Buchner, Friedrich Karl Christian Ludwig

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Buchner, Friedrich Karl Christian Ludwig

(b. Darmstadt, Germany, 29 March 1824; d. Darmstadt, 1 May 1899)

medicine, philosophy, history of science.

Büchner was the most influential nineteenth-century German representative of a consistent materialism. His major accomplishments were the dissemination of the methods and results of the natural sciences and his work against a dogmatic, metaphysically determined formation of the consciousness. That this could not always take place without biased presentations and controversies, sometimes at the expense of scientific exactness and thoroughness, does not greatly lessen the value of Büchner’ works.

The third son of Ernst Büchner, a physician who later became archducal medical adviser, and of Karoline Reuss, Ludwig Büchner entered the University of Giessen in 1842 and studied physics, chemistry, botany, mineralogy, and philosophy. Later following his father’s wishes, he studied medicine and passed the examinations of this faculty in 1848. In the same year, he graduated after submitting “Beiträge zur Hall’schen Lehre von einem excitomotorischem Nervensystem” as his dissertation. One of its theses was that the personal soul is unthinkable without its material substrate.

As a student Büchner took an active part in the republican attempts at reform by working for democratic journals. He also published the Nachgelassene Schriften (1850) and a biography of his brother Georg, the famous playwright.

After further studies in Würzburg, with Rudolf Virchow, and in Vienna, Büchner became academic lecturer in Tübingen in 1854. In the following years he lectured on physical diagnosis, medical encyclopedia, and forensic medicine. He also served as assistant physician at the university clinic and as a medicolegal expert.

In 1854 the convention of German natural scientists and physicians was held in Tübingen, and Büchner wrote a series of reports on the talks given at the convention. These reports and Jacob MoleschottKreislauf des Lebens (1852) stimulated him to write his first and most famous work, Kraft und Stoff (1855). Büchner ascribed the favorable reception of this book (the first edition was sold out within a few weeks) to the public’s weariness of discussions of politics and literature. In the wake of the 1848 revolution his ideas were considered dangerous by the clergy and the conservative elements, who therefore forced Büchner to resign his university lectureship. The kind and extent of the polemic conducted becomes evident on reading the Preface and Notes in subsequent editions of Kraft und Stoff, as well as the collection of essays Aus Natur und Wissenschaft (1862).

In the following years Büchner practiced medicine in Darmstadt and published numerous works meant to disseminate knowledge of the natural sciences. These, like Kraft und Stoff, were translated into many languages. In 1860 he married Sophie Thomas. He made lecture tours of Germany and the United States (1874), and in 1881 he founded the Deutschen Freidenkerbund.

As guidelines for his works Büchner took Lamettrie’s statement that experience and observation must be our sole guides and Bernhard Cotta’s opinion that the empirical investigation of nature has no purpose but to find the truth, regardless of whether it seems reassuring or hopeless, beautiful or ugly, logical or inconsistent, wise or foolish.

Starting with the old materialism and the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, Büchner tried to base the theses of the materialistic concept of the world on empirical foundations and thus to prepare fruitful philosophical discussions. He defined force as “expression for the cause of a possible or an actual movement.” Physics, as the science of forces (mechanical force, gravity, heat), revealed that forces are inseparable from matter. Force and matter could not be destroyed; they were one and the same thing, seen from different aspects. There could be no force without matter, and no matter without force.

To consider matter as of minimal value when compared with the spiritual is meaningless, according to Büchner, for without an exact knowledge of matter and its laws, no insight is conceivable. Elements unchangeable in quantity and quality combine to form the various inorganic and organic substances, and their transformations take place according to laws; the laws of nature are unchangeable and generally valid. The attempt to “elucidate” phenomena by arbitrarily naming them is to be avoided (for instance, the “vital force” assumed by Justus Liebig). Büchner justifiably conceived the works of Darwin (for the dissemination of which he is especially to be lauded), Lyell, Kirchhoff, and Haeckel, and also the development of chemistry (which forced elimination of the abrupt barrier between inorganic and organic combinations), to be confirmations of his point of view.


I. Original Works, Büchner’s writings include Kraft und Stoff. Empirisch-naturphilosophische Studien (Frankfurt am Main, 1855), later entitled Kraft und Stoff oder Grundzüge der natürlichen Weltordnung (20th ed., Leipzig, 1902), also trans. as Force and Matter, or Principles of the Natural Order of the Universe (London, 1884; repr. New York, 1950); Natur und Geist (Frankfurt am Main, 1857; 3rd ed., Leipzig, 1876); Physiologische Bilder, I (Leipzig, 1861; 3rd ed., 1886), II (Leipzig, 1875; new ed., 1886); Aus Natur und Wissenschaft, Studien, Kritiken und Abhandlungen, I (Leipzig, 1862; 3rd ed., 1874), II (Leipzig, 1884); Sechs Vorlesungen über die Darwin’sche Theorie von der Verwandlung der Arten und die erste Entstehung der Organismenwelt (Leipzig, 1868), later entitled Die Darwin’sche Theorie von der Entstehung und Umwandlung der Lebewelt (5th ed., Leipzig, 1890); Der Mensch und seine Stellung in der Natur in Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft (Leipzig, 1869; 3rd ed., 1889), trans. as Man in the Past, Present and Future (London, 1872); Der Gottesbegriff und dessen Bedeutung in der Gegenwart (Leipzig, 1874), 3rd ed. entitled Gott und die Wissenschaft (Leipzig, 1897); Aus dem Geistesleben der Thiere, oder Staaten und Thaten der Kleinen (Berlin, 1876; 4th ed., Leipzig, 1897), trans. as Mind in Animals (London, 1903); Liebe und Liebes-Leben in der Thierwelt (Leipzig, 1879, 1885); Licht und Leben(Leipzig, 1882, 1897); Die Macht der Vererbung und ihr Einfluss auf den moralischen und geistigen Fortschritt der Menschheit (Leipzig, 1882, 1909); Der Fortschritt in Natur und Geschichte im Lichte der Darwinschen Theorie (Stuttgart, 1884); Der neue Hamlet (Zurich, 1885; new ed., Giessen, 1901), written under the pseudonym Karl Ludwig; Über religiöse und wissenschaftliche Weltanschauung (Leipzig, 1887); Thatsachen und Theorien aus dem naturwissenschaftlichen Leben der Gegenwart (Berlin, 1887); Das künftige Leben und die moderne Wissenschaft (Leipzig, 1889); Fremdes und Eigenes aus dem geistigen Leben der Gegenwart (Leipzig, 1890); Das goldene Zeitalter, oder das Leben vor der Geschichte (Berlin, 1891); Das Buch vom langen Leben, oder, die Lehre von der Dauer und Erhaltung des Lebens (Makrobiotik) (Leipzig, 1892), Darwinismus und Sozialismus, oder der Kampf um das Dasein und die moderne Gesellschaft (Leipzig, 1894; 2nd ed., Stuttgart, 1906); Am Sterbelager des Jahrhunderts (Giessen, 1898, 1900); Im Dienste der Wahrheit (Giessen, 1900), with a biography of the author by Alex Büchner; and Last Words on Materialism and Kindred Subjects (London, 1901).

II. Secondary Literature. Writings dealing with Büchner or his work are Arthur Drews, Die deutsche Spekulation seit Kant, II (Leipzig, 1895), 267–281; Julius Frauenstädt, Der Materialismus. Seine Wahrheit und sein Irrthum. Eine Erwiderung auf Louis Büchner’s “Kraft und Stoff” (Leipzig, 1856); and Friedrich Albert Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus und Kritik seiner Bedeuttung in der Gegenwart, II (5th ed., Leipzig, 1896), 89–97, also available in English as The History of Materialism (London, 1877–1879).

Joachim Thiele