaginative reading and interpretation of symptoms, allowing her or him to assemble chaotic impressions creatively, thereby instigating the patient's return to health.

Section two, "Imagining: Botany, Chemistry, Thermodynamics," opens with Ann Shteir's reading of Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden. Shteir explains how imagination (especially through the copious use of analogy) forms the rhetorical basis of the science (e. …

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