Caroline and Schelling’s interest in the experiments involving
Francesco Campetti in Munich
Introduction — I. Schelling’s Articles; — II. Thomas Johann Seebeck’s remarks to Hegel; — III. Report of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities; — IV. Dorothea Schlegel’s remarks to Friedrich Schlegel; — V. Henrik Steffens’s Memoirs; — VI. Goethe’s Novels.
Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Franz von Baader, and Schelling had all become interested in the Italian metal and water dowser (“sensor”) Francesco Campetti from Gargnano on the western shore of Lake Garda, who was eventually brought to Munich at government expense and whom Ritter introduced to the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities on 19 August 1807. The Academy cautiously appointed a commission consisting of three natural scientists to investigate, including Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring. When Campetti was later exposed as a swindler, Ritter said no more, and the whole matter quietly died. This topic, however, recurs in Caroline’s and her acquaintances’ correspondence from early 1807 till the spring of 1808.
One close acquaintance, Adalbert Friedrich Marcus registered his own reservations quite early in 1807, albeit not without staying open to the possibility of more positive findings, in a letter to Schelling on 7 January 1807 (Fuhrmans 3:404):
Franz Baader also made a few remarks to me in a letter concerning the Tyrolean miracle-man. I am quite eager to learn how the continued experiments turned out. Until then, however, these people have generally been viewed as frauds, a view often prompted by those among them who have been traveling around Germany. But no one will deny at least the possibility for now . . .
I. Schelling’s Articles
Compare Caroline’s wording in her letter to Luise Wiedemann on 31 January 1807 (letter 421) with the following excerpt from Schelling’s anonymous account of these phenomena, “Merkwürdiger physikalischer Versuch,” Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände (1807) 26 (30 January 1807), 101–3, here 102–3: 
In order to relate what seems to be an extraordinarily singular phenomenon to a more generally widespread capacity and thereby make it more comprehensible, Ritter, with his inimitable ingeniousness, thought of using the iron pyrite pendulums of Abbot [Alberto] Fortis [1741–1803], whose oscillations people had long suppressed and rejected. Only here did he find that the experiment succeeded not only for him, but also for almost everyone who has hitherto tried it. Within the span of a few short weeks, this experiment has been developed amid the most subtle modifications and with extremely noteworthy results; new results are emerging on a daily basis. —
Let me indicate briefly what this experiment involves and how it is conducted.
Take a cube of pyrite, native sulfur or any metal. Size and form are indifferent. We may use, for instance, a gold ring. This body is attached to a piece of thread, quarter to half an ell long. This is held pinched between two fingers and suspended horizontally [Germ. wagerecht; Raymond amends, correctly, it seems, to “vertically”], all mechanical movement being hindered.
[Here an early twentieth-century photograph of the vertical positioning of the pendulum; Friedrich Kallenberg, Offenbarungen des siderischen Pendels: Die Leben ausströmende Photographie und Handschrift (Diesen 1913), 30:]
It is best to moisten the thread slightly. In this condition, the pendulum is held over or close to a vessel full of water, or over any metal, as a piece of money or a plaque of zinc or copper. The pendulum insensibly assumes elliptical oscillations, which form themselves into a circle, becoming more and more regular.
Over the north pole of the magnet, it will move from left to right.
Over the south pole, it will move from right to left.
Over copper or silver, it will move as over the south pole.
Over zinc and water, it will move as over the north pole.
One must conduct the experiments uniformly, always approaching the object from above or always from the side. Approached from the side, the relationship changes such that the kind of rotations from left to right indicated by the north pole will change and be like those associated with the south pole, and vice versa.
It similarly makes a difference whether one uses the right or left hand, since for some people the contrast is developed between the right and left side to the point of extreme polarity.
Any suspicion of deception one may come up with in this respect is refuted by one’s own definite feeling that the pendulum is indeed rotating without any mechanical impetus. The regularity of results will completely convince you. You can conduct all sorts of experiments in this regard. For example, if you mechanically push the rotating cube in the opposite direction, it will return to the initial direction as soon as the mechanical impetus has dissipated.
If one holds the cube over an orange, an apple, etc., it will rotate above the fruit, where the fruit itself is attached to the stem, as over the south pole of the magnet; if one then turns the fruit toward the opposite side while continuing to hold the pendulum above it, the direction will change. The same clear polarity manifests itself at the opposite ends of a fresh egg.
It is the polarity of the human organism that the pendulum demonstrates most strikingly.
Held over the head, the cube rotates as over zinc. Next to the soles of the feet, it moves as over copper.
Next to the forehead and eyes = north pole.
At the nose it turns = south pole.
At the mouth = south pole.
At the chin, it moves as next to the forehead.
The entire body can be subjected to experimentation in this way. The inner and outer surfaces of the hand are antithetical. The cube oscillates over each fingertip, and does so over the fourth or ring finger only according to the opposite side of the others. This finger is even capable, placed alone on the edge of the table where the experiment is being conducted, of stopping or altering the oscillations.
The experiments that Abbate Amoretti conducted earlier with the baguette included those concerning the polarity of the body.
According to Ritter’s remarks, the baguette, as far as efficacy is concerned, is nothing more than a double pendulum, which requires a higher degree of the same energy to set it in motion than that required to produce these oscillations.
Here I have indicated only briefly for you several trial experiments that you yourself may cultivate further and that will likely lead to many of the results already described here. This capacity, too, must be practiced. In Ritter’s own hands, the baguette initially did not incline; it did so only when Campetti placed his hand’s on Ritter’s shoulders. Now it happens for him as well as for several other people. Campetti’s power seems to possess some mediative capacity. His immediate proximity suffices to interrupt the regularity of experiments conducted next to him.
By contrast, in Campetti himself the most extreme regularity emerges in experiments conducted with him, experiments that are all the more reliable insofar as he is neither instructed concerning how, e.g., copper and zinc react, nor often even knows which metal has been placed beneath his hand or foot while he holds the baguette, which similarly inclines either toward the inside or outside depending on the difference in the metals. And since he understands not a word of German, he never understands even as an aside just which effect one is anticipating. He is a quite simple, contented and energetic person who knows nothing except that God has given him this gift and that he is to preserve it through a moderate and pious life.
Schelling then published a lengthier account, “Notiz von den neuen Versuchen über die Eigenschaften der Erz- und Wasserfühler und die damit zusammenhängenden Erscheinungen,” in the Intelligenzblatt of the Jenaische Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1807) 36 (9 May 1807), 313–20; reprinted in Sämmtliche Werke 7:487–97.
Report concerning the new experiments
involving the characteristics of
metal- and water-diviners and the attendant phenomena
Hitherto nothing has been mentioned in any literary journal concerning these remarkable experiments, which have been performed since the end of last year in Munich. The popular account that appeared in Cotta’s Morgenblatt [article above] did prompt considerable interest here and there, including among scholars and others who were curious.
It seems, however, that only few have taken this matter more seriously, and that the experiments have yielded contradictions, inexplicable anomalies, and other phenomena that people no longer felt they could trust. All these concerns might be assuaged with a single sincere word; the writer of this account, however, does not intend to speak that word, since those who do not find it themselves have already shown that they have accorded neither to the phenomena nor to themselves the sort of attention that might reasonably be required.
According to the account in the Morgenblatt, the recent history of renewed interest in such experiments has gone approximately as follows: Herr Ritter received word from a friend that a young man living in Gargnano on Lake Garda possessed the same characteristics through which once [Bartholemy] Bleton, with whom Franklin experimented, and [Joseph] Pennet, with whom Thouvenel and other Italian scholars experimented, had acquired such renown, and that this young man had provided numerous demonstrations throughout the area of his ability to sense water and metals beneath the earth.
Herr Ritter’s desire to conduct a calm investigation into this matter, a matter which has been rejected and yet has returned with equal frequency, was supported by the efforts of thoughtful Franz Baader, and Geheimrath [Friedrich Heinrich] von Schenk took it upon himself to present the matter to the minister, Count von Montgelas, who condescended to grant authorization; Ritter was thus both enabled and authorized to undertake the journey.
In a northern newspaper in which this enterprise is mentioned, the author of the essay in question could hardly conceal his astonishment that a government actually allowed monies to be spent on such an object of investigation. The presumption of alleged science can get no higher than this, namely, than to imply that governments ought to take the word of a couple of physicists — physicists, moreover, who have never thoroughly studied these phenomena — that there is nothing to said phenomena!
These same physicists, if they are so sure of their opinion, should instead be grateful that a government has provided the opportunity to prove, through real experiments, precisely their own opinions, which until now are hardly more than mere prejudice. One need think only of the fate of the meteor stones and similar phenomena, which similar natural scientists rejected with just as much cheekiness and which, finally, have in fact been verified through the zeal of true scholars and with the support of broad-thinking governments. Hence praise and gratitude to the enlightened minister who deemed these phenomena important enough to encourage a determinative examination of them through external support as well.
After Herr Ritter had conducted precise preliminary experiments at the residence of this new metal and water diviner, experiments that convinced him in a more general fashion of the presence of this capacity in this individual, and after having become acquainted in Milan, in the person of the Ambrosian librarian Abbate Amoretti, with a scholar who had already penetrated quite deeply and variously into this phenomenon by means of his own experiments, he took the young Campetti with him to Munich in order, through continued research, to acquire explanations of the sort really not yet forthcoming in the varied and yet confused discussions prompted within the past twenty years especially by Pennet in Italy.
To this writer, given what he himself has had the opportunity to see in Munich, the most important elements of this new investigation seem to include the following main points.
I. The ability to set into motion, by means of the human body as such, other bodies generally called dead, e.g., metals, and to do so dynamically and without any intervention of mechanical influences. — Such is involved in the experiments of (a) Abbot Fortis with pendulum oscillations.
Ritter began his own study of these phenomena with these experiments; the essay in the Morgenblatt contains a description of how the experiment is to be conducted, an experiment everywhere repeated with the varying results mentioned above. It is undeniable that some people cannot successfully perform this experiment; it is equally undeniable that many others can. The former finding, assuming no additional factor is at work, would be no stranger than that not all people possess the same powers of magnetizing or the same capacity to be magnetized.
What is more important is that (at least as most people imagine it) some mechanical influence can hardly be excluded, or at least that one cannot confirm with complete certainty, even to non-believers, that such is not at work. Nonetheless such is not entirely impossible, since the circular movements of the pendulum differ according to the differences between objects, e.g., the metals, with which the experimenting subject is in contact.
Hence those wishing to be convinced of the reality of these experiments need merely place sometimes this metal, sometimes that metal on the head or under the feet of a subject with whom these experiments do succeed to some degree, but without that subject being able to perceive such; this will allow one to see that the movements, for the metals in question and assuming all other factors are the same, will always be the same, and — were an even unconscious mechanical influence at work — could not possibly succeed with such regularity. —
These experiments can be conducted in various ways, namely, (1) such that the pendulum is held over metal, water, or some other liquid, or above a living body part; (2) such that not the metal, but the experimenter is in contact with such an object, or at least is within its sphere of influence; (3) without any visible intervention of a third object, such that the power of the human body alone seems sufficient unto itself to set the pendulum into circular movement.
Such is also involved in experiments (b) with an actual divining rod or baguette, whose movements constitute not entire but rather half rotations and follow exactly the same laws as the pendulum movements, so that they take place either from outside toward the inside or from inside toward the outside depending on the constitution of the metal with which the experimenter is in contact. Finally, such is involved in experiments (c) with a rod or plate of metal (also of sealing wax or other non-conductors), which, balanced on the tip of a finger, after a few moments begins to move to the right or left depending on the constitution of the third object with which the experimenter is in contact. For the experiment to be successful, a high degree of strength is required, higher than for moving a baguette.
II. A discernment of differences and polarities of inanimate objects as well as of all parts of animate objects perceived by means of those movements; and: of an influence of general external potences on the phenomenon. Hence, e.g., the direction of pendulum rotation above the north pole of a magnet is different than that over the south pole, and is similarly opposite over metals that behave like the two poles of the magnet in other experiments, viz. in galvanic, electrical, and chemical experiments.
A clear polarity emerges at the opposite ends of a fresh egg, a piece of fruit, or any plant, moreover, also between the gender parts of plants. A clear difference and polarity similarly manifests itself with respect to all parts of the human body, not only through the movement of the pendulum, but also through the movements of the balanced rod and baguette. Amoretti performed experiments using the latter over the entire surface of the human body, and to an essay appearing in the Scelta d’Opuscoli, which he edits, has added a drawing of the human figure indicating all the differences and poles.
With respect to the influence of general external potences on the phenomenon, the following have been especially ascertained: sunlight, which oddly enough exerts an influence that according to the observation of some the eye, too, can exert on the enhancement, hindrance, or altered direction of the movement; electricity, which not only exerts a determinative influence on the experimenting subject, but also — as already seems to have been demonstrated by earlier experiments as well as by new ones Ritter himself has conducted — is capable of bringing about these rotatory movements directly itself. This is merely one more demonstration of how much more deeply the root of electrical power resides in nature than has hitherto been thought based on previous phenomena.
III. The capacity to be set into motion — internal motion, of course — by these objects, a capacity as it were opposite to that which human beings dynamically exercise on other objects. — We may leave in abeyance for the moment the question whether this capacity is related to that exercised by human beings, in a way, that is, similar to the way the capacity of the nervous system in animal bodies to set muscles into motion as external things is related to the capacity to acquire sensations from external things, and whether the former are thus to be viewed as merely a higher potence of the latter.
Apart from the experiments that Herr Ritter conducted with Campetti in Italy, all of which attested the high degree of strength and effectiveness of this particular capacity in Campetti himself, no experiments on a larger scale and outdoors have yet been able to be conducted in our harsher climate; such can be anticipated when the more appropriate seasonal changes have taken place.
IV. The connection between these phenomena and other dynamic phenomena of nature. — There is probably no one who at first glance has not been prompted to suspect that some connection obtains between these phenomena and those involving galvanism and electricity. It has already been mentioned that rather than being explained by electricity, they themselves will sooner provide the true explanation for electricity itself. We would add here that this probably applies to all dynamic phenomena.
That said, it remains doubtful whether they will prove more important for the theory of electricity and attendant phenomena, or for the physiology of heaven, or for human physiology and the medicine based on that physiology. It is at least worth noting that the stimulus of these phenomena emerged simultaneously on several different fronts, and that the medical arts vindicated such even earlier than did general physics.
Those familiar with this material may recall [Arnold] Wienholt’s [1749–1804] efforts; in a recent essay on animal magnetism [by Schelling’s brother, Karl] in the Jahrbücher der Medizin, the journal edited by Marcus and Schelling (vol. 2, no. 2), the entire phenomenon, both that of metal diviners and of metal movers, was related, independent of more recent experiments, to the first-mentioned phenomenon. The relationship with galvanism was described as follows in that essay:
To the extent Galvanism occupies a position between electricity and animal magnetism, we have hitherto discerned and comprehended it only from one of its two sides, namely, where the inorganic plays the active role, the organic the passive role, the inorganic the mediative or determinative role, the organic the receptive and subordinate role. It seems to me, however, that there is yet another side, a side where everything behaves oppositely and whereby the organic is the mediative, the inorganic the receptive member.
Factual demonstrations of the reality of such a relationship include an experiment with the rotation of a sword whose guard is held balanced by two persons on one finger each; an experiment that should be added to those adduced under number I above as one subject to fewer contradictions to the extent it is here two different persons who are holding the sword, and insofar as this experiment in this connection with others also succeeds with those who otherwise have no success with it.
According to what is said there concerning the sensitivity of magnetized persons for those same objects, metals, and water, it seems that the singular capacity of mineral and water diviners might be viewed as merely a lesser degree of somnabulism, and that, considering that the capacity to move external objects seems to attach most strongly to water and metal diviners, this entire phenomenon will eventually resolve itself into that profoundly misunderstood phenomenon — albeit one that will soon be well understood — that for several decades now has under the name of animal magnetism experienced such various fates.
It is in general quite peculiar that everything factual in this matter is not really new; there are no newer findings that cannot be discerned as facts in many earlier or even more recent books. Even the word hushed above has not merely been hovering on the tip of writers’ tongues, but has as a matter of fact been clearly expressed in most earlier works.
But the meaning is indeed new in which this entire phenomenon is now being comprehended and combined with related phenomena. The subject is finally being examined with German seriousness and profundity, and examined under a propitious constellation, where higher views of nature accommodate the experiment and where an experimenter such as Ritter finds an individual whose patience and childlike joy in the experiments themselves endures with such exemplary loyalty, an individual who abhors even the faintest suggestion of deception, indeed who believes that such deception would verily rob him of this gift that he so greatly cherishes.
It is inevitable that people will express extraordinarily differing views on this entire phenomenon, that both reasonable and unreasonable doubts, of both a jesting and a serious sort, will be raised, even by those who have indeed seen something to the extent possible in a situation of distraction and without any foreknowledge of what is at issue, and also by those who have not seen. Such a stumbling block, however, will doubtless be a welcome sight to proper friends of science in an age that thinks itself so wise and yet by and large is gradually sinking into such profound ignorance.
Herr von Aretin is currently involved in writing a history of the divining rod or baguette that may become a quite extensive piece if he intends to incorporate the traces that admittedly extend far beyond the virgula divina [divining rod, magic wand] of Cicero [De officiis, 158]. — Herr Ritter has not yet published anything regarding his experiments. May he not wait too long, and may the new, inestimably important merit he has indeed acquired on behalf of the science of nature soon be added to his other merits!
Postscript to the editor of
the Jenaische Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung
Just as I was about to send off this notice, I received your esteemed missive in which you ask for information concerning several other circumstances associated with these phenomena that are in fact not addressed in the preceding, e.g., how Campetti’s ability was discovered. Let me say in response merely that several years ago, when Pennet described his own experiences while conducting his public experiments in Gargnano with respect to the discovery of springs, Campetti, who was still quite young, noticed that he experienced the same feelings over running water, whereupon Pennet, after querying him further, had to concede that he had the same powers.
A further question: when one senses metals and water, in what exactly do these perceptions consist? As far as what is known from earlier statements of such individuals is concerned, the symptoms accompanying the sensing of metals are primarily: a heightened pulse; the feeling of a contraction of one’s lower forehead toward the eyes, similar perhaps to the reactions of spider webs when electrified; further also a certain taste on the tongue, sometimes more sour, sometimes more bitter, depending on the constitution of the given metal. Over rapidly flowing water, part of these symptoms can also include a noticeable stroke or beat; over metals and water, Pennet even experienced externally visible, involuntary convulsions, an expansion of his pupils, etc. With respect to a third question, let me remark that the feeling extends to metallic ore in the earth as well as to pure metal intentionally concealed within such.
Campetti, when he is particularly attentive, can find individual coins of the size of a louis d’or through mere feeling and without any external indications. Coal wholly resembles metal in this regard. Amoretti was able to secure from the Italian government a piece of land on which the senses of a certain Anfossi, whom Amoretti used as a tool, indicated the presence of hard coal; Amoretti has hitherto operated to not inconsiderable advantage a mine he established on the property.
II. Thomas Johann Seebeck’s remarks to Hegel
The physicist and physician Thomas Johann Seebeck, who had performed demonstrations for the court in Weimar concerning developments in physics, including galvanism, writes to Hegel from Jena on 13 March 1808 (Briefe von und an Hegel, ed. Karl Hegel, vol. 1 [Leipzig 1887], 161–62):
What Schelling has written you concerning the miracles of divining rods and about the effects of the will on them etc., is essentially the same thing Ritter also disclosed to me — after “not concealing from me that he was not sufficiently acquainted with me to know how I had become so secretly mistrustful of the whole thing” — namely, “that volitional stimulus possesses the same dignity as ordinary physical stimuli.” “I am,” he says, “already at the point where, by virtue solely of my will, I can position my fingers in difference, non-difference, or vice versa in difference for frog preparations of certain degrees of excitability.”
Can one demand more? He also told me about various primary and fundamental experiments, though they are too long to relate here; so more of that in person. You have probably already received the first issue of Siderismus [ed. by J. W. Ritter, vol. 1, no. 1 (Tübingen 1808)]. The plan he presented to the commission of the Academy assembled to examine Campetti is probably quite good and could already have produced results had the members of that commission been even moderately up to the task of such an investigation [the commission had problems accepting Ritter’s conditions for the investigation, and in the meantime Campetti himself returned to Italy in the summer of 1808; see the commission’s report below].
These gentlemen seem to have lost their desire to clarify such a tricky matter. The commission has been dissolved, and Ritter is now dealing solely with the praesidio of the Academy and, by proxy, with the administration. The Parisian commission charged with investigating [Bartholemy] Bleton (during Lavoisier’s time) did not fare much better. Indeed, one of the members elected to this commission even answered: j’ai écrit contre [Jean-Jacques] Parangue [one of Bleton’s predecessors), je suis de trois Academies: et vous voulez que je croye à ces sottises là? [I wrote contra Parangue, I am a member of three academies: and you expect me to believe this nonsense?]
III. Report of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities
The Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, which had underwritten Ritter’s experiments and even his journey to Italy (Ritter had travelled to Italy on 21 November 1806, found Campetti in Garganano on Lake Garda, and returned with him to Munich in January 1807), published the following about its own attempts to investigate the integrity of Ritter’s methodology and results (under the rubric “General Meetings,” Denkschriften der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München für das Jahr 1808 [Munich 1809], xliii–xlv):
At the meeting on 19 August 1807, Professor Ritter of the Academy introduced Francesco Campetti, a young farmer from Gargnano on the western short of Lake Garda in the Kingdom of Italy, and read an extensive historical essay to the effect that his correspondents in physics had initially drawn his attention to the unusual and elevated sensitivity of this subject to hidden metal and water; he thereupon addressed the royal administration, with whose support he undertook the trip to Italy, returning here with Campetti, and convincing himself, through a series of experiments, of the veracity of that assertion.
He then introduced this Campetti to the Royal Academy of Sciences and Humanities to verify the fact of his higher sensitivity, petitioning the Academy to appoint a commission to that end. Such was indeed established, consisting of the scholars Maximus von Imhof, J. M. Güthe, and Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring. —
What follows is an account of what transpired in this matter in the general meeting on 9 March 1808 and later. — The essays Herr Ritter presented afterward in several meetings of that commission enumerated the conditions under which he was prepared to conduct the experiments with Campetti before the commission.* (*Herr Professor Ritter had those detailed essays published privately.) Those conditions were largely such that transcended the boundaries of what the commission and Academy were able to fulfill.
The Academy alerted the highest authorities to such in an authorized presidential report. A royal resolution was handed down on 19 February 1808 to the effect that Herr Ritter was to prepare and deliver to the Academy of Sciences and Humanities a thorough, complete, and cohesively descriptive report of all the experiments privately conducted with Campetti and their results; the Academy would then be authorized to send that report to several other academies abroad, especially to the institutes in Paris and Milan, thereafter also to secure their statements concerning the extent to which they, too, feel compelled to ascribe to this phenomenon the same high status within the series of phenomena in the field of physics that Ritter ascribes to it before the Academy. —
Herr Ritter has not yet presented this report to the Academy. Since Campetti had already remained here as long as Herr Ritter deemed necessary in order to conduct his experiments with him and to report on them, and since Campetti began to be sickly and yearn for his home, he departed for home in the month of June of the year 1808. —
The anticipated report on these experiments — which, although rendered possible by financial support in part from the royal administration and in part later from Academy funds are nonetheless to be viewed wholly as private investigations undertaken by Herr Ritter — will, as soon as it reaches the Academy, be sent along to other academies and scholarly societies as well as to the public.
IV. Dorothea Schlegel’s remarks to Friedrich Schlegel
On 1 February 1807, Ritter had urged Karl von Hardenberg, younger brother of Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis), to relate his findings concerning siderism to Wilhelm Schlegel, which Hardenberg did on 6 March 1807 (Krisenjahre 1:389). Dorothea Schlegel then writes from Cologne to Friedrich Schlegel in Paris on 8 March 1807 (Dorothea Schlegel und deren Söhne 1:217–18):
The enclosed letter from [Karl von] Hard[enberg] provides yet more proof for your remarks concerning him and his unphilosophical inclinations. One hopes that his position in the world and his external activities will keep him in balance. His mysterious message from the south is doubtless nothing other than what I read a few days ago in the Beobachter here but forgot to write to you about, namely, that a young man living in the rural border of Italy, in Tyrol, has the gift of sensing and revealing metals in the earth. Ritter went to meet him, examined and queried him quite thoroughly, and did indeed find him remarkable. He will soon be publishing a description of this phenomenon and all his other observations and conclusions.
V. Henrik Steffens’s Memoirs
Ritter, whom Schelling’s influence had rescued from gloomy circumstances in Jena, received an appointment as a member of the Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Munich. There he had begun studying a so-called dowser capable of sensing both minerals and water; Ritter now believed he, Ritter, had made the strangest discoveries. He believed, moreover, that these new discoveries could support his new teaching, which he called “siderism.” A small, now utterly forgotten piece he published at the time, though scorned and rejected by empirical physicists, did rouse considerable interest in certain circles, especially among those inclined to view nature speculatively.
Although I never denied the faint oscillation of a cosmic existence that moves our innermost being in indistinct pulses, I nonetheless resolutely doubted the possibility that this hidden activity in nature could ever be made the object of clear scientific observation; and even if I never entirely rejected the direction of such investigations, I always viewed them with enormous reservation. The experiments to which Ritter drew attention and which he himself had performed numerous times and whose results he was easily able to reproduce, included especially the following.
A golden ring is fixed to a strand of hair or otherwise to a silk thread that is as thin as possible. The thread is held lightly between the tips of the fingers, and when it is held over different bodies, especially over metals, certain oscillations arise, in part in straight lines, which are then distinguished according to their direction according to the points of the compass, and in part in elongated ellipses, whereby one can discern not only the direction according to the compass, but also the movement of the ellipsis from right to left or the reverse. Ritter thought he had discovered a secret law in these movements depending on the nature of the objects over which the oscillations occurred.
These experiments were performed with passionate enthusiasm by men and women in several parts of Germany; indeed, they became quite the fashion. They also prompted lively interest among my friends in Holstein. Because I did not want to contradict them, I did participate in their experiments, albeit while secretly shaking my head. I quickly discovered that the subjective psychic influence of the person conducting the experiment could not be definitively separated from the objective elements attaching to the actual object, and I was convinced that a pure experiment in this fashion was not possible. Soon, however, my friends’ preoccupation with these things was to come to an end in a fashion quite instructive for me.
I have often noted that philosophers who have developed from a purely abstract beginning are most easily satisfied with indefinite phenomena, which generally accord most easily with abstractions, just as precise mathematical calculations often enough bestow upon even the most uncertain observations an element of apparent solidity, and just as the most inferior and inept poetry can be elevated by excellent musical composition.
Those who pursued these experiments with the greatest enthusiasm and genuine acumen included August Ludwig Hülsen. While I was staying with [Nikolaus von] Thaden [estate owner in Flensburg, Holstein, former student of Fichte], I accumulated a collection of metal rods composed in part of metallic alloys in varying but precisely determined proportions. He precisely observed the oscillations above a line oriented exactly toward the north, a line intersected by other lines oriented in all the other directions of the wind rose.
After spending some time with these experiments, he was convinced he had discovered the system governing all these movements, a system according to which the sideritic significance of the simple metals and their alloys might be determined. These movements, their directions, and the rotation of the ellipses toward the right or left were precisely noted, and the series of experiments yielded a long register the observation of which did indeed elicit not inconsiderable surprise.
I had just left Thaden and was traveling back to Hamburg by way of Seekamp. Hülsen, delighted at his discovery, which, he thought, had been convincingly demonstrated by repeated experiments that always yielded the same results, similarly came to Seekamp to acquaint me with his discovery. All the metal rods were arranged in a specific order according to how the directions of the oscillations followed the marks of the compass from north to east, and were so arranged through the entire wind rose, and according to how with each mark the ellipses moved to either the right or the left. Hülsen gave me the extensive register containing the results of almost a hundred observations.
Although it would have been too much to repeat all the experiments, a third were indeed performed, arbitrarily taken from all wind directions. Each time a specific kind of metal was used, I compared the results with the register. One hypothesis that had to be resolutely rejected was that the person conducting the experiments had clearly remembered, in every instance, the results of so many experiments arbitrarily chosen from the whole series, had never erred, had taken his orientation from his reliable memory, and had thus deceived us. This hypothesis had to be rejected in part because we were all familiar with this man’s sincerity and honesty, and in part because such deception seemed utterly impossible. I followed these experiments silently but with considerable tension and growing astonishment.
Because my friend, Hülsen, believed my astonishment had been prompted by the significance of his discovery, he became increasingly satisfied the more experiments he performed. In the meantime, however, I had a secret understanding with Berger, our host, and when the series of experiments was concluded, I turned to Hülsen and said, “My friend, what I have experienced here is indeed astonishing. I now have a task that will probably occupy me my entire life without ever finding its entire solution; but it is a psychological rather than a physical task. You yourself are the miracle, not your metal rods — for there,” I said, pointing with my finger, “is north, and not where you thought it was.” He had indeed positioned the paper with the directional marks according to the compass; he naturally thought that during his experiments he should orient himself according to the magnetic pole.
But when he left to fetch his metallic rods, the paper was shifted by an inadvertent bump. Berger and I quickly came to a silent agreement in order to ascertain the results of this error. To our considerable astonishment, we discovered that although the objective external pole had indeed shifted, the subjective pole of the soul had maintained the same direction, so that all the seemingly regular relationships arranged themselves according to that direction with almost instinct-like consistency.
Hülsen was indeed frightfully alarmed upon thus learning that instead of expanding his knowledge of physics or indeed expanding the science of physics itself, he had become an inexplicable riddle to himself; but he was too much a philosopher not to view the matter with utter objectivity. Thenceforth, however, there was no more mention of pendulum experiments in this circle.
VI. Goethe’s Novels
The passage in Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften occurs in book 2, chap. 11; the resonance with Schelling’s articles, even as far as word choice, and even in translation, is unmistakable. The scene takes as its point of departure Ottilie’s disinclination to take a certain path in the woods (Elective Affinities, in J. W. von Goethe’s Works, trans. R. D. Boylan [London 1903], 394–96):
At the same time, I could not help asking her why she had shown such an objection to going the way which you had gone, along the little by-path. I had observed her shrink from it with a sort of painful uneasiness. She was not at all offended. “If you will promise not to laugh at me,” she answered, “I will tell you as much as I know about it; but to myself it is a mystery which I cannot explain. There is a particular spot in that path which I never pass without a strange shudder passing over me, which I do not remember ever feeling anywhere else, and which I cannot the least understand. But I shrink from exposing myself to the sensation, because it is followed immediately after by a pain on the left side of my head, from which at other times I suffer severely.”
We landed [the two were in a boat and were on their way to meet the others]. Ottilie was engaged with you; and I took the opportunity of examining the spot, which she pointed out to me as we went by on the water. I was not a little surprised to find there distinct traces of coal, in sufficient quantities to convince me, that, at a short distance below the surface, there must be a considerable bed of it.
“Pardon me, my lord: I see you smile; and I know very well that you have no faith in these things about which I am so eager, and that it is only your sense and your kindness which enable you to tolerate me. However, it is impossible for me to leave this place without trying on that beautiful creature an experiment with the pendulum.”
Whenever these matters came to be spoken of, the earl never failed to repeat the same objections to them over and over again; and his friend endured them all quietly and patiently, remaining firm, nevertheless, to his own opinion, and holding to his own wishes. He, too, repeatedly showed that there was no reason, because the experiment did not succeed with every one, that they should give them up, as if there were nothing in them but fancy. They should be examined into all the more earnestly and scrupulously; and there was no doubt that the result would be the discovery of a number of affinities of inorganic creatures for one another, and of organic creatures for them, and again for each other, which at present were unknown to us.
He had already spread out his apparatus of gold rings, marcasites, and other metallic substances, which he always carried about with himself, in a pretty little box; and he suspended a piece of metal by a string over another piece, which he placed upon the table. “Now, my lord,” he said, “you may take what pleasure you please (I can see in your face what you are feeling) at perceiving that nothing will set itself in motion with me or for me. But my proceedings are no more than a pretext; when the ladies come back, they will be curious to know what strange work we are about.”
The ladies returned. Charlotte understood at once what was going on. “I have heard much of these things,” she said, “but I never saw the effect myself. You have everything ready there. Let me try whether I can succeed in producing anything.”
She took the thread into her hand; and, as she was perfectly serious, she held it steady, and without any agitation. Not the slightest motion, however, could be detected. Ottilie was then called upon to try. She held the pendulum, still more quietly and unconsciously, over the plate on the table. But in a moment the swinging piece of metal began to stir with a distinct rotatory action, and turned as they moved the position of the plate, first to one side, and then to the other; now in circles, now in ellipses; or else describing a series of straight lines; doing all the earl’s friend could expect, and far exceeding, indeed, all his expectations.
The earl himself was a little staggered; but the other could never be satisfied from delight and curiosity, and begged for the experiment again and again, with all sorts of variations. Ottilie was complacent enough to gratify him; till at last she politely requested to be allowed to go, as her headache had come on again. In further admiration, and even rapture, he assured her with enthusiasm that he would cure her for ever of her disorder, if she would only trust herself to his remedies. For a moment they did not know what he meant; but Charlotte, who quickly saw what he was about, declined his well-meant offer, not liking to have introduced and practised about her a thing of which she had always had the strongest apprehensions.
The passage in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, oder die Entsagenden (Stuttgart 1821) occurs in book 3, chapter 14 (Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, trans. Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen, Goethe’s Works, vol. 5 [Philadelphia 1885], 219–20):
In the study of the sciences, particularly those that deal with nature, it is as necessary as it is difficult to inquire whether that which has been handed down to us from the past, and regarded as valid by our ancestors, is really to be relied on to such a degree that we may continue to build upon it safely in the future; or whether traditionary knowledge has become only stationary, and hence occasions inertia rather than progress. There is one characteristic that furthers this inquiry — whether, namely, the received results are being, and have been, and remain influential in and promotive of active endeavor.
The testing of the new stands in the opposite case — when one has to ask whether what is received is real profit or only fashionable conformity. For an opinion emanating from energetic men spreads like contagion throughout the crowd, and then it is said to be prevalent — an assumption that to the true inquirer expresses no idea. Church and State may at any rate have reasons to declare themselves dominant; for they have to do with the recalcitrant multitude, and if only order is kept, it is all the same by what means; but in the sciences absolute freedom is necessary; for then one is working not for today and tomorrow, but for an endlessly progressive succession of years.
But, moreover, if in science the false gets the upper hand, yet there will always remain a minority for the true; and if it should contract into one single spirit it would not matter: he will work his way in silence, in secret, and a time will come when people will inquire about him and his convictions, or when with the general diffusion of enlightenment they will venture to present themselves again.
But a subject less general, though incomprehensible and extraordinary, that came under discussion was Montan’s casual disclosure that in his mountain and mining investigations he was assisted by a being who displayed the most wonderful qualities, and a quite peculiar relation to everything that one might call stone, mineral — even in general, an element. This being felt not only a great effect from waters flowing underground, from metalliferous layers and veins, as well as coal measures, and aught else of the sort that lay together in masses, but, what was more wonderful, it felt different and again different as soon as it merely changed its soil.
The different sorts of mountains exercised a special influence upon it, about which since he had managed to produce a language which was strange enough, but at the same time sufficient, he was able to arrive at a clear understanding with it and test it in details, when it stood the test in a remarkable way, being able as it was to distinguish chemical as well as physical elements by the feeling, nay, even distinguishing by look alone the heavier from the lighter substances. This being, about whose sex he would not disclose himself more plainly, he has sent forward with the departing friends, and he hoped a good deal from it in furtherance of his aims in the unexplored districts.
 Rossiter W. Raymond, “The Divining-Rod,” Journal of the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania 119 (1885) 1 (January 1885), 103–21, here 110–11, translated part of the explanation on p. 102 of Schelling’s article, albeit with errors, though also with seemingly prudent corrections, beginning with “Take a cube of pyrite” down to “as that required to produces these oscillations.” Back.
Translation © 2018 Doug Stott