Henrich Steffens, the philosopher, scientist, and novelist and short-story writer was of Danish and German descent. He was born in Stavanger, Norway, the son of a physician in the service of the Dano-Norwegian monarchy. From 1790 to 1794 Steffens studied natural science, especially mineralogy and geology, in Copenhagen. He next studied natural history in Kiel, where he became interested in philosophy.
In 1798 he moved to Jena, drawn not least by the natural philosophy of Friedrich von Schelling, whose Erster Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie had appeared in 1797. In Jena, Steffens met Schelling, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and August Schlegel; and in Berlin in 1799 he met Friedrich von Schlegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
In 1802 Steffens returned to Copenhagen to lecture on natural philosophy. Through his large audience he influenced the development of the romantic movement in Denmark, but he failed to obtain the university position he had hoped for, and in 1804 he accepted a chair in natural philosophy and mineralogy at the University of Halle.
In 1811 he was appointed professor of physics in Breslau, where he remained, except for a brief period of service as a volunteer in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte in 1813–1814, until 1832. In that year Steffens became professor at Berlin, where he lectured on natural philosophy, anthropology, and geology until his death.
Steffens’s philosophy was markedly influenced by Benedict de Spinoza and by Spinozistic pantheism, as well as by Schelling. Schelling’s Von der Weltseele, eine Hypothese der höheren Physik zur Erklärung des allgemeinen Organismus (On the world-soul, a hypothesis of higher physics in explanation of the general organism) appeared in 1798, and in Steffens’s Beiträge zur innern Naturgeschichte der Erde (Contributions to the inner natural history of the earth; 1801) the influence of Schelling is readily discernible.
The title of Schelling’s work gives an indication of the substance and trend of Steffens’s philosophical thinking; it is a blend of natural science and speculative philosophy imbued with the general spirit of the romantic movement, somewhat less speculative than that of Schelling.
|Benedict de Spinoza|
Steffens viewed the history of nature as a development or evolution from inorganic stages to organic and animate forms, governed by a divine purpose. His pantheism found characteristic expression in the view that nature itself is creative, the acme of the natural creative process being the free individual human personality, or spirit.
According to Steffens’s Anthropologie (1822) man is a living unity of spirit and nature—a microcosm, in the sense that the history of humankind mirrors the development of nature itself.
He found in myths and mythological traditions a true, though symbolically expressed, understanding and knowledge of nature; however, he believed that a proper scientific study of nature was a necessary prerequisite for a correct interpretation of the meaning of myths.