PD Smith

Metaphor and Materiality: German Literature and the World-view of Science 1780-1955

Metaphor and Materiality is based on my doctoral thesis (University of London, 1997). It explores the relationship between literature and science from the end of the eighteenth century to the Cold War. It is a wide-ranging study of how major works of German and Austrian literature reflect, manipulate and question contemporary scientific paradigms and metaphors.

The first chapter discusses current approaches to the study of science and literature, drawing on the work of Rorty, Kuhn and Toulmin amongst others. Subsequent chapters analyse in detail five key works of literature, setting them in a scientific and philosophical context:


  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities, 1809)
  • Georg Büchner, Dantons Tod and Woyzeck (Danton’s Death; Woyzeck, 1835-7)
  • Adalbert Stifter, Kalkstein and Bergkristall (Limestone; Rock Crystal,1853)
  • Robert Musil, Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confusions of Young Törleß, 1906)
  • Bertolt Brecht, Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo, 1955)

I chose texts which are by any criterion major works of world literature and which, through style and content, reveal and reflect upon the role of scientific themes in culture and in the lives of individuals.

The myths of science penetrate every layer of our culture. The analysis of texts and contexts in Metaphor and Materiality attempts to reveal how literature has highlighted and indeed deconstructed key scientific metaphors and concepts in their process of translation from specialized discourse to generalized world-view. The focus of the study is primarily literary and by extension cultural, as I argue that both literature and science embody the essential concerns of an age. I do not attempt to offer a philosophical analysis of scientific method, but clearly the practice of science, its institutions, and the popularization of scientific ideas at specific historical periods are central.

The question which guides my investigation is not merely whether literature derives themes from science, but whether it can also interrogate scientific models of the world and thus contribute to human knowledge and reflexivity. For this, Goethe’s subtle and wonderfully ambiguous text Die Wahlverwandtschaften provides an ideal point of departure.

I also explore themes such as the perceived threat posed by science to human autonomy and, as in Musil’s Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß, the positivist challenge to the concept of self. Indeed, the very idea of a human science – the search for which was a central preoccupation of the nineteenth century – has been consistently presented by literature as inherently problematic, not least in the work of Georg Büchner, who was himself a scientist.

Although I concentrate on the role of scientific ideas within literature, the relationship between literature and technology is a fascinating and growing field of research. Industrialization and the rapid advances in technology in the twentieth century, culminating in the development of the atomic bomb, have resulted in science being both praised and feared. Figures of scientists within literary texts, such as the Doctor in Büchner’s Woyzeck or Brecht’s Galileo, also provide fascinating focal points for these issues and others in the debate between literature and science.

Even those texts discussed in my book which do not address science directly, such as Stifter’s Bergkristall and Kalkstein, reveal underlying tensions regarding the scientific world-view. Through these and related themes I argue that literature and science are engaged in an exchange and transformation of metaphors and concepts. This mutual transmutation of ideas and vocabularies leads to an enrichment of culture. One of the primary concerns of both science and the arts is self-understanding. Metaphor and Materiality shows how closely the two fields are intertwined in pursuit of this common goal.

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“Smith’s mastery of both primary and secondary sources is remarkable, and his bibliographies provide a useful guide to the (often vast) secondary literature… Demonstrates the extraordinary richness and importance of the vein of research into which Smith has tapped, and puts much other work in so-called Cultural Studies to shame.”
– Paul Bishop, Modern Language Review 97.2 (2002), pp. 505-7

“Smith’s study is a significant contribution to our understanding of the nexus of literature and science and will prove invaluable to students of the texts he discusses.”
Forum for Modern Language Studies, 39 (2003), p 351

“Smith is able to show convincingly how ambivalence about the role of science or scientific tendencies permeates these literary works, and he offers interesting insights into the sometimes subtle thematization of scientific ideas in literature.”
– Elizabeth Neswald, British Journal for the History of Science 35 (2002), pp. 363-4

“In this thorough study of the exchange between science and literature, Peter D. Smith skillfully argues that the idea of these Two Cultures existing in isolation from one another is overly simplistic… An excellent contribution to the vital research currently examining the interdisciplinary nature of scientific and literary works.”
– Heather I. Sullivan, Monatshefte 94.4 (2002), pp. 541-2

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