Spreading the Spirit of Science

Social Determinants of the Popularization of Science in Nineteenth-Century Germany
  • Kurt Bayertz
Part of the Sociology of the Sciences a Yearbook book series (SOSC, volume 9)


The need for popularization of the natural sciences arose during the 18th century as a result, on the one hand, of increasing institutional and professional differentiation of the scientists from the wider society and, on the other, of the fact that literacy was no longer the privilege of a tiny caste of scholars. An extensive literature arose during the Enlightenment for the purpose of familiarizing the “educated classes” with the new results in the natural sciences. But it was neither in the 18th century nor in the present that popular science reached its heyday, but in the 19th century. This is due not so much to the amount of popular literature produced and read it that century, but to the significance of popularization for the self-image of the period. The natural sciences were considered to be the motive force of progress in all areas of social life; whoever wanted to be “up with the times” had to be familiar with their success and method of thought. As a result popularization became a fad that affected virtually all levels of society. Neither before nor after this “century of the sciences” can one find that efforts at popularization had a comparable cultural influence.


19th Century Natural Science Popular Science Intellectual Life Popular Literature 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Ernst Haeckel, Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte. Gemeinverständliche wissenschafliche Vorträge über die Entwicklungslehre, 9th edition, Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1898, p. 3f.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Friedrich Fabri, Briefe gegen den Materialismus. 2nd enlarged edition. Gotha: Gustav Schloeßmann 1864, p. 127.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Alexander von Humboldt, Kosmos. Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung, Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1945–58. - Susan Faye Cannon characterizes Humboldt’s general perspective in his scientific work apart from Kosmos, and his influence in the early 19th century, in Science in Culture: The Early Victorian Period, New York: Dawson and Science History Publications, 1978, p. 105.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid.,p. 18.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid. p. 34.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Hermann von Helmholtz, ‘Über des Verhältnis der Naturwissenschaften zur Gesamtheit der Wissenschaft’, in Vorträge und Reden, Volume 1, 5th edition, Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg, 1903, p. 159.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Humboldt, op. cit., 1845, note 3, p. 23.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Rudolf Virchow, ‘Rede auf der 62. Versammlung deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte’ am 18. September 1889 in Heidelberg, in Karl Sudhoff, Rudolf Virchow und die Deutschen Naturforscherversammlungen, Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1922, p. 273f. The British Association for the Advancement of Science, established in 1831, played a similar role in Great Britain. Presentation of the results of scientific research to the general public — and of public appearances of the scientists — played a significant role, whereby dramatic effects were not frowned upon in the attempt to make science vivid. Jack Morell and Arnold Thackray, Gentlemen of Science. Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981, p. 161.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Hermann von Helmholtz, ‘Über das Ziel und die Fortschritte der Naturwissenschaft’, op. cit., 1903, note 6, p. 373.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Cf. Everett Mendelsohn, ‘The Emergence of Science as a Profession in Nineteenth- Century Europe’, in Karl Hill (ed.) The Management of Scientists, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964, pp. 3–48.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Cf. Bernard Henry Gustin, The Emergence of the German Chemical Profession 1790–1867. Diss. University of Chicago, 1975, pp. 92ff.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Ibid., p. 100.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Justus von Liebig, ‘Über das Studium der Naturwissenschaften und über den Zustand der Chemie in Preussen’, in Reden und Abhandlungen, (new printing), Wiesbaden: Martin Sändig, 1965, p. 27f.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Justus von Liebig, Chemische Briefe, 6th edition, Leipzig and Heidelberg: C. F. Winter’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1878, p. V II.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Cf. The following quote from a letter Liebig wrote to Wohler: “. . My aim is to influence the public and the governments. Let heaven bring us success and liberate us. Up to now chemistry has been in a peculiar situation with regard to the other subjects — we’re looked upon as intruders, as it were; but this has to be changed — chemistry has to stand alongside or above the others.” Quoted from Borscheid, Naturwissenschaft. Staat und Industrie in Baden (1848–1914), 1976, note 21, p. 31.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Emil Du Bois-Reymond, Jugendbriefe an Eduard Ha’llmann, Berlin, 1918, p. 131. My attention was brought to Du Bois-Reymond’s statement by a work of Timothy Lenoir: Social Interests and the Organic Physics of 1847, unpub. M. Sc. 1983. The English translations of the quotes from Du Bois-Reymond and Ludwig come from this manuscript.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Justus von Liebig, op. cit., 1965, note 13, p. 34.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    In the 19th century in Germany it was widely held that the sciences belonged to the domain of “Zivilisation”, not to the higher realm of “Kultur”. For the meaning of these concepts cf. Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins. The German Academic Community, 1890–1933, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969, pp. 86–90.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Matthias J. Schleiden, Die Pflanze und ihr Leben. Populäre Vorträge, Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1848, p. 1f.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Hermann von Helmholtz, ‘Über das Streben nach Popularisierung der Wissenschaft’, op. cit., 1903, note 12, volume 2, p. 425.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Ibid., p. 426.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Carl Vogt, Über den heutigen Stand der beschreibenden Naturwissenschaften, Gießen: J. Ricker, 1849, p. 21f.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Rudolf Virchow, ‘Über die Fortschritte in der Entwicklung der Humanitäts-Anstalten’, op. cit., note 8, p. llf.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Rudolf Virchow, ‘Über die Aufgaben der Naturwissenschaften im Neuen nationalen Leben Deutschlands’, op. cit., note 8, p. 111.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    I have analyzed the background of Virchow’s position in my essay ‘Darwinism and Scientific Freedom. Political Aspects of the Reception of Darwinism in Germany’, 1863–1878’, in Scientia 117 (1983).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    This is quoted here from the English translation in cf. Frederick Gregory, Scientific Materialism in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Dordrecht/Boston: D. Reidel, 1977, p. 105.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Cf. A. Kelly, The Descent of Darwin. The Popularization of Darwinism in Germany, 1860–1914, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1981.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Theobald Ziegler, Die geistigen und socialen Strdmungen des Neunzehnten Jahr-hunderts, Berlin: Georg Bondi, 1899, p. 328.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Ernst Haeckel, op. cit., 1898, note 1, Volume 2, p. 782. (Emphasized in the original.)Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Wilhelm Bölsche, ‘Zur Erinnerung an Carus Sterne’. Quoted here from: A. Kelly, op. cit., 1981, note 27, p. 52.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    A. Kelly, op. cit., 1981, note 27, p. 8.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Cf. Kurt Bayertz, ‘Naturwissenschaft und Sozialismus. Tendenzen der Naturwissenschafts-Rezeption in der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung des 19. Jahrhunderts’, in Social Studies of Science 13 (1983), 355–393.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Alfred Dove, ‘Was macht Darwin popular?’ in Günter Altner (ed.) Der Darwinismus. Die Geschichte einer Theorie, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1981, p. 447.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    In 1883 the scientist and entrepreneur Werner von Siemens states: “Scientific research will always build the foundation for technical progress; a nation’s industry will never come to occupy a leading position internationally, and be able to maintain it,, if it is not a leader in science. Research is the most effective way of promoting its industry”. Quoted from Peter Lundgreen, ‘Wissenschaft und Wirtschaft. Methodische Ansatze und empirische Ergebnisse (unter besonderer Beriicksichtigung Deutschlands im 19. Jahrhundert)’, in Technikgeschichte 44 (1977), 310. Lundgreen’s review of current research makes clear what difficulties stand in the way of an attempt at a solid historical reconstruction at the actual connection between science and economic development. Contradicting the optimism expressed in the passage quoted from Werner von Siemens, recent empirical research makes “questionable the assumption of a one-sided scientific-technical determinism”. Ibid., p. 313.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Cf. Kurt Bayertz, op. cit., note 32, pp. 381ff.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Cf. in contrast: “Science in Germany grew up as a part of a philosophical-educational enterprise and without the support of a powerful scientistic movement”. J. Ben-David, The Scientist’s Role in Society, A Comparative Study, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971, p. 126.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1985

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kurt Bayertz
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BielefeldUSA

Personalised recommendations