Skip to main content

Nature: Religious and Philosophical Speculations


In the West, "natural philosophy" and "philosophy of nature" have developed side-by-side and at times have been confused. The first has been defined by Galileo, Auguste Comte, and Charles Darwin as the pursuit of a total but essentially objective knowledge of phenomena, whereas the second has oriented such thinkers as Gottfried W. Leibniz, Georg W. F. Hegel, and Henri Bergson toward an intuitive approach that nevertheless strives to be rigorous regarding the reality that underlies data derived from observation. Among the thinkers of this second category, those who have come more and more to be labeled Naturphilosophen, or "philosophers of nature," since the time of German Romanticism occupy a special place.

Since antiquity, the representatives of that tendency are generally committed to grasping the concrete character of nonmechanical, nonphysical reality or, as F. J. W. Schelling put it, the "productivity" concealed behind sensible appearances, without, as a rule, neglecting the study of appearances themselves. They are not satisfied with a natural philosophy based on empiricism alone. Their ideas indisputably bear the mark of the religious, indeed of Gnosticismnot in the dualistic sense this word evokes when it is applied to the Gnostics of the beginning of our own era, but in the sense of a frame of mind fixed on defining the nature of the relationships linking God, human beings, and the universe by means not relevant solely to the experimental method.

Pre-Socratics, Stoicism, Hermetism, and the Early Middle Ages

The pre-Socratics hardly opposed matter to mind, soul to body, or subject to object, but they had a tendency to approach nature with a nondualistic, noncategorical attitude. In such a view, all being is concrete. Yet their thinking contained dynamic and creative contradictions. Cosmologies and anthropologies rested on pairs of opposites. The pre-Socratics had a sense of analogy and homology insofar as they did not think in purely Aristotelian categories. Their imaginary world was grounded in concrete nature, interpreting and molding it into living structures. Hence the importance of the elements (whose rich symbolism would later be taken up again by the alchemists): water for Thales, air for Anaximenes, fire for Heraclitus. For these physicist-metaphysicians, especially Heraclitus, the logic of antagonism was primordial. "Night and day," he said, "they are one." Hence the pre-Socratics' labyrinthine style, which seems obscure because it is made of paradoxes. Parmenides was already moving away from such categories of nature with his linear thought, his doxa, which tended to annul these contradictions. Thus, too, Anaxagoras, who saw in nature a thinking principle that is copresent in the ordering of the world, but that also separates the human being from the rest of the cosmos. But later, Empedocles affirmed six principlesreassemblage and dispersion, plus the four elementsand presented the history of the world as the reconstitution of a dislocated unity.

Stoicism, over almost six centuries, paved the way for Neoplatonism and certain Gnostic and Hermetic currents. Indeed, it placed emphasis on the need to know the concrete universe, harmoniously blending wisdom and technique, and taught the necessity of a savoir-faire that rejects pure speculation and must lead to the knowledge of an organic whole, thus assuring the accord between things heavenly and terrestrial. That trait appeared again and again in a more systematic manner as one of the important aspects of Alexandrine Hermetism, whose teachings often affirm that God is known through the contemplation of the world. Hence the preference of the Hermetica texts for the particular, the mirabilia, over the abstract and the general; science is not "disinterested" but aims to rediscover the general by means of an enriching detour through the concrete and through individual objects

This focus on the concrete hardly occurs in Neoplatonism, where the intelligible reality, the realm of the mind to which one strives to gain access, has no purpose in explaining the world of the senses. Instead, it aids us in quitting this world in order to help us to enter the pure region where knowledge and happiness are possible. The essential thing is to go beyond the sensual, up to the world of ideas. Within diverse branches of early Gnosticism, the belief prevailed that the world is the work of an evil entity.

The ninth-century theologian John Scotus Eriugena, who was born in Ireland and lived at the court of Charles the Bald, authored De divisione naturae (or Periphyseon ), which was to nourish much of subsequent Theosophical speculation up to the age of German idealism in the nineteenth century. The two kinds of nature he distinguished, namely natura naturans and natura naturata (i.e., creative nature and created nature), were later to inspire Jewish qaballistic literature.

In the same century, the Arabs translated many ancient texts and, inspired by Aristotle, wrote commentaries on them. But together with the rationalistic empiricism of Aristotle, and in the margins of a form of positivism, we see Arab thought also expressing a highly mythicized vision of a world ruled by spiritual forces that only intuition can aspire to grasp. The medieval West received this teaching by way of the Latin translations of Arabic texts that were often concerned with the theory and practice of medicine and magic.

The twelfth century saw a return to the cosmological themes of Greco-Roman antiquity, in other words, to a universe conceived and represented as an organic whole, subject to laws that must be sought in the light of analogy. But the "discovery" of laws would entail twofold consequences: on the one hand, a powerful process of secularization was set in motion, at the expense of a sense of the sacred. On the other hand, and conversely, a lasting renewal of what might be called the feeling of cosmic participation took place. This latter corresponded to the systematic and poetic elaboration of a network of relations between the visible and invisible realms of creation. The universe was approached by form of philosophical speculation that was committed to deciphering living, concrete meanings. According to Jean de Meung, nature became the "chamberlain," or vicar, of Goda God who, as it turned out, incarnated in stone in this age that saw the emergence of a great sacred art of the West.

Nature, its unity and its laws, is what interested the Platonism of the school of Chartres as it appeared in the works of William of Conches, who was much concerned with physics, propagated the teachings of Eriugena on the world soul, and undertook, like Bernard Silvester of Tours (De Mundi universitate, 1147), to integrate a Platonic philosophy of nature within Christianity. The Platonic doctrine of ideas, and the reflection on numbers, were of a nature to incite the intellect to remove from the sensible world any form of reality judged to be absolute, and to place it in the realm of the archetypes or exempla. But the school of Chartres did not succumb to this temptation inherent in classical Platonism. It rather tended to integrate the intellect with the material world and the natural sciences. Its debt to Arabic science in this respect is quite evidentespecially in medical science, which had only recently been made accessible to the West.

In the thirteenth century two opposing tendencies divided philosophical and religious reflection. The Franciscan orientation, represented mainly by Bonaventure, showed renewed interest in all things in nature. This was followed by the Dominican orientation, derived from Aristotle and represented by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, who elaborated a philosophy based mainly on concepts rather than on living, inter-related symbolic images. From another source came a third tendency, that of the school of Oxford, which shared with the spirit of Chartres a desire for universal intuition. Nature holds the largest place in the thought of Bonaventure, along with his mystical leanings. The "Seraphic Doctor" considered nature equal to the Bible and as a book to be deciphered. The spirit of Oxford blossomed further in the work of the early thirteenth-century bishop Robert Grosseteste. Neoplatonism and an interest in the sciences, two traits characteristic of both these English masters, appeared clearly in Grosseteste. His preferred subject, speculations on the nature of light, was to enjoy a long posterity. The nature of light as the "first corporeal form" (lux) accounts for the presence of all of the bodies of the universe and the constitution of the world by its expansion, its condensation, or its rarefaction. Grosseteste imagined that a point of light created by God was diffused in such a manner that a sphere of a finite radius was formed, which was to become the universe (a hypothesis that has been, duly or not, paralleled to the Big Bang theory). The limit of its power of diffusion determined the firmament, which in turn sent back a light (lumen), which in turn engendered the celestial spheres and the spheres of the elements. Adam Pulchrae Mulieris, another theologian of the light, prefigured several of Grosseteste's intuitions with his Liber de intelligentiis.

Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century Franciscan of Paris and Oxford, has been often presented as a rationalist precursor of the experimental method of modern science. Nevertheless, what Bacon called "experience" (experimentum) should be taken not in its current, modern sense, but in the sense of "the work of an expert." In this understanding, the practices of the alchemist and the astrologer as well fall under the heading of experimentumi. Paracelsus would later go along similar paths when dealing with "experience" in medicine, by which he understood the study and knowledge of concealed natural forces. For Bacon, experimental science meant secret and traditional science, with the condition that concrete science not be separated from the Holy Scriptures but that the two be complementarily linked together.

To these works must be added what became a well-known genre in the thirteenth century, that of the summae ("sums") and specula ("mirrors"), of which Alexander Neckam's De naturis rerum is the first example. To this genre belong such works as the Speculum majus of Vincent of Beauvais, an exposé of natural history in the form of a commentary on the first chapters of Genesis. Aside from this, other works of the same sort worthy of note include De natura rerum by Thomas of Cantimpré, and Bartholomew the Englishman's De proprietatibus rerum. Only occasionally do these works offer a philosophy of nature in the full sense of the term, but since they are replete with lots of histories and observations on the powers of plants, animals, and minerals, as well as on the heavenly signs, they prepared the way for the occult philosophy of the Renaissance.

From the Late Middle Ages to the Renaissance

The problem of nominalism versus realism, which was posed sharply in the fourteenth century, entailed a debate with high stakes for the construction of a philosophy of nature. Nominalism (contrary to realism) is loath to see in the laws and the realities of the sensible world a collection of analogous/homologous replicas of realities on high, or exempla. Nominalism emerged victorious from the debate, clearing the field for the development of modern science, beginning with physics. Thus the continuity between a spiritually structured universe and self-sufficient, purely physical laws, which had been sustained by "traditional" philosophies, was broken. At the same time, the influence of nominalism joined with that of Averroism and, in bringing about the downfall of the Avicennian concept of the universe, paved the way for an ongoing secularization of the cosmos.

The Ars magna of Ramón Lull, written in 1308 and inspired by Qabbalah, was an instrument of knowledge that claimed to be applicable at all possible and imaginable levels, from God himself down to the lowest orders of nature, by way of the angels, the stars, and the four elements. Lull's Ars played the role of a channel through which a part of the medieval Neoplatonism revived by Eriugena passed, in other words, a dynamic Platonism close to the Jewish mysticism that was to flourish in Florence and Spain. It was interpreted, along with other writings falsely attributed to him, as a form of Qabbalah, although it was hardly so. A grandiose conception of nature is also found in the contemporary writings of Peter of Abano. Astrological Hermetism makes up half of his encyclopedic work, of which the Conciliator is the most important volume. Here, nature is seen as controlled by the stars, and objects are filled with spirits.

In addition, alchemy played a big role. It had begun to regain currency in the West in the twelfth century. It assumed three forms, which may have been complementary in the minds of many alchemists, but which it is convenient to distinguish. These were, first, research into procedures of metallic transmutation (for example, the production of gold); second, a "spiritual" alchemy, in which the chemical metaphors served as an aid to meditation, with a conscious or unconscious transformation of the experimenter himself as the goal; and third, an alchemy presented as a philosophy of nature, as in Petrus Bonus's Pretiosa margarita novella. In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Franciscan Jean De Rupescissa (or Jean de Roquetaillade) developed at length the idea that a "quintessence" is at work in each object, and he proposed theories on the four elements and the "three principles." All such speculations herald Paracelsus's work, but before him another great name emerged in the thought of the fifteenth-century: Nicholas of Cusa, the apostle of a total science in which the ars coincidentiarum is clearly distinguished from the ars conjecturarum of common science. The first corresponds to the principle of the intellectual knowledge of objects, the second to the principle of a purely rational knowledge. What he called the docta ignorantia is a form of superior knowledge, a gnosis of the coincidence of opposites, or state of the unity of all things.

The Renaissance promoted the revival of a philosophy of nature, primarily in Germanic countries, which were thenceforth the preserver of holistic worldviews; that is, embracing the fullness of the world. In the seventeenth century, the term pansophy was often bestowed on them, in order to emphasize their universalizing character. As early as the sixteenth century, Paracelsus, the famous physician of Einsiedeln, Basel, and Salzburg, played a decisive role, with his immense oeuvre and his abundant posterity. While preserving the Neoplatonic idea of intermediaries between humankind and the divine, he did so less as a spiritualist meditating on the nature of intermediary intellects than as a practitioner seeking to discover the analogical relationships between a concrete, living, dynamic heaven and the human being studied in all his constituent parts.

In opposition to Neoplatonism, nature for Paracelsus emerged directly from divine power. He distinguished two orders of suprasensible realities, or "lights." There is the "light of grace," of a uniquely spiritual order, a divine world to which human beings are related through their immortal spirit. This is the domain of mysticism proper; he hardly ventured to occupy himself with it, except in order to stress its ontological preeminence and existence. His domain of research was the other "light," that of nature, or philosophia sagax, which he described as an autonomous power of revelation. Between these two lights he placed astronomy or astrology as a third area or term. Everything that concerns these three realms, as well as biology, human psychology, and even the arts, emerges from nature's light and obeys the laws of analogy. Hence the focus on deciphering correspondences among metals, planets, parts of the human body, and so forth, with a view to improving, through observation and experimentation, our understanding of the complexity of nature's divinely created unity. Chemistry and medicine are emphasized in the search for such a comprehension. One must, as Paracelsus himself said, "acquire the wonders of God through the mediation of Nature."

Paracelsism spread through Germany and the rest of Europe at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, at least two generations after the death of its initiator, whose work was not well known nor widely published until then. Among his successors and disciples, Gerhard Dorn, Alexander von Suchten, and Oswald Croll occupy an important place. Their philosophy, like their master's, is not autonomous but is set within a theology; it has a dynamic character bearing on all levels, up to the level of God himself, by no means a deus otiosus. The manner in which they conceive the organic unity of the world with its multiple hypostases always results in a kind of "sacred physics" far from the dryness that characterizes many cosmologies of the Middle Ages. Paracelsism corresponds to a new and influential irruption of a "physiological" cosmologyor cosmosophy, ratherin the West, and in the seventeenth century was to lead to developments operating in several directions: notably, a "chemical philosophy," more or less influenced by alchemy, and which the new scientific paradigms struggled to get rid of throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

These pansophic outlooks fueled the inspiration of the Rosicrucian movement, whose first manifestations were the Fama Fraternitatis (1614) and the Confessio Fraternitatis (1615)which were almost simultaneous with those of thinkers like Robert Fludd and Jakob Boehme. With Boehme, a new esoteric current appeared, namely the so-called Theosophical one (see below).

The Roots of Romantic Naturphilosophie

Among the precursors of Romantic Naturphilosophie are, in particular, Christian Theosophy, "mosaic physics," "physico-theology," the so-called "theology of electricity," the first experiments in animal magnetism, and also three new orientations that appeared toward the end of the eighteenth century on the stage of philosophy in general, and will be further explained below.

To begin with Christian Theosophy, an esoteric current that flourished from the beginning of the seventeenth century onward (notably with Boehme), one of its prevailing aspects is the search for dynamic correspondences between nature, human beings, and God (or divine entities) through an ongoing "illuminative" speculation bearing on the complex and dramatic relationships between these three, envisaged as dramatis personae. In the eighteenth century, Theosophical discourses dealt more and more with the notion of "higher physics," or "sacred physics," as opposed to a merely rational variety. Such sacred physics set itself up against the desacralization of the universe. It was a matter of resacralizing both science and the world. Theosophy stricto sensu starts from a speculation that bears on the divine, whereas Naturphilosophie proper begins with an observation of natural phenomena, which it then tries to integrate into a holistic and spiritual worldview. But since Theosophers often transferred to the spirit or the divine itself the proprieties of physics, it is scarcely surprising that in some authors the distinction between Naturphilosophie and Theosophy tends to get blurred.

Mosaic physics also flourished in the seventeenth century. The term physica sacra, often linked to it, served to designate a reading of the Bible considered as the key to understanding another book, that of nature. The contents of both books were supposed to coincide. Jan Amos Comenius, for instance, represents this tendency. In the pre-Enlightenment era, at the end of the seventeenth century, first in England, then in other European countries, there arose a so-called physico-theology, which endeavored to reconcile scientific discoveries with faith (not necessarily with the Bible) as a reaction to mechanistic worldviews and Cartesian rationalism. Physico-theologians (for example, Friedrich Christian Lesser, Lithotheologie, 1735) were lavish in descriptions of animals (bees, mollusks, spiders, birds, etc.), plants, and natural phenomena (lightning, storms), to which they attributed symbolic and spiritual, albeit generally static, meanings.

In the context of the later widespread craze for experimentation with electricity and galvanism (1789, experiments of Galvani; 1800, Voltaic pile), the pre-Romantic period witnessed the success of Franz Anton Mesmer's theories, and the development of animal magnetism by Armand Marie de Puységur and his followers. Another result of the belief in a magnetic fluid pervading human beings and the whole universe was the so-called "theology of electricity." The latter was marked by a kind of spiritual realism represented by the Theosopher Friedrich Christoph Oetinger and other figures like Prokop Divisch, Johann Ludwig Fricker, Gottlieb Friedrich Rösler (e.g., their book Theorie der meteorologischen Elektrizität, 1765). This "theology" may be considered, at least with regard to Oetinger, as a kind of proto-Natur-philosophie.

Besides these three precursors, three further factors pertaining to the history of philosophy proper, are also relevant to the appearance of Naturphilosophie.

The influence of French naturalism

With Georges-Louis de Buffon's theoretical works and Denis Diderot's Le rêve de d'Alembert (1769), a new way of considering physics had begun to emerge. It began as a kind of literary exercise rather than a strictly scientific discourse, but as it became more popular it pervaded the culture of the time. Buffon, in particular, fostered a taste for synthesis (a typical trait of Romantic thought, along with the painful experience of human limits) and promoted the theme of the soul of the world (anima mundi).

The philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte

In Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft (Metaphysical foundations of natural science, 1786), which discussed the necessity of discovering the a priori principles at work behind empirical data, Kant presented as a constitutive characteristic of nature the two forces of Newtonian physics, attraction and repulsion, at a time when the notion of polarity was already spreading outside esoteric circles and flowing into various domains, including medicine. Leaning on some of Kant's ideas, which he extended to the utmost, Fichte proceeded to spread the idea that the world is a product of imagination (notably in Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre [Foundations of the entire doctrine of science, 17941795]). Imagination was understood as resulting from a synthetic and spontaneous activity of the spirit (i.e., the thing in itself and our representation of it are identical).

Spinozan philosophy

Having been considered an atheist during most of the eighteenth century, Spinoza's religious ideas returned to center stage at the turn of the century, but were now interpreted as those of a man intoxicated with God. His "Deus sive natura " was no longer read as a disguised profession of materialistic faith, but as the affirmation that nature is something divine. At this time, there was a prevailing tendency to conceive of God as not identical with things but as the primordial center of energy from which the development of organic forms and the entire finite world proceeded. Indeed, Naturphilosophie generally avoids pantheism in favor of this panentheism (i.e., God is everywhere in nature, but outside also).

The Essentials of Romantic Naturphilosophie

Naturphilosophie proper appeared during the last years of the eighteenth century, heralded by two groundbreaking works, published almost simultaneously in 1798: F. J. W. Schelling's Von der Weltseele (On the soul of the world) and Franz von Baader's Über das pythagoräische Quadrat in der Natur (About the Pythagorean square in nature). Besides these two, mention must be made of the first writings of the theoretician in animal magnetism, Carl August von Eschenmayer (e.g., Sätze aus der Naturmetaphysik auf chemiche und medicinische Gegenstände angewandt [Elements of the metaphysics of nature, applied to chemical and medical objects], 1797). Along with Baader, and even more than Schelling, Eschenmayer combined the data of the pansophic-esoteric legacy with the new spirit of Kantian philosophy. Among the further representatives of Naturphilosophie, the following authors and their representative works stand out: Karl Friedrich Burdach (Blicke ins Leben [Glimpses into life], 18421848); Wilhelm Butte (Arithmetik des menschlichen Lebens [Arithmetic of human life], 1811); Carl Gustav Carus (Natur und Idee, 1862); Joseph Ennemoser (Der Magnetismus im Verhältnis zur Natur und Religion [Magnetism as related to nature and religion], 1842); Gustav Theodor Fechner (Zend-Avesta, 1851), Joseph Görres (Aphorismen über Kunst, als Einleitung zu künftigen Aphorismen über Organonomie, Physik, Psychologie und Anthropologie [Aphorisms on art, as an introduction to future aphorisms on organonomy, physics, psychology, and anthropology], 1802); Justinus Kerner (Eine Erscheinung aus dem Nachtgebiete der Natur [A manifestation from the night-side of nature], 1836); Dietrich Georg Kieser (in particular his contributions in the 1820s to the journal Archiv für den Thierischen Magnetismus ); Giovanni Malfatti (Studien über Anarchie und Hierarchie des Wissens [Studies about anarchy and hierarchy of knowledge], 1843); Johann Friedrich von Meyer (in particular his contributions in the 1820s and 1830s to Blätter für höhere Wahrheit [Journal for higher truth]); Adam Müller (Lehre vom Gegensatz [The contradiction theory], 1804); Novalis (pseudonym of Friedrich von Hardenberg, Das allgemeine Brouillon: Materialien zur Enzyklopädistik [The general draft: Materials for my encyclopedic project], 17981799); Hans Christian Oersted (Der Geist der Natur [The spirit of nature], 18501851); Lorenz Oken (Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie [Coursebook on Naturphilosophie ], 1809); Johann Wilhelm Ritter (Fragmente aus der Nachlasse eines jungen Physikers [Fragments from the legacy of a young physicist], 1810); the painter Philipp Otto Runge (Farbenkugel [Ball of colors], 1810); Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert (Ansichten über die Nachtseite der Naturwissenschaft [Views on the night sides of the science of nature], 1808); Henrik Steffens (Grundzüge der philosophischen Naturwissenschaften [The main traits of the philosophical science of nature], 1806); Gottfried Reinhold Trevisarus (Die Erscheinungen und Gesetze des organischenn Lebens [The manifestations and laws of organic life], 18311833); Ignaz Troxler (Über das Leben und sein Problem [On life and its problem], 1806); Johann Jakob Wagner (Organon der menschlichen Erkenntniss [Organon of human knowledge], 1830). One should also mention, with respect to other cultural fields, such names as Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (L'Esprit des choses [The spirit of things], 1802), William Paley (Natural Theology, 1802), and Sir Humphrey Davy (Consolations in Travel, 1830).

The Theosophical orientation proper is far from being the rule amongst these figures. It is conspicuous in Baader, Meyer, and Schubert, for example, but almost absent from the works of such authors as Burdach, Oken, and Wagner. However, most Naturphilosophen share three common tenets, which are explicitly or implicitly present in their discourse, and account for their proximity to esotericism in general, and to Theosophy in particular:

First, nature has a history of a mythical order. This ontological postulate functions as a poetic mainspring for research and speculation. The world is not made of eternal, immutable things but is, like the spirit, engaged in a process of a highly dramatic character. A quadruple polar structure underlies most of these speculations. The first pole is the undifferentiated chaos, or primordial light. From that, two opposite poles emerge, which are both opposed and complementary to one another and assume various forms, like fire and water, fire and light, masculine and feminine, attraction and repulsion. A fourth term then manifests, which reflects the first one and is the common product within which the two opposing terms combine. Such a quaternary is the basic structure, in fact a mythical narrative, identified by Schelling as "the repressed mystery of Christianity." It is the story of the "Redeemed Redeemer," that is, the metahistory of a captive light awakened by another light that had remained free. Hence the frequent use of the two notions of light and gravity (rather than darkness), the latter being understood as something by which the primitive energies have been engulfed, but from which they are still likely to reemerge. In a similar vein, Jakob Boehme had described nature as a fire whose embers human beings should rekindle and which in turn would redeem them.

The second tenet concerns the identity of spirit and nature, first expressed by Schelling. "Spirit" is understood as the universal, even divine one, in its relation to nature and to the human beings. Ontologically, this identity rests on a mythical conception of the history of nature, based on an epistemological plane where the negative or destructive opposition of the two is surmounted: Spirit becomes nature, nature becomes spiritualized. Oersted wrote: "The more you advance toward [the] agreement between Nature and Spiritthe more perfect you will find it and [the more you will see that] these two Natures are the seeds of one common root" (Betrachtungen über die Geschichte der Chemie [Considerations on the history of chemistry], 1807). This "philosophy of identity" (viz., Schelling) has remained the most suggestive idea of Naturphilosophie, because it bears on the perennial metaphysical question of the relationship between nature and spirit. By the same token, self-knowledge and knowledge of the world go hand in hand. Both are an initiatory journey and immersion into "the becoming" (das Werden). But this Werden is dramatic because it implies both order and disorder. The world that surrounds us, and we ourselves, bear witness to an ancient order that has been disrupted. The idea is conspicuous also in Romantic art and literature, which lavishly depict natural landscapes resulting from cataclysmic events, thus reflecting one of the essential themes developed by Theosophy, namely the belief in an original fall of human beings and nature. The interdependence of human being and nature, including the entire cosmos and the soul of the world, is the central idea underlying the research of such Naturphilosophen as Baader, Schubert, and Kerner in mesmerism, animal magnetism, and dreams.

Third, nature as a whole is a living net of correspondences to be deciphered and integrated into a holistic worldview. Nature is to be read as a text replete with symbolic implications, whose meaning lies beyond itself. A spirit speaks through it. As a consequence, rigorous experimental science is never more than an obligatory first step toward a comprehensive, holistic knowledge encompassing both natura naturans and natura naturata (i.e., the invisible as well as the visible processes at work within nature and the whole cosmos). Things always present themselves as symbols, which bring back to both the warp and woof of a universal web. Living structures are detected in crystals, celestial constellations, and electric phenomena. Mechanistic imaginary and the compartmentalization of science into sectors cut off from one another are replaced by an organic merging of all disciplines. Thus concrete science and metaphysics, or experimentation and meditation, are two sides of the same coin. Almost all representatives of this current were scholars with at least one scientific specialty, like chemistry, physics, geology, mine engineering, or medicine. The fragments of empirical reality require a "second reading." Once reality has been subjected to scientific analysis, it needs to be deciphered symbolically in order to yield clusters of meaning. Consequently, a scientific fact is perceived as a sign, and signs respond to each other. Concepts borrowed from chemistry are transferred to astronomy or human psychology; notions pertaining to botany are used to describe inorganic processes or vice versa. It is not surprising that the Romantic image of the wise physician, characteristic of period literature, enjoyed a great success, based as it was on the analogy between medicine and poetry. In literature, such transfers from one domain to another often took the form of aphorisms (e.g., Novalis), a genre generally praised by German Romanticism. The Romantic writer Friedrich Schlegel claimed that "the combinatorial mind is truly prophetic," and Schelling advocated a form of nondogmatic polytheism: "Monotheism of the mind and of the heart, and polytheism of the imagination and of art, this is what we need" (1962, vol. 1, p. 70).

Goethe's philosophy of nature is somewhat distinct from the current of Naturphilosophie. Admittedly, throughout his life he certainly maintained the notion of a vital universe, and his scientific works, especially those on the metamorphosis of plants and on colors, place him close to some leanings of the Naturphilosophen. But he was more interested in trying to grasp eternity in an instant, or infinity in an object (William Blake), than in discovering commonalities or correspondences between things, or in what the latter symbolize of the invisible. More generally, he remained aloof from Romanticism. Apart from brilliant exceptions like Ritter and Oersted, the Naturphilosophen did not make significant discoveries themselves, but they were keen to find and express truths of a different order, that of the absolute.

In the wake of Romantic Naturphilosophie

After about sixty years, the current of Naturphilosophie faded away in the 1850s. It was probably the last period in which peopleor, at least, the savantshad felt at home on earth. Gradually, an estrangement from nature had made headway: the view had begun to prevail that nature is hostile, and not a place where they could feel at home. Nature came to represent either "the other," linked to a feeling of no longer being "at home in the world," or conversely to a reflexive response against the increasing disenchantment of the world (a kind of last-ditch attempt at exorcizing the specter of disenchantment). This process had already been smoldering for quite a few decades, as exemplified by Arthur Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The world as will and representation, 1819), in which nature is considered as being outside the categories of understanding. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Naturphilosophie was definitely superseded by the advent of scientistic, materialistic worldviews. However, it left numerous legacies. A number of celebrated philosophers in the twentieth century, like Ludwig Klages, Hermann Keyerling, and Max Scheler, have reclaimed some of its heritage, but in an essentially speculative manner, since very few of them were chemists, astrophysicists, or physicians.

Originally inspired by Goethe, Rudolf Steiner followed an orientation more akin to Naturphilosophie proper, which has consequently left its imprint upon the teachings and literature of the Anthroposophical Society until the present. Less directly but more importantly, the most obvious survival of Naturphilosophie is to be found in the theories of the unconscious. In this respect, works like Schubert's Die Symbolik des Traums (Symbolism of dreams, 1814), and perhaps even more Carus's Psyche: Entwicklungsgeschichte der Seele (Psyche: The historical development of the soul, 1846), certainly influenced the ideas of late nineteenth-century thinkers like Eduard von Hartmann (Philosophie des Unbewussten [Philosophy of the unconscious], 1869). Even more importantly, these theorists of the unconscious represent the historical roots of psychoanalysis, leading to the theories of Sigmund Freud (for whom the unconscious is rather monolithic, as it had been for Arthur Schopenhauer) and those of Carl Gustav Jung, who described the unconscious as a dynamically functioning quaternary. Jung may be considered the latest major representative of Naturphilosophie, given his views of alchemy (namely, that what alchemists saw in their crucible was a constellation of their own unconscious), and his theories on synchronicity as well.

Over the last decades, members of several scientific communities have adopted some conceptions pertaining to Naturphilosophie, whether they were aware of this tradition or not. For example, the idea of intelligent matter has been addressed by scientists like Valdemar Axel Firsoff (Life, Mind, and Galaxies, 1967) and Jean Charon (L'Homme et l'Univers [Man and the universe], 1974). The hypothesis that matter is modeled on the spirit has been developed in Arthur Koestler's The Roots of Coincidence (1972). Authors like David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980) and Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, 1975) have developed "holistic" interpretations of modern physics, thus fostering a sort of visionary physics that has gained entrance into the literature of the New Age (see Hanegraaff) in the form of various speculations on the relationship between "science" and "conscience," "science" and "tradition," and so on.


Ayrault, Roger. La genèse du romantisme allemand: Situation spirituelle de l'Allemagne dans la deuxième moitié du XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1964. See vol. 4, pages 13167.

Benz, Ernst. Theologie der Elektrizität: Zur Begegnung und Auseinandersetzung von Theologie und Naturwissenschaft im 17ten und 18ten Jahrhundert. Mainz, Germany, 1970.

Bernoulli, Christoph, and Hans Kern, ed. Romantische Naturphilosophie. Jena, Germany, 1926.

Brinkmann, Richard, ed. Romantik in Deutschland: Ein interdisziplinäres Symposium. Stuttgart, Germany, 1978. See the section entitled "Romantik im Spanungsfeld von Naturgefühl, Naturwissenschaft und Philosophie, " pp. 167330.

Cazenave, Michel, ed. Science et conscience: Les deux lectures de l'universe. Paris, 1980.

Engelhardt, Dietrich von. "Bibliographie der Sekundärliteratur zur romantischen Naturforschung und Medizin, 19501975." In Romantik in Deutschland: Ein interdisziplinäres Symposium, edited by Richard Brinkmann, pp. 307330. Stuttgart, Germany, 1978.

Debus, Allen G. The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. 2 vols. New York, 1977.

Engelhardt, Dietrich von. "Romantische Naturforschung." In Historisches Bewusstsein in der Naturwissenschaft von der Aufklärung bis zum Positivismus, edited by Dietrich von Engelhardt, pp. 103157. Freiburg, Germany, 1979.

Faivre, Antoine. Philosophie de la nature: Physique sacrée et théosophie, XVIIIème-XIXème siècles. Paris, 1998.

Faivre, Antoine, and Rolf Christian Zimmerman, eds. Epochen der Naturmystik: Hermetische Tradition im wissenschaftlichen Fortschritt. Berlin, 1979.

Gilson, Étienne. La philosophie au moyen âge: Des origines patristiques à la fin du XVe siècle. 2d ed. Paris, 1944.

Gode von Aesch, Alexander. Natural Science in German Romanticism. New York, 1941; reprint, 1966.

Gusdorf, Georges. Le savoir romantique de la nature. Paris, 1985.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Albany, N.Y., 1996. See pages 6476.

Joël, Karl. Der Ursprung der Naturphilosophie aus dem Geiste der Mystik. Jena, Germany, 1906.

Leibbrand, Werner. Die spekulative Medizin der Romantk. Hamburg, Germany, 1956.

Lenoble, Robert. Histoire de l'idée de nature. Paris, 1969.

Pagel, Walter. Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance. Basel, Switzerland, 1958; 2d ed., 1982.

Schelling, F. W. J. Briefe und Dokumente. Edited by Horst Fuhrmans. 2 vols. Bonn, Germany, 1962.

Sladek, Mirko. Fragmente der hermetischen Philosophie in der Naturphilosophie der Neuzeit. Frankfurt, Germany, 1984.

Stebbins, Sara. Maxima in Minimis: Zum Empirie- und Autoritätsverständnis in der physico-theologschen Literatur der Frühaufklärung. Frankfurt, Germany, 1980.

Antoine Faivre (1987 and 2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nature: Religious and Philosophical Speculations." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 17 Jun. 2019 <>.

"Nature: Religious and Philosophical Speculations." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (June 17, 2019).

"Nature: Religious and Philosophical Speculations." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved June 17, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.