Schelling, Darwin, and the Romantic Conception of Life

I’m not yet midway through a thick tome by Prof. Robert J. Richards at the University of Chicago entitled The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (2002). It is soaked in personal details, the trysts and tears of the friends and lovers responsible for generating a literary and philosophical movement in late 18th and early 19th century Germany. Richards also provides a thorough account of the intellectual development of several figures, including Schelling.

His treatment of the relationship between Schelling’s and Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution has been especially helpful. Despite the mischaracterizations of some scholars, who had it that Schelling denied the physical descent of species in favor of some metaphysical ordering (p. 299), Schelling was an early proponent of the notion of the historical transformation of life through the ages (see On the World Soul). But his conception of evolution was organic, rather than mechanistic. Like Kant, Schelling dismissed the notion that life, either at the species or individual level, could be understood absent some principle of self-organization, or “archetypal creative force” (p. 305). In a well-cited epilogue, “Darwin’s Romantic Biology,” Richards reveals the genesis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in a conception of a cosmos “divinized” by archetypal forces. Darwin was an avid reader of the Schellingian biologist, Alexander von Humboldt, of whom he wrote in his diary “like another Sun illumines everything I behold” (Beagle Diary).

Charles Robert Darwin. A copy made by John Col...
Image via Wikipedia

“The sensitive reader of Darwin’s works,” writes Richards,

“a reader not already completely bent to early-twenty-first-century evolutionary constructions, will feel the difference between the nature that Darwin describes and the morally effete nature of modern theory” (p. 553).

After reading On the Origin of Species for myself several years ago, I’d already gotten the sense that Darwin was not the reductionistic mechanist thinkers like Dawkins and Dennett make him out to be. Richards’ research has functioned as a further corrective to their intellectual revisionism.

2 Replies to “Schelling, Darwin, and the Romantic Conception of Life”

  1. Interesting. Did you know that Saul Bellow wrote a novel called Humboldt’s Gift in the 1970s, which shows the influence of Bellow’s short-lived friendship with Owen Barfield (as well as his reading of Steiner)?

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