Hans Christian Ørsted And The Romantic Legacy In Science

Volume 241 of the series Boston Studies In The Philosophy Of Science pp 417-432

The Spiritual In The Material

  • D. M. KnightAffiliated withUniversity of Durham

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In May 1852 Charles Darwin read the recently published English translation of Ørsted’s book, The Soul in Nature, and in his reading notebook recorded his verdict—dreadful. Most books got no comment, but the year before he had found Frank Newman’s Phases of Faith (an autobiographical novel of religious doubt) excellent; and this certainly tells us something about Darwin’s state of mind at the time. It also indicates the difficulty of fitting the eminent Ørsted into some kind of scientific mainstream, in his own day or since: in his early lifetime, J. W. Ritter was one of the very few with whom he was closely allied, in opposition to the Parisian establishment. It may seem curious that The Soul in Nature, published by Henry Bohn, was almost all there was of his writing available in English: but less so when we remember on the one hand that (rather like Alessandro Volta’s, or later William Konrad Roentgen’s work) Ørsted’s famous researches in electromagnetism were rapidly and more fruitfully taken up by others; and on the other hand, the long tradition in the English-speaking world of natural theology, turning slowly into the rather newer and vaguer notion of the scientific sublime where such straightforward and respectable writings as Mary Somerville’s can be placed.