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The Quest for the Seeds of Eternal Growth: Goethe and Humboldt's Presentation of Nature

from Special Section on Goethe and Idealism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2013

Daniel Purdy
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
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Summary

[G]enau um die Zeit, da Kants Werk vollendet und die Wegekarte durch den kahlen Wald des Wirklichen entworfen war, begann das Goethesche Suchen nach den Samen ewigen Wachstums.

WALTER BENJAMIN'S CLAIM brings an important element of Goethe's work into sharp focus. Debates linger over the value of the scientific side of Goethe's quest for the “seeds of eternal growth,” with some thinkers casting doubt on his work as a scientist, wondering if we would even bother with Goethe's science if it were not for his poetry (Charles Sherrington), joining claims that Goethe's scientific interests were a “real crime against the majesty of his poetic genius” (J. G. Robertson). Some others look most favorably upon Goethe's contributions to the natural sciences. W. Troll, for example, writes, with no risk of understatement, that “in a fully reasoned study of Goethe's morphology” we find the “focal point of his whole mental life.” One thing is clear: Goethe himself did not consider his work in the natural sciences to be a mere hobby. As is well known, Goethe's trip to Italy (1786–88) opened him to a universe of new flora and fauna—providing him with material that lasted the rest of his life. A particular palm in Padua fascinated Goethe and left its traces in his work for years to come.

An obsession with palms and a serious engagement with the quest for the seeds of eternal growth was shared by a figure who, like Goethe, fused art and science in a seemingly effortless way (and a way that may bewilder scholars in our overspecialized times).

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Goethe Yearbook 18 , pp. 97 - 114
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2011

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