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Reproduction without polarity in the work of Johann Wilhelm Ritter


The theories of reproduction that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century exhibited a range in experimental thinking about concepts of gender and sexuality. This essay focuses on the work of a writer who proposed an unusual alternative to polarity-based ideas of reproduction. Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776–1810) was a physicist and friend to the German Romantics and someone whose writing also shares many interests with German Naturphilosophie. The essay discusses how, inspired by ideas from the alchemical tradition, Ritter challenged conventional thinking about reproduction in two significant ways: by linking it to the idea of rotation, and by using the figure of the androgyne to understand reproductive models in terms of triads, rather than oppositional pairings. A further objective of this essay is to consider which aspects of the alchemical tradition proved the most useful for Ritter’s experimental thinking and to show how he integrated them with reflections on contemporary scientific developments around 1800.

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  1. Astrida Tantillo’s 1998 essay, “Goethe’s Botany and His Philosophy of Gender,” offers a good example of a tension between binary and non-binary thinking. She shows how Goethe, for all that his conceptual architecture is constructed upon binary thinking, also undermines these very structures. Although he does use binary terms, Goethe often employs them to undercut clean and neat divisions and hierarchies. For example, in his essay, “Polarität” Polarity (1799), he gives us a long list of polarities. Within this list, however, he mixes traditional binaries with nontraditional ones. In the process, the traditional division between spirit and matter is broken down (Tantillo 1998, p. 125).

  2. In his essay “Drehmoment. Lebendigkeit und Bewegung im 19. Jahrhundert” [Torque. Vitality and Motion in the 19th Century] Helmut Müller-Sievers makes a broad historical argument that traces a change in thinking about rotational movement. A motion that is able to turn itself is, as he suggests, to be understood as the “Inbegriff von Vernunft und Leben” [epitome of reason and life] for early modern philosphers, and Romantic Naturphilosophie also subscribes to the point of view that whatever can turn itself is “living” and cannot be completely accounted for by laws of motion (Müller-Sievers 2009, p. 227). Müller-Sievers’s essay shows how, in the course of the nineteenth century, rotational movement was increasingly seen as something to be subjected to “Isolierung, Ästhetisierung und schließlich Mechanisierung” [isolation, aestheticization and ultimately mechanization] (ibid).

  3. “In der Natur rotiert nichts uniform um eine Achse – außer eben die Erde selbst. Rotation, heißt das, gibt es nur entweder technisch oder kosmisch” [In nature, nothing rotates uniformly around an axis – except for the Earth itself. Rotation, in other words, exists only technically or cosmically] (Müller-Sievers 2009, p. 230). This statement holds in a general mechanical sense, but literary and philosophical trends around 1800 use rotation more broadly.

  4. The discussion in this passage focuses on fluid dynamics in a broader sense than metaphors of fluidity would cover today – including the flowing of Wärmematerie in the establishing of heat equilibrium – but the emphasis is on a current moving back and forth rather than in a circle per se. There is presently no complete translation of Schelling’s Weltseele, but an excerpt is available translated by Iain Hamilton Grant in R. Mackay, R.ed. Collapse Vol. VI: Geo/Philosophy. (6) Urbanomic (2010), 58–95.

  5. “Es ist auffallend, daß in der ganzen Natur jedes eigne, besondere Leben von der Umdrehung um die eigne Axe anfängt, also offenbar von einem Zustand inneren Widerwillens. Im Größten wie im Kleinsten, im Rad der Planeten wie in den zum Theil rotatorischen Bewegungen jener nur dem bewaffneten Aug’ erkennbaren Welt, die Linné ahndungsvoll das Chaos des Thierreichs nennt, zeigt sich Umtrieb als die erste Form des eignengesonderten Lebens, gleich als müßte alles, was sich in sich und also vom Ganzen abschließt, unmittelbar dadurch innerem Widerstreit anheimfallen” (Schelling 1861, p. 323). I would also like to thank one of the anonymous reviewers of my manuscript for pointing out significant differences in Schelling’s approach to rotational movement between the 1811 and 1815 versions of the Weltalter.

  6. The references here are to Ritter’s fragment project, Fragmente aus dem Nachlaß eines jungen Physikers [Fragments from the Estate of a Young Physicist] which were – the title notwithstanding – published just shortly prior to his death. An annotated bilingual edition of the entire fragment collection and other important essays by Ritter has been published as Key Texts by Johann Wilhelm Ritter (17761810) on the Science and Art of Nature, ed. Jocelyn Holland (Brill 2010).

  7. “446. Die drey organischen Perioden jedes Wesens sind gleichsam die drey Personen in der Gottheit, die in der endlichen Abbildung Gottes, in der Zeit, erscheinen. Zusammen machen sie die Rotationsperiode Gottes aus. Rotation ist für das Endliche, was Reproduction für das Unendliche. Im Embryo regirt Gott der Vater, im Kinde Gott der Sohn, im Jüngling, in der Jungfrau, Gott der heilige Geist,—die Sehnsucht. Auch die ganze Menschheit muß solche eben so characterisirte Epochen haben; die erste Zeit die des Embryo, die zweyte die des Kindes, die dritte die der Sehnsucht. Sie stirbt in Liebe, oder— lebt sich aus wie der Greis. Oder, sie stirbt mehrmals in Liebe, und endlich vor Alter, wie der Greis.”—(Ritter 2010, p. 348).

  8. From Ripley’s Compound of Alchymy (1471). Reprinted in Stanton J. Lindon (ed.), The Alchemy Reader (2003).

  9. “1. Alchemy. The interconversion of the four elements; a cycle of changes in which this occurs. Now hist.” Oxford English Dictionary (2020), “rotation.”.

  10. The context of these quotes is the introduction of a “third form of reality” in Timaeus to supplement the two ideas of an “intelligible and unchanging model” on the one hand and a “visible and changing copy of it” on the other (Plato 1977, p. 67). This third idea is the “receptacle” as “nurse of all becoming,” and it leads Plato directly into a discussion of the interconnectedness of the four elements. The ideas introduced in this section were influential for alchemical thinking. In his commentary to Timaeus, Stanton Linden notes that “from the earliest times onward, alchemical authors describe this rotation of the elements as a circle or wheel in which various forms are impressed upon one basic, unchanging matter, which Plato here calls the ‘mother and receptacle of all created and visible things” (2003, p. 33).

  11. The impetus of the chapter is actually on the formation of stars, as is indicated by the title (“Von der Zusammenkorporirung [sic] der Sterne”). That contextual detail is important in that justifies the motion of the wheel as a continuously progressive motion towards increasingly differentiated brightness – there is only an emphatically productive turn, without a return towards an indifferentiated state.

  12. In the context of eighteenth-century German Pietism, one finds similar ideas expressed in the entry on the “Wheel of Birth” (Rad der Geburt) in Friedrich Christoph Oetinger’s Biblisches und Emblematisches Wörterbuch [Biblical and Emblematic Dictionary]. Oetinger’s entry begins with a reference to the “wheel of birth” in James 3.6, and he explains the reference in the context of the epistle: “[James] understood Hell as the actual basis [Grund-Anfang] in man, he understood the course of the beginnings, wherefrom everything is produced, as a particular principle” and that the “circle of birth” was the “course, through which something becomes being…This is the most authentic description of life” (1999, p. 264). Oetinger also emphasizes the dualistic thinking that underpins the wheel of birth: “Now to life there belong various forces bound together in a certain effect of opposition into a proper goal…only the most pious Newton had understood that two contrary central forces are the beginning of the wheel of birth, from which the course of things arises” (1999, p. 264).

  13. “J. Böhme spricht bekanntlich viel von einem Rad der Natur oder der Geburt, einer seiner tieffsten [sic] Apperceptionen, wodurch er den Dualismus der Kräfte in der mit sich selbst ringenden, sich selbst gebären wollenden aber nicht könnenden Natur ausdrückt. Aber eben er selbst ist eigentlich dieses Rad, er selbst diese Wissenschaft gebären wollende, aber nicht könnende Natur” (Schelling 1858, p.123).

  14. When Schelling compares the condition of the “original being” before begetting “the Son” to the “primordial condition out of which the planets arose,” he refers to a kind of unproductive rotary motion as follows: “A circular movement that penetrated into the smallest parts arose through the interplay of the affirming and expanding principle that strove to externalize and elevate itself with the countervailing principle that sought ever again to pull it back into the depths by negating and drawing it back tightly together. Like and like came together while unlike and unlike repelled one another. But because both in the whole and in the parts there was never more than a presentiment of the higher unity, which itself always remained absent, it was impossible for the whole to win for itself an enduring Gestalt” (Schelling 2019, p. 264). Once again I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer of my essay for referring me to this passage.

  15. “525. Die Rotation ist Grund aller Organisation, ohne sie keine. So organische wie anorgische Individualität um den Aequator größer, ausgebildeter. Je schneller die Rotation eines Planeten, desto mehr Organisation auf ihm, besonders bey beträchtlicher Größe. Nur auf rotirenden Weltkörpern kann individuelles Leben seyn” (Ritter 2010, p. 406).

  16. Buffon writes that when the earth was formed through the cooling of liquid states into solid masses, “ils ont donc obéi comme toute autre matière fluide, aux loix de la force centrifuge; les parties voisines de l’équateur, qui subissent le plus grand mouvement dans la rotation, se sont le plus élevées; celles qui sont voicines des pôles, où ce mouvement est moindre ou nul, se sont abaissées dans la proportion juste & précise qu’exigent les loix de la pesanteur, combinées avec celles de la force centrifuge” [they still obeyed, just like any other fluid material, the laws of centrifugal force; the parts neighboring the equator, which undergo the greatest rotational movement, rose the most; those neighboring the poles, where this movement is less, or zero, were lowered in exact and precise proportion that the laws of gravity demand, combined with those the laws of centrifugal force” (1780, p. 101).

  17. “Number 51 of [Ritter’s] Fragmente is devoted to iron, to its ubiquity in nature, its chemical composition, its magnetic properties, its function in the great organism that is nature. Early in the fragment, Ritter writes: ‘All materials on earth seem to be decomposed iron. Iron is the kernel of the earth, ‘the visible spirit of the earth’ (Jac.[ob] Böhme).’’ Almost certainly—despite the way it is presented—this is not a direct quotation from Böhme. Equally probably, it is also not a paraphrase of an idea from Böhme’s oeuvre. Iron is mentioned only rarely in Böhme’s writings, and then usually as part of a list of correspondences between planets and metals. It does not itself play any particular role, it is not the core of the earth, in fact, it is not a ‘Quellgeist’ (source spirit) at all” (1999, p. 97). Meyer quotes Ritter in German; I have substituted the translation from my edition.

  18. 51. Alle Stoffe auf Erden scheinen zerlegtes Eisen zu seyn. Eisen ist der Kern der Erde, „der sichtbare Quellgeist der Erde“ (Jac. Böhme). Auch ist es ein Oxyd; es wird zerlegt in reinen Brennstoff und in reinen Sauerstoff, und in alle Mittelglieder dazwischen. Es ist der dynamische Aequator der Erde, unter ihm steht die Sonne des Magnetismus senkrecht.—Alle Stoffe auf Erden zusammen genommen, müßten zum Product Eisen geben müs- sen. Dieses ideale Eisen herzustellen, ist die Tendenz aller chemischen Action. Denn das dynamische Mittel der Erde muß sich immer wieder neu herstellen, der Repräsentant desselben aber ist das Eisen. Aller che- mische Proceß auf Erden ist Regenerationsprozeß der Erde; dieses drückt sich zuerst aus in der beständigen Regeneration der Schwere, und diese ist nur das Phänomen dieses Processes; so müssen sich alle Processe in Schwere auflösen.” (Ritter 2010, p.146).

  19. “The term centrifugal force is often associated with [circular motion] as a force supposedly pulling the body away from the center, but not because of any force. The centrifugal forces are not applied forces, but rather reaction forces, which arise, by Newton’s third law, in reaction to real, acceleration-causing forces” (Rosen 2014, p. 44).

  20. Beschreibung einer Elektrisir-Maschine und deren Gebrauch (Jena, 1773).

  21. De nova methodo naturam ac motum fluidi electrici investigandi: commentatio prior.[On a new method of investigating nature and electrical fluid: first commentary.] (Göttingen, 1778–1779).

  22. See “Attempt at a History of the Fate of Chemical Theory in the Last Centuries” [Versuch einer Geschichte der Schicksale der chemischen Theorie in den letzten Jahrhunderten] (Rittter 2010, pp. 601–690).

  23. “Our nature in the past was not the same as now, but of a different sort. First of all, the races of human beings were three, not two as now, male and female; for there was also a third race that shared in both, a race whose name still remains, though it itself has vanished. For at that time one race was androgynous, and in looks and name it combined both, the male as well as the female” (Plato 2013, p. 19).

  24. “Es ist zu wünschen, daß Apparate oder Augen gefunden würden, dieses Dritte in der Electricität, was im Lichte sich als Grün ausdrückt, bey ihr ebenfalls unmittelbar darzustellen, und wenn nicht eben am Electrometer, wo nemlich kaum zu errathen wäre, wie sie sich ohngefähr auszunehmen hätte, doch in ihrem Product, oder, wo sie “Stoffe” bildet. Schon das Elektrische System der Körper, S. 400, giebt Winke hierzu, und die höchste Wahrscheinlichkeit ist da, daß das Azot,—aus Wasser entstanden, wie Hydrogen und Oxygen,—weder der sogenannten positiven (a), noch negativen Electricität (b), sondern eben jener Dritten (c), für die der Dualismus kaum den Namen zu finden wissen wird, seinen Bestand als solches verdanke. Schon die vielen ihm ganz eigenen Anomalien, die dieser Körper, gegen andere verbrennliche gehalten darbietet, müßen ihm neue Aufmerksamkeit verdienen” (Ritter 2010, p. 686).


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Holland, J. Reproduction without polarity in the work of Johann Wilhelm Ritter. HPLS 42, 52 (2020).

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  • Ritter
  • Schelling
  • Reproduction
  • Rotation
  • Alchemy