Wolfgang Pross
Genii, Homunculi and Golden Pots. Chemistry and Poetical Experiments around 1800

Wolfgang Pross


Before Antoine Laurent Lavoisier discovered oxygen, leading natural philosophers like Benjamin Franklin or Joseph Priestley had already assigned to chemistry a leading strategic role as to the future development of natural sciences. The publication of Lavoisier’s Method of Chemical Nomenclature (1787) and the Elementary Treatise on Chemistry (1789) provided the basis for a science that helped to reconsider established concepts of mass and matter. But the professionalization of chemistry did, in the eyes of the public, neither eliminate the heritage of alchemistic notions nor prevent haphazard generalizations of scientific ideas; on the contrary, the popular vitalistic concepts of Brownism or Mesmerism were eager to avail themselves of the achievements of the new discipline. Chemistry seemed to promise to solve the riddles of organic life and to help to sustain an anthropocentric outlook on the animal kingdom. A major case in this respect was Alexander von Humboldt’s allegory Vital Force or The Rhodian Genius (1795), where the author drew a sharp line between life forces and inanimate matter. Despite the fact that Humboldt retracted this view very quickly, his point was taken up by some important literary texts, as by Goethe in his Elective Affinities (1809) or in the Homunculus-episode in part II of Faust (publ. 1832). Even E. T. A. Hoffmann’s famous romantic tale of The Golden Pot (1816) seems imbued, in spite of going back to the tradition of Paracelsus, with problems chemistry posed to the public apperception of the new science.

Wolfgang Pross - Short Biography#

Wolfgang Pross studied Modern Languages and Philosophy at the Universities of Munich, Pavia (Italy) and Oxford. In 1974 he took his Ph.D. with Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, with a study on the poet Jean Paul Friedrich Richter. In 1974/75, he was Volkswagen Research Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. From 1975 to 1988 he was teaching at the German Institute at the University of Munich and held guest professorships at the universities of Giessen and Vienna. In 1986 he passed his habilitation for German and Comparative Literature in Munich, with a study on the concept of organism in the work of Kant’s pupil and Goethe’s friend Johann Gottfried Herder. From April 1988 to January 2011, he has been Professor at the University of Bern (CH); from 1999 to 2001 he was Dean of the Philosophical Faculty of his University.

In his research, he has been focussing on Enlightenment in European literature, culture and philosophy of history, writing on Diderot, Goethe, Albrecht von Haller, Herder, Lichtenberg, Metastasio, Rousseau and Spinoza, further on Mozart and the theatre of 18th century; several of his essais dealt with the history of Italian literature from Renaissance to 19th century. Seminal studies treated the relationship of literature and social and natural sciences between 1600 and 1850 and questions of historical anthropology, culminating in an extensively commented edition of Herder’s Ideas towards a Philosophy of the History of Man (publ. in 2002, 2 vols.).

Wolfgang Pross lives since his retirement in Munich.

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