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Romanticism evolved alongside modern science

By Hao Yuan | 2015-11-19 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Romantic movement reached its climax in France in the early 19th century.


When Romanticism swept the European and American continents in the late 18th century, it was a reaction to the Enlightenment’s overemphasis on natural science, which is best represented by Newton’s classical mechanics. Many believe the movement’s aim was to reverse and transcend the Enlightenment.

Antidote to mechanism
But rather than standing in opposition to all sciences, Romanticism was meant to be an antidote to mechanism, one doctrine of metaphysics that was accepted by Newton. In fact, Romanticism drew plenty of inspiration from science, particularly from physiology, biology and psychology.

Though the paradigm established by Newton’s classical mechanics to a large extent formed the bulwark of natural science in the 18th century, different voices had emerged in the field of life sciences by the end of the century, such as German naturalist Georg Ernst Stahl. Stahl argued that mechanism’s view of nature is inapplicable in the biological world because living creatures have their own vitality, which is to say spiritual agents exist within all living matter to maintain their functions and cannot be determined by physical laws. In this way, life itself is free. Nature is thus an integrated organic living entity in which all living things are interconnected through various forms of induction force and synergy.

A revolution started in the field of life science, and the vitalistic view of nature was also revived, further shaping the Romantic perspective on the world, human nature and culture.

Affected by vitalism
Romanticism basically inherited the vitalistic view of nature. Romanticists considered nature to be an integrated organic entity that maintains positive interactions with humans rather than a machine that is operated strictly by physical laws. The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a founder of the Romantic movement in England, insisted that poets should refuse to be passive onlookers in the process of nature-related art creation. Instead, they need to establish a sort of “affectionate and inalienable” connection between human consciousness and the natural world through which the integrity of nature could be revealed.

William Wordsworth contended that poets should create “memories and experiences” that are pertinent to nature to fully display its vitality by using their imagination. Nature, as an organic entity, bears profound resemblance to the human world, he argued. The works of German Romantic poets placed greater emphasis on the motions and trends of the natural landscape as well as the resilient relations between nature and mankind in a dynamic way. Apparently, the vitalistic view of nature was the crucial concept that stimulated the artistic creation of Romanticism, which demonstrated the integrity, subjectivity and organic character of nature through the artistic forms of music, poetry, prose, novels and so on.

Romanticism explicitly objected to the mechanistic explanation of the human nature and mind offered by Enlightenment philosophers. To Romanticists, this explanation neglected the free will of human beings and denied the passion and initiative of the human mind. They did not merely criticize Enlightenment philosophers’ view on human nature based on philosophical reflection but also guarded Romanticism’s perception of human nature by making use of the scientific theories of the famous brain scientists, physiologists and medical scientists of the 19th century, such as Erasmus Darwin, Pierre Jean George Cabanis and Franz Josef Gall.

Coleridge traced the view on human nature in the Enlightenment philosophy to Rene Descartes’ mind-body dualism, which suggested that the body, like a working machine, has material properties, but the mind is nonmaterial. Coleridge maintained that the vitality of materials and the initiative of mental activities needed to be affirmed to remedy the Enlightenment’s mechanistic explanation of human nature. Based on his own experiences of creation, Coleridge combined German natural philosophy, Davy Medal’s chemical theory, Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Vlota’s study of electricity, as well as the ideas of German physiologists who advocated vitalism. He proposed a type of mental outlook that acknowledged the positivity of mental activities to counteract mechanism’s narrow understanding of the mind. Wordsworth’s careful reading of Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia not only provided rich writing materials for the psychological description in his Lyrical Ballads but also made him realize that the substances that constitute the brain, with their unique vitality, are different from substances in the general sense. He argued that the substances of the brain cannot deny the role the life energy of the human mind plays in creating knowledge and improving the world.

John Keats, when he trained as a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, had studied the works of English chemist Joseph Priestley and other scientific innovators who had a deep understanding of substances. To Priestley, substances should not be defined as inactive materials and to maintain their existence, relevant magnetic or repulsive forces are necessary to sustain the endurance of substances, which, reflective of the vitality of the substances, is not subject to physical laws. Based on this, Keats considered the philosophy of mechanism to be inadequate for explaining the human mind, let alone the more complex aspects of human nature.

Romanticism’s understanding of culture, in large sense, was affected by the vitalistic view of nature. To Romanticists, nature and culture can be synergized through “biological reproduction.” According to the 19th-century life science, the evolution of nature is like biological reproduction, which is the organic process of development that evolves from previous biological forms. Novalis and other Romantics also considered the evolution of culture to be a historical process similar to biological reproduction. Ensuring the healthy evolution of culture requires one to acknowledge that updating culture means simultaneously discarding outmoded traditions while remaining rooted in the essence of the past.

Facilitating science
Romanticism was not only affected by science but also helped facilitate its development. It recognizes the positivity, subjectivity and constructivism of the way the human mind knows about the world, which is theoretically expressed in Friedrich Schelling’s natural philosophy. Affected by this idea, Schelling’s natural philosophy rejected the over-emphasis on rationalism and objectivism. Schelling articulated Naturphilosophie, his primary intellectual legacy, thusly: Matter is a balance of active forces engaged in dynamic polar opposition to one another. Inspired by the concept of Naturphilosophie, the Danish chemist Hans Christian Oersted designed experiments that ultimately contributed to the discovery of electromagnetism.


Romanticism’s reverence for national tradition also stirred the rise of national science. Scientific research varies from country to country, with each having concrete methods and styles that conform to local features. It is how scientific methods become diversified which, by enriching the tools for scientific exploration, largely facilitates the development of science. More importantly, Mary Shelley, Henry Thoreau and other Romanticists pointed out through their literary works that under certain circumstances, technology can destroy the natural environment and threaten the freedom and happiness of mankind. Such profound reflection on the possible side effects that modern science and technology exert on human society has become a resource for contemporary ecology.

Though Romanticism is mainly connected with art, its relationship with science cannot be ignored. Delving into the correlation and interaction between Romanticism and science helps people to grasp a more comprehensive understanding of Romanticism. Furthermore, philosophical legacy of Romanticism offers more solutions for people to resolve the increasingly grim ecological and environmental problems.

Hao Yuan is from the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.