Nature, Science, and Subjectivity in the Age of Goethe

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My dissertation project examines the relationship between the emergent discourse of the life sciences at the end of the 18th century and the influence of this discourse on the literary production, moral philosophy, and philosophy of history of the time. Specifically, I demonstrate how the paradigm shift in the natural sciences in the second half of the 18th century, from a mechanist understanding of nature to a vitalist one, allowed for a fundamental reevaluation of the status of the human being as a natural organism. Unlike the dominant Enlightenment and Idealist discourses of the 18th century, which typically viewed human reason as grounded in a divine or transcendental source and consequently, understood the human being as something fundamentally different from other natural organisms, the vitalist discourse in the biological sciences provided a theoretical framework within which the human being and its cognitive faculties could be understood according to fully naturalistic premises. The emergence of this strand of naturalism, I argue, is central to the development of a much different theory of subjectivity than that usually associated with developments in literature and philosophy around 1800. As opposed to Kantian and the other universalizing tendencies of the era, I argue that Herder utilized cutting edge vitalist developments in the natural sciences to develop a naturalistic theory of subjectivity that saw all thinking as inextricably imbedded with a horizon of language, culture, and individuality, and hence, as always in some sense “perspectival”. This naturalist theory of subjectivity, I argue, not only offered a fundamentally different path for theorizing the human being compared to the more universally oriented theories of Kant, but exercised a equally great influence on the developments of the time as did those of Kant. The dissertation investigates and develops these central themes in four chapters plan an epilogue. In Chapter 1, I lay out the scientific context within which vitalism emerged and which established the essential fulcrum point on which the major theoretical decisions of the time were made. In Chapter 2, I trace Kant and Herder’s response to this scientific context and show how their differing responses to the emergence of vitalism and the “crisis in the mechanical sciences” structure their subsequent theories of subjectivity, with Kant looking to secure a space of objectivity and universality while Herder embraced the historical and individual perspectivism that was a consequence of his naturalism. Having established this foundation, I then investigate the influence of naturalist tendencies on the theories of subjectivity of Schiller and Goethe. Finally, I end the dissertation with an epilogue in which I investigate the legacy of naturalism on Adalbert Stifiter’s classic Bildungsroman, der Nachsommer with the help of a meditation on notions of historical time in Alexander von Humboldt.

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266 pages


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Bildung; German Classicism; Herder vitalism; Post-Kantian Philosophy; Schiller ethics; Vitalism


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Gilgen, Peter

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Fleming, Paul
Schwarz, Anette

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Germanic Studies

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Ph. D., Germanic Studies

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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