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Acolytes of Nature

Defining Natural Science in Germany, 1770-1850

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

Although many of the practical and intellectual traditions that make up modern science date back centuries, the category of “science” itself is a relative novelty. In the early eighteenth century, the modern German word that would later mean “science,” naturwissenschaft, was not even included in dictionaries. By 1850, however, the term was in use everywhere. Acolytes of Nature follows the emergence of this important new category within German-speaking Europe, tracing its rise from an insignificant eighteenth-century neologism to a defining rallying cry of modern German culture.

Today’s notion of a unified natural science has been deemed an invention of the mid-nineteenth century. Yet what Denise Phillips reveals here is that the idea of naturwissenschaft acquired a prominent place in German public life several decades earlier. Phillips uncovers the evolving outlines of the category of natural science and examines why Germans of varied social station and intellectual commitments came to find this label useful. An expanding education system, an increasingly vibrant consumer culture and urban social life, the early stages of industrialization, and the emergence of a liberal political movement all fundamentally altered the world in which educated Germans lived, and also reshaped the way they classified knowledge.

368 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2012

History: European History, History of Ideas

History of Science


“An expanding, vibrant set of scholarly works has been produced on the history of natural science. Phillips provides an excellent addition to this literature in her study of the process of how natural science came to be defined as a distinctive area of study in Germany during the 19th century. . . . Phillips adds significant depth to readers’ understanding of the emergence of science as a public category. . . . Recommended.”

G. D. Oberle III, Germanna Community College | Choice

“[A] valuable book that touches on many disciplines from agriculture and medicine to astronomy and technology, and deserves to be widely read.”

Clifford Cunningham, National Astronomical Research Institute | Sun News Network

"Convincingly shows that the epistemological foundations of science were debated not only in academic ivory towers, but also in local and regional contexts with participants from a wide range of professional and social backgrounds."

Thomas P. Weber | British Journal for the History of Science

Acolytes of Nature shines a bright light on the still-neglected first half of the nineteenth century, fusing the history of science and the social history of middle-class associational life in a way that has long been the standard for the later 1880s. And by showing how the ‘pull of intellectual curiosity could be socially destabilizing,’ upsetting ‘established social hierarchies,’ Phillips provides a valuable account of historical change and causation applicable to other contexts as well.”

Ian F. McNeely, University of Oregon | German History

“In Acolytes of Nature Denise Phillips has a remarkable history to tell—the early and mid-nineteenth century assembly of a cornucopia of voluntary societies into what we know as modern science. These groups helped carve out a new domain of technical public space that, when joined with professional societies and physician associations issued in ‘professional science.’ A remarkable study that will change the way we tell the story of the emergence of professional science and more generally the emergence of modern civil society in Germany. Written with fine prose and an impeccable grasp of the archives, this is one terrific book.”

Peter Galison, Harvard University

“Adding a dimension to our knowledge of the world of science in nineteenth-century Germany, Denise Phillips draws deeply and effectively on the wider social and cultural history of the German states in order to illuminate the cultural environment in which the concept, institutions, and practices of modern science emerged. By investigating local and regional associations alongside the university milieu, Phillips opens up new perspectives on the role of broader publics—including local business and educated elites, aristocrats and artisans, and, notably, women—in changing the definition and reception of modern scientific research.”

Brian Vick, Emory University

“Denise Phillips has brilliantly solved a major question in the history of science: How did science (Naturwissenschaft) become consolidated as a distinct cultural category in the German-speaking lands between 1760 and 1850? Her richly detailed social and cultural account is destined to become a landmark not only in the history of German science, but in the history of science more broadly, as a model of the best scholarly practices in the field.”

Lynn K. Nyhart, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“Whereas previous scholars have looked at the institutionalization of science, especially in the context of university history, or at professionalization and specialization, in particular of the biological and biomedical sciences, Denise Phillips looks at science in general, capturing a broad range of aspects and levels. Hers is a daring undertaking, but she carries off the grand sweep with considerable skill and success, giving coherence to the many and varied materials by centering her narrative on the development of not just science but the very term by which it gained public identity in German culture, namely Naturwissenschaft. Phillips’s study is a worthy addition to the long and continually growing body of excellent scholarship on the history of German science.”

Nicolaas Rupke, Göttingen University

Table of Contents

1   Natural Knowledge and the Learned Public in the Enlightenment
2   The Expanding Ranks of Nature’s Friends
3   Defending Learned Dignity
4   Nature in a Local Microcosm
5   Wooing the Polite Public
6   The Nature of the Fatherland
7   The Wellspring of Modernity
8   The Particularity of Natural Science

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