Literary creation and the biological sciences in the nineteenth century

The term ‘biology’, coined in Germany and France at the beginning of the nineteenth Century (by Treviranus and Lamarck), marks the emergence of a new field of research, which instantly sparked the enthusiasm of experts of other disciplines and of writers. French literature seizes on biological knowledge early on, utilising its concepts in ways more or less true to their original meaning, commenting and elaborating on them and finding new topics and forms, thereby contributing to their promotion as a global cultural reality, through discourses, which have in turn impacted on the reception and even the thinking of scientists themselves. It is this flow of knowledge that we wish to address in this project, focusing on knowledge from the field of biology, as much because the invention of the term signals the emergence of a new disciplinary awareness (breaking away from the old ‘natural history’), as because we thereby touch upon the transformations of a fundamental area of knowledge, closely linked to the conceptualization of the living, whereas existing research has preferred to focus on other disciplines (physics, mathematics, medicine, geology) or the sudden advent of technology.

BIOLOGRAPHES, therefore, intends to fill a significant gap, by providing a benchmark study on the impact of biological knowledge on French literary production in the nineteenth Century, undertaken from the standpoint of a literary criticism open to interdisciplinary research and addressed to other specialists of literary theory as well as to cultural and scientific historians.

To this end, we plan to provide an original and representative corpus of literary works dealing with biological knowledge, taking into account major authors as well as lesser-known ones, published texts, private and draft documents. These documents will be the object of literary analysis and mass studies with the threefold objective of:

1) understanding the channels and modes by which biological knowledge was disseminated amongst writers,

2) analysing the usage and function of biological knowledge in literary works, through the study of themes and topics (what do they talk about and with which epistemological inflections?); studying the pragmatic aspects of this usage (for what purpose?) as well as the formal aspects of these works (what narrative, poetic devices are deployed, what transformations are made?); this also implies the identification of ideological and rhetorical strategies (debates of a philosophical, racial, political or aesthetic nature were often widened with the use biological knowledge),

3) modelling the temporal and conceptual events and discrepancies between history of science and literature.

For, without wishing to prejudice other, often better-researched foreign influences (e.g. that of Darwin), this study could not be conducted without taking into account the considerable impact of German scientists (especially Haeckel) on French writers.

Project funded by the ANR and the DFG (2014-2017)

French coordinator
Gisèle Séginger – gisele.seginger@msh-paris.fr
Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme de Paris and Université Paris-Est / Marne-la-Vallée

German coordinator
Thomas Klinkert (University of Fribourg and Zurich until 2016)

Literary creation and the biological sciences in the nineteenth century

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