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Goethe and Candolle: National forms of scientific writing?


What role does nationality—or the image of a nation—play in how one thinks and receives scientific ideas? This paper investigates the commonly held ideas about “German science” and “French science” in early nineteenth-century France. During the politically turbulent time, the seemingly independent scientific community found itself in a difficult position: first, between the cosmopolitan ideals of scientific community and the invasive political reality, and second, between the popularized image of national differences and the actual comparisons of international scientific ideas. The tension between multiple sets of fictions and realities underscores the fragility of the concept of nationality as a scientific measure. A case study comparing morphological ideas, receptions in France, and the actual scientific texts of J. W. von Goethe and A. P. de Candolle further illustrates this fragility. Goethe and Candolle make an ideal comparative case because they were received in very different lights despite their similar concept of the plant type. Our sentence-classification and visualization methods are applied to their scientific texts, to compare the actual compositions and forms of the texts that purportedly represented German and French sciences. This paper concludes that there was a gap between what French readers assumed they read and what they really read, when it came to foreign scientific texts. The differences between Goethe’s and Candolle’s texts transcended the perceived national differences between German Romanticism and French Classicism.

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  1. By “unfamiliar,” Goethe had in mind not only the ideas of different nations, but also the unfamiliar genres or modes of thinking. Eight years after the publication of his scientific essay Metamorphosis of Plants, Goethe composed an eponymous poem to familiarize (female) readers with botanical subjects.

  2. Schleiermacher criticized France for being unwilling to translate foreign works, balking at the difficulties and being content with simple imitations.

  3. For Leroux, Saint-Hilaire’s idea of the unity of composition was the best application of Schelling’s idea of the absolute identity: “Only Geoffroy has made greater discoveries and laid down more certain principles on the absolute identity, as Germans say, than the entire school of naturalists following Schelling. It is as if an original national essay can reduce obscurity of the philosophy of another people.”.

  4. Among his compatriots who embraced his botanical work, Goethe listed H. G. L. Reichenbach (1793–1879), who included a review of Goethe in his Botanik für Damen (1828). Then, Goethe described how the French journal Bulletin des sciences naturelles, which, in reviewing Reichenbach’s Botanik für Damen, made a typo: “metaphor” in place of “metamorphosis.” Goethe considered this mistake to be a prank to make fun of the “German manner of handling scientific subjects.” This anecdote shows that Goethe was attentive to the image of German science that French readers held (von Goethe 1831, pp. 207–209, 217–219).

  5. It should be noted that both Goethe and Candolle—and several other foreign intellectuals who participated in the French scientific community, such as Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859)—had a plenty of followers in and beyond France. This article, however, presents their own account of the adverse impact that their foreign nationalities and religions had on their careers in France and highlights these testimonies by placing them against the cosmopolitan ideals upheld by the scientific community.

  6. For the political oppositions at the intellectual level, see Chappey (2006) and Corsi (2011). Both conservative and revolutionary authorities were on guard against morphology, as it was often regarded as subversive ideas that undermined the image of a fixed French society.

  7. Journals with such progressive tendency included Revue Indépendante and Revue encyclopédique, ou Analyse raisonnée. For scientific and medical journals, such as Dictionnaire des sciences médicales and Journal complémentaire, see Corsi (2011, 2012).

  8. Corsi offered a bold argument that the perception of the French-German divide was a fictional image for political and economic purposes, at the Evolutionary Pluralisms conference at the University of Chicago (May 5, 2018).

  9. Candolle himself considered his concept of symmetry as the “basis of science” and speculated that omission of this concept was the reason why Goethe’s theory of the metamorphosis had failed to attract attention (Candolle 1844, pp. 74-75). His contemporaries such as Charles Daubeny, Jean P. Flourens, Paul Gervais, A. A. de la Rive, and Charles-Frédéric Martins expressed similar views. Today’s scholars in general have aligned Candolle’s classification with modern natural science, in contrast to Goethe’s or Saint-Hilaire’s morphological theories. See Drouin (2001), Guédès (1972), and Stevens (1984).

  10. Candolle wrote: “the species are large villages; the genera are provinces; the families are empires; the classes are analogous to parts of the world, and the plants that are still isolated are represented by the islands distant from any continent. … in certain empires or provinces, villages are clustered together, while in others we see them scattered. … It is not surprising to see, in social order, much populated and civilized countries exhibit uniform customs while the regions that are deserted or cut off by rivers and chains of mountains show great differences.”.

  11. The reference to Candolle’s scientific study is in the sixth song, “Kingdom of plants” (Delille 1808, pp. 76–77):

    The gardeners and the learned know the tricks / to create a day and artificial darkness, […].

    The corolla of the trusting flower is fooled / and unaware of the wonder of this magical art,

    opens or closes its bosom, falls asleep or arises. […].

    Everything is connected throughout nature, / and the admirable structure of these plants, […].

    seem to draw close to human nature.

  12. Frédéric Gingins-Lassaraz, Goethe’s translator for the 1829 French edition of the Metamorphosis of Plants, wrote that Candolle’s concept of the symmetry saw a rapid progress, unlike Goethe’s similar concepts (Goethe 1829, p. ix).

  13. Goethe described the 1830 debate between Cuvier and Saint-Hilaire as a “volcanic eruption”: “now Saint-Hilaire has joined our side, and with him all his great disciples, all his French partisans! This event is for me an incredible importance” (von Goethe 1883, pp. 231–233).

  14. Saint-Hilaire was also mentioned in Appendix for the support that he had expressed in Annales des sciences naturelles in February 1831, which came out just before Goethe’s edition went into printing (von Goethe 1831, p. 240).

  15. Martin commented that this argument would have strengthened Cuvier’s position against Saint-Hilaire and Goethe, and concluded: “the creation is not composed of a series of abortion or metamorphoses which pass from oyster to crocodile, from crocodile to man; it was from the origin what it is today.”.

  16. Provoked by Candolle’s review, Goethe omitted most of his discussion of Candolle which he had planned to include in the French-German edition of the Metamorphosis, when he was pressed to abridge the book—which in turn offended Candolle, according to Soret. But Goethe spoke highly of Candolle in general, and even translated a chapter from Candolle’s Organographie into German. (Soret 1932, pp. 77, 222–223).

  17. Candolle criticized the philosophers who “feign to deduce everything from the general laws” and adapt selective facts to their theories, and introduced Goethe as one of these philosophers (Candolle 1827, pp. vii-viii, 243).

  18. Candolle himself distanced his works from philosophy and from Saint-Hilaire, whose theory of the unity of composition, like Goethe’s theory of Archetype, was very similar to his ideas but was criticized for over-generalization. However, some reviewers did discern a philosophical element in Candolle. Cuvier praised Candolle for displaying just enough philosophical spirit, which, in a small dose, could benefit science (Cuvier 1814, pp. 62–63). On the other hand, La Rive was critical of his rejection of philosophy: “This zeal to defend physical and natural sciences was expressed often by an excessive opposition to the invasion of philosophy, whose folly he rightly feared, but whose influence he was wrong to reject. It was surprising that this caution against philosophy came from the naturalist who actively incorporated philosophy in his works. I ask, what is the basis of the Théorie élémentaire, if not one of the most philosophical ideas, primitive type or unity of composition? … Candolle was, thus, philosopher all the same” (La Rive 1845, pp. 142–143).

  19. Candolle responded to these critics with a metaphor: nature was a banquet, and the thoughtful designer arranged dishes on the table in a symmetrical manner. Among these dishes, there were some “fake” dishes (i.e., the organs that are no longer used by an animal or plant) to complete the aesthetic balance. Thus, even the “fake dishes” were part of the design (Candolle 1819, p. 185).

  20. By “degeneration,” Candolle meant that the primitive, natural symmetry of the plant was often disrupted by external and internal causes, resulting in current forms that deviated from the original symmetry. Degenerations took place within certain limits, according to the fixed laws of nature and the fixed nature of each plant family. Goethe did not approve of the term “degeneration,” which imposed a regularity on nature that was rarely fulfilled in reality: “When a plant, as a result of internal laws, or by external causes, changes its structure or relations among its diverse parts, one must consider the fact as being absolutely conforming to the first law, and not take any of these deviations as abortions or regressions” (von Goethe 1831, p. 223). In his turn, Candolle thought that Goethe’s term “metamorphosis” confused between different kinds of modifications (Candolle 1844, p. 91).

  21. Bernard de Jussieu first came up with a classification based on the anatomical characters of plant embryos. A. L. de Jussieu developed his uncle’s idea and published it, which classified plants using a wide range of characters with relative values, unlike the “artificial” Linnaean system. Daubeny, Flourens, Gervais, Martins, Carl von Martius, and Charles Morren all linked Candolle to Jussieu. It is ironic, however, that Candolle seems to have disliked Jussieu. See footnote #24.

  22. Morren concluded: “he has become the great mediator of literary and scientific clashes … Let us congratulate us that Candolle was born in Swiss: for Geneva, with its philosophical school and its double languages German and French, gave its illustrious child the gift of accomplishing such a great mission.”.

  23. Sahlins discusses the history of droite d’aubaine (the French law which guaranteed the state right to seize the properties of the deceased foreigners) from the late sixteenth century to its abolition in 1819, presenting a complex story of the emerging distinction between legal/civil identity (nationality) and political identity (citizenship).

  24. According to Candolle, his French colleague A. L. de Jussieu “was a bigot who found pleasure in throwing out a Protestant,” and was “[René Louiche] Desfontaines’s hidden enemy” who wished to remove one of his students (i.e., Candolle). Jussieu supported Palisot de Beauvois, whom Candolle considered to be clearly less qualified than himself, but who was elected over Candolle in the end (de Candolle 1862, pp. 185–186).

  25. Shortnames will be used for these titles (Goethe, Candolle 1, Candolle 2, and Candolle 3, respectively) for the tables later in this section. The French-German edition of Metamorphosis of Plants was selected because most French audiences (even Candolle and Saint-Hilaire) did not read German and would have read the translations of Goethe’s work. Candolle spoke and wrote in French. The selected texts by Candolle all illustrate the theme of organic transformation, and in particular, the selected chapter from the Organography of Plants (Candolle 3) discusses the concepts most similar to Goethe’s concept of primitive type. Because the nineteenth-century French tended to conjoin multiple sentences with semicolons, we split these longer sentences accordingly.

  26. To increase consistency and reliability of the method, I repeated the tagging process eight times across all texts. After the fifth round, I asked two of my colleagues to test the replicability of the sentence-classification. Our results showed a high degree of overlap. After making minor adjustments, I repeated the tagging process three more times and found that the top five categories composing the texts did not change. For more explanation on the methods behind the sentence-classification and visualization components of this project, see

    McNutt et al. 2020.

  27. This theme of nature’s organic growth allowed the Romantics to temporalize nature, which was a key difference from the mechanistic vision of nature in the eighteenth century, and a central framework for the later evolutionary theory. Richards places Darwin’s theory of evolution within the tradition of the idea of instantiation of archetypes in nature, along with German and British Romantic philosophies (Richards 2002, p. 10).

  28. In Candolle 1, the ratio between Classical and Empirical categories is 2.21. This ratio is reflected in other ratios: the Romantic-Empirical pair composes 3.75% of the text, and the Classical-Empirical 2.14%, with a ratio of 1.75; the Romantic-Inductive pair occupies 6.97%, and the Classical-Inductive 2.68%, with a ratio of 2.6. In Goethe, the ratio between Romantic and Classical categories is 4.185. However, this ratio is not as consistently reflected: the Romantic-Inductive pair occupies 5.51%, and the Classical-Inductive pair 0.79%, with a ratio of 7 between these two pairs; the Romantic-Empirical pair composes 11.02%, and the Classical-Empirical 1.31%, with a ratio of 8.41. The fact that these ratios are approximately double the ratio between Romantic and Classical categories suggests that the Romantic-Empirical and the Romantic-Inductive pairs have abnormally high percentages.

  29. See footnote #25.


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We thank our colleagues Ashley Clark and Biying Ling for testing the replicability of our method. We are grateful for the Visualization for Understanding and Exploration Project at the Neubauer Collegium, especially Sergio Elahi and Kazutaka Takahashi, for bringing this project into reality. Finally, we thank Professor John A. Goldsmith, Professor Robert J. Richards, and Professor Michael Rossi, for their invaluable advice throughout writing this paper.


This paper was researched and produced while Agatha Kim was receiving the Fishbein Fellowship from the Morris Fishbein Center for the History of Science & Medicine, University of Chicago. For visualization of research findings, authors were supported by the VUE (Visualization for Understanding and Exploration) Project by the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago.

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Kim, A.SH., McNutt, A. Goethe and Candolle: National forms of scientific writing?. Theory Biosci. 141, 321–338 (2022).

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