Oken, Lorenz (1779–1855)

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Lorenz Oken, a German biologist and philosopher, was born at Bohlsbach, Baden. He was graduated from the faculty of medicine at Freiburg in 1804 and obtained his first professorship in medicine at Jena in 1807. Oken left Jena in 1819 because as editor of the liberal periodical Isis he had incurred the disfavor of the authorities. He traveled in Germany and France, lectured at the University of Basel in 1821 and 1822, and after a brief appointment at the University of Munich he became professor of physiology in Zürich, where he remained until his death.

After a few years in Jena, Oken was asked to transfer from medicine to philosophy. Yet ten years later, in his second term at Basel, he was listed as professor of medicine only, with no reference to philosophy. These changes reflect Oken's development and the superseding of romantic nature philosophy by a more objective study of natural phenomena. Under the influence of Friedrich von Schelling and the thinkers of the romantic school, Oken's imaginationrather than a genuine philosophical bentswept him on to his own version of philosophy of identity. If in his time Oken was thought to be a greater philosopher than even Schelling, it was because he had a much wider knowledge of the natural sciences to illustrate and support his metaphysics. His most significant book in this connection is the Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie (Elements of Physiophilosophy ). This work aroused great interest, especially among the New England transcendentalists. Oken tried to establish a correspondence between mathematical structures and nature, and between metaphysical essences and nature. Fond of Pythagorean mysticism, he argued that all life is cast in the mold of mathematical symbols. Zero is nothingness and the infinite at the same time. The evolution of positive and negative numbers out of zero is the counterpart of a descending and ascending order of thingsthe descent being from matter (heavenly bodies, rocks, minerals, etc.) to some primeval mucus, while the ascent is from this mucus, seminated by infusoria and helped along by galvanism, through the whole scale of plant and animal life to man.

Metaphysically, zero is God. The disintegration of matter to mucus and the evolution of living beings illustrate God's desire to manifest himself in naturewhen he comes to man, he meets himself; man is a god created by God. Theogony turns into hylogeny, the creation of matter. By the same token, all that exists is embedded in and permeated by an everlasting stream of vitalitypantheism and vitalism combine in Oken's view of the universe and its parts.

A poet in science, Ralph Waldo Emerson called Oken admiringly. The appropriateness of this remark is underlined by Oken the physiologist, who regarded man as an assembly of all the sense organs and other bodily parts developed along the ascending path; and by Oken the psychologist, who saw all animals as contributing to the psychology of the crowning organism, man. Mollusks gave man prudence and caution; from the snails man received seriousness and dignity; courage and nobility came from the insects; and the fish brought him the dowry of memory. Oken as a scientist with imagination may have had his merits, but as a philosopher he was unable to raise thought from the level of matter, chemistry, physiology, and cosmogony to a level of creative independence. Mind for Oken was merely a mirror in which God and nature could behold themselves.

In his less poetic moods, Oken came close to being a modern scientist. He held, with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe but independently of him, that the cephalic bones are a repetition of the vertebrae, and he was not far from establishing the cellular structure of living organisms. His publications after Physiophilosophy-Lehrbuch der Naturgeschichte and Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände reverted to the method of his earlier works: close observation and faithful description. If in Oken's days the natural sciences had to extricate themselves from preconceived mystical notions wrongly called philosophy, they beg today to be understood again in some wider context. The wheel has come full circle, as it must according to Oken's belief in the alternating processes of dynamic expansion and nostalgic reduction to a state of absolute quietness, a belief reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche's eternal recurrence of the same. The difference is that for Oken the fascination of this unending spectacle ended where Nietzsche's interest in it began, with the arrival of man and the search for values.

See also Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; New England Transcendentalism; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Realism and Naturalism, Mathematical; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Structuralism, Mathematical; Value and Valuation.


principal works by oken

Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie, 3 vols. Jena: F. Frommann, 18091811; improved and final ed., 1843. Translated by Alfred Tulk as Elements of Physiophilosophy. London: Ray Society, 1847.

Lehrbuch der Naturgeschichte, 5 vols. Leipzig and Jena, 18131826.

Allgemeine Naturgeschichte für alle Stände, 13 vols. Stuttgart: Hoffman, 18331841.

works on oken

Ecker, Alexander. Lorenz Oken. Eine biographische Skizze. Stuttgart, 1880.

Hübner, Georg Wilhelm. Okens Naturphilosophie prinzipiell und kritisch bearbeitet. Borna-Leipzig, 1909.

Schuster, Julius. Oken. Der Mann und sein Werk. Berlin, 1922.

Hermann Boeschenstein (1967)