Current Projects

Below you can find a description of my current book project. Questions and comments are most welcome…

Some of the early work behind this project has been undertaken as part of two research groups: a European Union funded research group on Teleology and History, based in Helsinki, and a Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) project on Empirisierung des Transzendentalen (Empiricisation of the Transcendental) based at the University of Stuttgart. I continued this work during research fellowships at the University of Utrecht’s Descartes Centre, at the ZfL in Berlin, and at the Vossius Centre for the History of the Humanities in Amsterdam.  I am now developing aspects of this work further in a new research group on European Networks of Orientalism (ENO), as well as within the Marbacher Arbeitskreis für Geschichte der Germanistik. In early 2022 I will be a guest researcher on the German Research Foundation project on Praktiken des Vergleichs (Practices of Comparison) at the University of Bielefeld; my stay there is funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Literature and the Science of Comparison in Nineteenth-Century Germany and Britain: Four Case Studies

 Keywords: literature and science, comparative method, history of comparative literature, ‘world literature’, translation, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Whewell, Matthew Arnold, Friedrich Max Müller, Wilhelm Dilthey, Hugo von Meltzl, Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett

Introductory Questions and Guiding Hypothesis

  • In what senses is academic literary studies (Literaturwissenschaft) scientific or wissenschaftlich?
  • From which other scientific fields did literary studies originally borrow its methodologies in order to establish its disciplinary status?
  • From where did comparative literature derive its core notion of comparison?
  • And what role did translation play – both as a concept and as a practice – in the origins of comparative literature?

In German-speaking Europe and in Britain, philology and literary studies emerged as modern academic disciplines during the nineteenth century, partly through their exchanges with the biological and psychological sciences (see Foucault, 1966). At the centre of these emerging disciplines stood Goethe’s morphological idea of comparison (Vergleich), through which important concepts such as linguistic and literary form and genre were developed. This notion of ideal ‘forms’ or purportedly universal ‘types’ which could guide comparison – including comparisons between national literatures, often made possible by the growth in translations – became increasingly important as the century unfolded, and was subject to a particular epistemological tension.

Ausbildung der Blätter (Development of Leaves), sketch by Goethe, circa 1790

On the one hand, in both nations the notion of form seemed to rely on teleological ideas – such as the notion of Bildung or progressive development – that were inherited from Aristotle, from German classicism, and from idealist biology; yet on the other hand, as philology and literary studies sought to become ‘scientific’ in the second half of the nineteenth century, they increasingly invoked apparently non-teleological and materialist modes of explanation derived from biology, from scientific psychology and from the social sciences.

This book project examines four case studies that display this idealism-materialism tension; its purpose is not merely to offer an historical analysis of these problems, but also to ask whether the idealism-materialism dualism still influences literary studies today. Each of the case studies listed below is not only explored in relation to its historical context; rather, all four are also related to present-day debates in literary studies, especially in the fields of comparative literature, translation studies and ‘world literature.’ The first three of the four case studies presented here have already been published in shorter form as journal articles (see the bibliography), and a brief version of case study four on Meltzl and Posnett is currently in press, though I am still in the process of establishing a broader corpus of works by Posnett and Meltzl and their collaborators.

Goethe’s Morphological Philology, ‘World Literature’ and Comparative Literature

J.W. von Goethe

In recent studies on the subject of ‘world literature’ (see, for example, Damrosch, 2003) Goethe is often mentioned as the progenitor of this term and the discourses surrounding it. Yet by focusing mainly on Goethe’s conversations with Eckermann and on his letters to Carlyle concerning ‘world literature’, less attention has been paid to Goethe’s major attempt at a theoretical grounding for something resembling what is today described as ‘comparative literature’. As I have argued in an earlier publication (Nicholls 2011a), and as has also been noted by Szondi (1974) and Schlaffer (1984), Goethe sets out in the Noten und Abhandlungen to the West-östlicher Divan (Goethe 1817a) to develop a comparative method of literary analysis that is derived from his Aristotelian and post-Kantian scientific work on morphology (see Goethe 1817b), and in which he attempts to locate universal ‘Naturformen der Poesie’ that might serve as models for cross-cultural comparison.

Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (1819). Photo: H. P. Haack

This case study examines the background to and implications of Goethe’s ideas concerning ‘Naturformen der Poesie’ as guiding models for literary comparison. Goethe’s scientific thinking can be viewed as both a reaction to and an influence upon British science and British literary studies. Goethe’s morphological method was in part a reaction against the materialism and inductivism of Newton’s optics, a critique that was developed in the Farbenlehre of 1810 (see Nicholls 2005); in Britain, Goethe’s emphasis on organic development according to ideal types would later become important for William Whewell’s discussion of morphology as a strictly non-mechanical mode of scientific explanation in History of Inductive Sciences (1837) and also for Matthew Arnold’s theory of culture in Culture and Anarchy (1867-9). Both Whewell and Arnold translated and adapted Goethe’s morphological thought and his classicism – both figuratively and literally – to their British intellectual contexts.

William Whewell

The purpose of this case study is to examine the tension, already found in Goethe’s letters and conversations about ‘world literature’ and his notes to the Divan, between ‘world literature’ and comparative literature and to explore the question as to whether both discourses, both historically and today, have tended to favour European literary models over non-European ones. On the one hand, Goethe’s proposed Naturformen der Poesie– Epic, Lyric and Drama – suggest a Eurocentrism informed by a classicism that is derived from Aristotle’s Poetics, yet on the other hand, his actual poetic practice and his ideas about translation as elaborated in the Divan suggest a more open form of intercultural dialogue (see Bhatti 2007). Goethe is the key figure in this project, since all scholars subsequently treated in the later case studies are reacting to his ideas about comparative method and ‘world literature’.

Max Müller, Charles Darwin and the Pitfalls of Comparison

Max Müller

The Indo-Germanist Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) came to Britain in 1846 and remained in Oxford for the rest of his life as Professor of Comparative Philology, as well as being an important mediator of German literature and thought and serving as the inaugural President of the English Goethe Society (see Davis and Nicholls 2016). Müller was a populariser of earlier German theories (J.G. Herder, W v. Humboldt, F. Schlegel, F. Bopp, F. Schelling) concerning the development of languages and myths, and his book-length essay on Comparative Mythology (1856) exerted a major influence on the ‘comparative method’ deployed in British philology and anthropology during the middle to late nineteenth century (Stocking, 1987, Turner 2014). Müller translated Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into English in 1881, and his explanation of language and of myth was idealist and Kantian: language roots, he proposed, correspond with a priori mental categories. But during the 1860s, Müller read Darwin and proposed that languages evolve according to natural selection. This move was part of Müller’s attempt to characterise philology or the ‘Science of Language’ as a physical or natural science (see Müller, 1861), and similar arguments were made in Germany by August Schleicher (1863), who would later influence Darwin’s ideas about the origin of language in the Descent of Man.When Müller eventually opposed Darwin’s and Scheicher’s arguments on language, he went ‘back to Kant’ in order to prove that only humans are capable of developing conceptual language (Nicholls, 2014).

Charles Darwin

Müller’s opposition to Darwin was informed by his religious views, according to which he saw all human beings as having an a priori capacity for conceptualising the ‘Infinite’ in language. As a specialist on Sanskrit, Müller was also regarded as an authority on India in Victorian Britain. Unlike Goethe, whose mature post-Kantian morphology tended to focus on divergences from merely heuristic ideal types (see Nicholls 2010), Müller’s method of comparison valorised sameness or identity. The similarities between language roots in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit led Müller to ‘back translate’ both religions to a purported common source. This led him to propose that a common ‘Aryan’ language had predated ancient Greek and Sanskrit, and that Christianity and Hinduism had both emerged from a primordial religion based upon the worship of the sun. These ideas in turn informed Müller’s public statements on British colonial and missionary policy in India (see Müller 1873), statements which, although intended in a cosmopolitan spirit explicitly informed by Goethe’s idea of ‘world literature’ (see Müller, 1886), offended both sides of the colonial divide: British Christians were scandalised by the idea that their religion might share a common origin with Hinduism, whereas Hindus were wounded by Müller’s Christian presumption that their religion had begun as monotheistic. The ‘Aryan’ discourse popularised by Müller would also later lead to dire cultural and political consequences in both India and Germany (see Roy 2016).

The grand scale of Müller’s ideas concerning intercultural comparison is revealed in his mega-publication-project, The Sacred Books of the East, a translation of Asian religious texts into English across fifty volumes between 1879 and 1910. As a recent study by Arie Molendijk (2016) has shown, this comparative enterprise was also undertaken according to a questionable assumption about cross-cultural ‘sameness’ asserted by Müller from his own Protestant perspective: namely that ‘we are not the only people who have a Bible’ (Müller, 1884). Especially in its emphasis on the translation and circulation of Asian texts in English, as well as in its assertions concerning what might be called ‘universal religion,’ the Sacred Books of the East project presages many of the twentieth- and twenty-first century debates about ‘world literature.’

The issues highlighted by Müller’s method of comparison between East and West, between non-Europe and Europe, are still apparent in contemporary postcolonial societies in Europe and the United States (see, for example, Bernheimer 1994; Saussy 2006). The case of Müller highlights the dangers and pitfalls of valorising a projected sameness in processes of comparison, and points to the need for a ‘negative dialectics’ of comparison, according to which neither identity nor difference can be regarded as foundational (see Nicholls 2015).

Wilhelm Dilthey, Matthew Arnold, and the Origins of Modern Literary Studies

Today as in the second half of the nineteenth century, the natural sciences are often seen by governments and providers of academic funding as generating more exact, reliable and useful research findings than are the humanities. In recent years, this situation has led to an increased sense of crisis in literary studies and to attempts to scientifically underpin literary analysis by deploying cognitive and evolutionary models of literary analysis that are informed by the natural sciences (see, for example: Hogan 2003, Carroll 2004, Eibl 2004). Drawing parallels between our own historical moment and that of the late nineteenth century, this case study demonstrates the increasing pressure placed on literary scholars during the later stages of the nineteenth century to demonstrate that their discipline is ‘scientific’ in the materialist sense of the natural sciences. Dilthey and Arnold have been chosen because of the foundational roles that they played in their respective nations in formulating the purpose of the modern humanities.

Wilhelm Dilthey

Taking Goethe as his primary ‘research object’ (see Nicholls, 2006), and inspired by the psychophysics of Fechner, the physiological optics of Helmholtz, and the Völkerpsychologie of Lazarus and Steinthal, the early Dilthey attempted to offer a materialist and natural scientific explanation of literary genius in his long essay ‘Über die Einbildungskraft der Dichter’ which appeared in the Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie (1878). Yet Dilthey soon came to see that materialism could not overcome the epistemological problems involved in literary analysis, a realisation that led to the birth of modern philosophical hermeneutics. In his Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften (1883), Dilthey identified the main hermeneutical problem as one of diachronic comparison: the historical gap between the historical and cultural positions of the author and those of the reader. Proposing a completely independent theoretical foundation for the sciences of Geist, Dilthey argued that real knowledge in the humanities involves a conscious and comparative understanding of the difference between the worldview of the author and that of the reader. This hermeneutical model of reading would go on to have deep implications for questions of translation.

Matthew Arnold

Arnold’s approach to cultural analysis was deeply influenced by the ideology of Bildung that he inherited from Goethe and Schiller, according to which culture is defined as the ‘pursuit of perfection’ (Arnold 1864, 1867-9).This essentially idealist and teleological approach to culture collided with the materialist mercantilism of Victorian Britain, propounded chiefly by the Darwinian Thomas Henry Huxley, who argued that the applied natural sciences make a far greater contribution to culture, industry and society than do the humanities (Huxley, 1880). Huxley’s polemic against Arnold forced the latter to offer an idealist redefinition of ‘science’ in the philological sense of Wissenschaft deployed by Friedrich August Wolf (see Arnold 1882). Both the examples of Dilthey and Arnold show that modern academic literary studies developed in reaction to pressures exerted by the natural sciences, and that literary analysis, now as in the late nineteenth century, remains a value-laden and in that sense teleological and ideological enterprise (see Nicholls 2011b).

Theories of Comparative Literature and ‘World Literature’ from the Peripheries: Hugo Meltzl and Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett.

Hugo Meltzl

The German-speaking Hungarian comparatist Hugo Meltzl (1846-1908) and the Irish lawyer and literary scholar Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett (1855-1927) have both been recognised and anthologised as pioneer figures in the modern discipline of comparative literature (see Damrosch 2006 and 2009). Both scholars developed their approaches to comparative literature in response to Goethe’s idea of ‘world literature’ and both wrote from the peripheries of their respective language communities: Meltzl from Cluj/Klausenburg/Kolozsvár in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Romania), Posnett from Dublin and later Auckland. Yet despite their historical contemporaneity and their peripheral locations, Meltzl’s and Posnett’s respective approaches to questions of comparison were decidedly different, a factor which may be put down to diverges in their respective conceptions of ‘science’ and in their attitudes towards translation as a philological practice.

Acta Cover Image
Photo by Angus Nicholls, from Leiden University Library

Meltzl’s journal, Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum, co-founded in 1877 with his colleague Samuel Brassai, set out to establish comparative literature as an academic discipline by attempting to differentiate it from the comparative philology of Müller and his colleagues. Its initial purpose was to broaden the linguistic corpus of literary studies by publishing papers in no fewer than ten official languages (all of them European, among which German and Hungarian tended to dominate). Questioning nationalist definitions of ‘world literature’ – according to which a national literature’s influence is measured by the extent to which it is translated –Meltzl’s conception of literary science emphasised the importance of the text’s original language: ‘true comparison is possible only when we have before us the objects of comparison in their original form’ (Meltzl, 1877: 44). Thus, despite his polemics against philology, Meltzl’s approach seems, in its valorisation of the original language, to be a thoroughly philological one, but an approach that recognises the challenges presented to philology by a global literary market. In questioning the validity of so-called ‘world literature’ and its tendency to rely on translation and to lapse into nationalism or a projected linguistic hegemony, Meltzl’s position resembles recent critical interventions taking place at the interface between comparative literature and ‘world literature’ (e.g., Spivak, 2003, Apter 2014).

Posnett’s book Comparative Literature (1886) is thought to be the first work in English to use the term ‘comparative literature’ to designate a field of academic study. img_2093Published in the ‘International Scientific Series’ that included works by Herbert Spencer and Huxley, Posnett sought to establish this new discipline upon the positivist platform of social evolutionism. This involved taking up a polemical position in relation to Arnold’s ideas about aesthetic value: rather than being about the study of ‘perfection’, for Posnett a truly scientific literary studies should map the ways in which different modes of literature correspond with different stages in human social evolution. Posnett’s ‘principle of literary growth’ is related to the evolution from the clan-based and agrarian economies of so-called ‘primitive’ societies to the advanced economies of Europe (Posnett, 1886: 72). Only the latter societies, according to Posnett, where capable of developing economic and social conditions under which the life and rights of the individual would come to be seen as superior to those of the clan or group – a situation which he regards as the precondition for the modern novel. img_2095-1Seen in these terms, ‘world literature’ (to which Posnett’s study devotes a chapter) would involve mapping the different stages of literary evolution across the globe, relying predominantly on translation in order to do so. While the Eurocentrism of Posnett’s research programme can be understood in relation to recent critiques of ‘world literature’ offered by scholars such as Apter (2014), its use of evolutionary models to map macro-level literary change and development seems to prefigure Moretti’s research programme of ‘distant reading’ (see Moretti 2005 and 2013).


Key Primary Sources

Arnold, M. (1864), ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.’ In: Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 26-51.

Arnold, M. (1867-9), Culture and Anarchy. In: Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 26-51.

Arnold, M. (1882), ‘Literature and Science.’ In: The Portable Matthew Arnold, ed. Lionel Trilling (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), pp. 405-429.

Darwin, C. (1871), The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols. (London: John Murray).

Dilthey, W. (1878), ‘Über die Einbildungskraft der Dichter.’ In: Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft 10, pp. 42-104.

Dilthey, W. (1883), Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften. In: Gesammelte Schriften, 26 vols., ed. Karlfried Gründer et al (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1959-2005), vol. 1.

Goethe, J.W. (1817a), Noten und Abhandlungen zu besserem Verständis des west-östlichen Divans in: Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens (Münchner Ausgabe), ed. Karl Richter, Herbert G. Göpfert, Norbert Miller and Gerhard Sauder, 21 vols in 31 (Munich: Hanser, 1985–1998), vol. 11, I/2.

Goethe, J.W. (1817b), Zur Morphologie. In: Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens (Münchner Ausgabe), vol. 12.

Huxley, T. H. (1880), ‘Science and Culture.’ In: Science and Education: Essays (London: Macmillan, 1893), pp. 134-59.

Meltzl, H. (1877), ‘Present Tasks of Comparative Literature.’ In: Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum 1, no. 9 (May 1877), and 1, no. 15 (October 1877), translated and reprinted in Damrosch (2009), pp. 41-49.

Müller, F.M. (1856), Comparative Mythology: An Essay, ed. A. Smythe Palmer (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1909).

Müller, F.M. (1861), Lectures on the Science of Language, First Series (London: Longmans, Green and Co).

Müller, F.M. (1873), ‘Westminster Lecture, On Missions.’ In: Chips from a German Workshop, 4 vols. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1867-74), vol. 4, pp. 251-90.

Müller, F. M. (1884), ‘Forgotten Bibles.’ In: The Nineteenth Century 15 (1884), pp. 1004-1022.

Müller, F.M. (1886), ‘Goethe and Carlyle.’ In: Publications of the English Goethe Society 1.

Posnett, H.M., (1886), Comparative Literature (London: Kegan, Paul and Trench).

Schleicher, A. (1863), Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft: Offenes Sendschreiben an Herrn Dr. Ernst Häckel (Weimar: Böhlau).

Whewell, W. (1837), History of the Inductive Sciences from the Earliest to the Present Times, 3 vols. (London: John W. Parker).

Relevant Works by Angus Nicholls

Nicholls, A. (2005), ‘The Hermeneutics of Scientific Language in Goethe’s Critique of Newton.’ In: Sprachkunst. Beiträge zur Literaturwissenschaft 36, no. 2, pp. 203-26.

Nicholls, A. (2006), ‘The Subject-Object of Wissenschaft: On Wilhelm Dilthey’s Goethebilder.’ In: Colloquia Germanica: Internationale Zeitschrift für Germanistik 39, no.1, pp. 69-86.

Nicholls, A. (2010), ‘The Scientific Unconscious: Goethe’s Post-Kantian Epistemology.’ In: Thinking the Unconscious: Nineteenth Century German Thought, ed. Angus Nicholls and Martin Liebscher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 87-120.

Nicholls, A. (2011a), ‘Between Natural and Human Science: Scientific Method in Goethe’s Noten und Abhandlungen zum West-östlichen Divan.’ In: Publications of the English Goethe Society 80, no.1, pp. 1-18.

Nicholls, A. (2011b), ‘Scientific Literary Criticism in the Work of Wilhelm Dilthey and Matthew Arnold.’ In: Comparative Critical Studies 8, no. 1, pp.7-31.

Nicholls, A. (2014), ‘A Germanic Reception in England: Friedrich Max Müller’s Critique of Darwin’s Descent of Man.’ In: The Literary and Cultural Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe, vol. 3, ed. Thomas F. Glick and Elinor Shaffer (London: Bloomsbury), pp. 78-100

Nicholls, A. (2015), ‘Max Müller and the Comparative Method.’ In: Comparative Critical Studies 12, no. 2, pp. 213-34.

Davis, J. and Nicholls, A. (2016), Friedrich Max Müller and the Role of Philology in Victorian Thought, special double issue of Publications of the English Goethe Society 85, no. 2-3; book version: (London and New York: Routledge, 2017).

Nicholls, A. (2018),‘The ‘Goethean’ Discourses on Weltliteratur and the Origins of Comparative Literature: The Cases of Hugo Meltzl and Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett.’ In: Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 54, no. 2 (special issue on Goethe, Worlds, and Literatures), pp. 167-94

Nicholls, A. (2021), ‘Particularism versus Universalism in the History of Comparative Literature.’ In: Comparative Methods in Law, Humanities and Social Sciences, ed. Maurice Adams and Mark Van Hoecke (Cheltenham: E. Elgar)

Other Works

Apter, E. (2014), Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (London: Verso).

Bernheimer, C., ed. (1994), Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Bhatti, A. (2007), ‘…“Zwischen zwei Welten schwebend”…. Zu Goethes Fremdheitsexperiement im West-Östlichen Divan.’ In: Goethe. Neue Ansichten – neue Einsichten, ed. Hans-Jörg Knobloch and Helmut Koopmann (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann), pp. 103-22.

Carroll J. (2004), Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature and Literature (New York and London: Routledge).

Damrosch, D. (2003), What is World Literature? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Damrosch, D. (2006), ‘Rebirth of a Discipline: The Global Origins of Comparative Studies.’ In: Comparative Critical Studies 3, no. 1-2, pp. 99-112.

Damrosch, D., ed. (2009), The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Damrosch, D. (2020), Comparing the Literatures: Literary Studies in a Global Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Eibl, K. (2004), Anima Poeta: Bausteine der biologischen Kultur- und Literaturtheorie (Paderborn: Mentis).

Foucault, M. (1966), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 2002).

Hogan, P. H. (2003), The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Leerssen, J. (2019), Comparative Literature in Britain: National Identities, Transnational Dynamics, 1800-2000 (Cambridge: Legenda).

Molendijk, Arie (2016), Friedrich Max Müller and the Sacred Books of the East (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Moretti, F. (2005), Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London: Verso).

Moretti, F. (2013), Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013).

Roy, B. (2016), ‘Friedrich Max Müller and the Emergence of Identity Politics in India and Germany.’ In: Publications of the English Goethe Society 85, no. 2-3, pp. 217-28.

Saussy, H. (2006), Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalisation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Schlaffer, H. (1984), ‘Gedichtete Theorie — Die Noten und Abhandlungen zum West-östlichen Divan’. In: Goethe Jahrbuch 101, pp. 218-33.

Spivak, G. (2003), Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press).

Stocking, George S., (1987), Victorian Anthropology (New York: The Free Press).

Szondi, P. (1974), Poetik und Geschichtsphilosophie II (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp).

Turner, J. (2014), Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

%d bloggers like this: