An Italian in Bavaria: Campetti, Ritter and the destiny of science in Germany


1. Rhabdomancy between science and philosophy

In the years 1806-1808 a lively controversy occurred involving: an important scientific institution, the Bavarian Royal Academy of Sciences in Munich; a prestigious scientific periodical, Annalen der Physik, and his chief editor, Ludwig Wilhelm Gilbert; first rank scientists such as Johann Wilhelm Ritter and less famous researchers as Christian Samuel Weiss; men of letters and sciences such as Peter Ludwig Maréchaux; great philosophers such as F.W.J. Schelling and Franz Baader; and an extraordinary commentator, the physicist Thomas Seebeck. The quarrel was about the real capacities of an Italian rhabdomancer, Francesco Campetti, and the theoretical conception of universal galvanism proposed by Ritter in 1798, refined by Ritter himself after a long series of experiments with Campetti, which he intended to employ to the explanation of rhabdomancy.

Ritter's experiments were based on knowledge about rhabdomancy and galvanism which had been developed in Italy since the 1780s, when scientists and physicians had been contributing with research and discussions to understand the nature of rhabdomancy. From Naples to the Veneto region, from Florence to the Lombardy many people had participated in the research. Among them remembered are: Pierre Thouvenel, Alberto Fortis, Lazzaro Spallanzani, Felice Fontana, Carlo Amoretti and Alessandro Volta1.

Campetti's trip to Munich represented the transfer of an Italian scientific discussion to Germany; however, this transfer was not only geographic. When it occurred the nature of German science was deeply indebted to the intellectual and philosophical construction of Schelling's Naturphilosophie. The queries about rhabdomancy raised by Thouvenel, Fortis or Amoretti were about the truthfulness of the phenomena and the existence of a fluid – submitted to the laws of physics - in the living organisms which could coincide with that recognized by Mesmer as the cause of animal magnetism. Yet in Munich the philosophical and scientific frame was different as the target was the ideal of the unity of knowledge, since scientific research was deeply oriented by philosophical systems. Bringing into consideration Campetti's powers did not mean just discussing rhabdomancy but meant specifically discussing galvanism in its relationship to Volta's experimental results and, most of all, inquiring into the role of science and its relationship with philosophy.

This peculiar conceptual backdrop was the motivation for Gilbert's attack against Ritter and his experiments in 1807. Gilbert's aim in his prestigious Annalen der Physik was less a sceptical declaration against Campetti's presumed powers but rather more of a general polemic against the philosophical dreams of universal galvanism as the definitive explanation for the natural world. Gilbert asserted that "galvanism" was not a universal agent but a term, indexing a set of phenomena satisfactorily explained by Volta's experimental results. Gilbert's real intention however was to take a position about the necessity of scientific research to be independent from philosophy.

2. Expectations of a galvanist

The events began in Autumn 1806 when Ritter received a letter from Christian Samuel Weiss, a geologist at Leipzig, containing information about an extraordinarily gifted rhabdomancer, Francesco Campetti. Campetti lived at Gargnano (a village on the shore of the Lake Garda now in Lombardy) and was well known in the region for his capacities of discovering underground waters and metals.

At that time Ritter was considered as a genius: Goethe had wanted him at Jena where he discovered ultraviolet rays and gave fundamental contributions to the rising electrochemistry discovering electrolysis. Sustained by Schelling Ritter was named as academician at the Bavarian Royal Academy of Sciences in Munich in 1804. His more than decennial scientific career had been led by the idea of a fundamental unity of natural forces. He considered phenomena as the plural manifestation of a unique immanent principle whose activity is governed by the polar dynamics of positive and negative. Galvani's 1791 essay, which had brought animal electricity on stage, had been Ritter's guide in the labyrinth of nature together with Schelling's conception of "world soul"2. Ritter's first idea that galvanismus was the fundamental explanation of life became more general and was to be considered essential in inorganic nature too3. Galvanic action was the physical manifestation of the world soul, it was the total dynamic process explaining the fundamental unity of life and matter. Volta's researches and the discovery of the electric battery did not represent, in Ritter's eyes, a defeat of galvanism, but the final demonstration of the unity underlying physical and vital phenomena. According to Ritter Volta was not Galvani's enemy: on the contrary Volta reinforced the leading role of galvanism in the quest of a universal physical explanation. This is the reason why Ritter developed his electrochemical experiments with Volta's electrical equipment: he pursued the demonstration of the galvanic nature of the world4.

News about Campetti stimulated Ritter. He saw the possibility to deepen his research about sense organs and sensation which he explained by the model of a galvanic chain of receptor nerves5. Campetti's sensitivity to water and metals gave the great occasion to observe in action the intimate connection of the physico-chemical forces which give life to a human being with electric, magnetic and chemical forces ordering the inorganic world. Upon such theoretical hints Ritter based an experimental project which involved Campetti as the principal instrument. He informed academic and governmental authorities at Bayern of his interest and, obtaining formal assignment from the government, went to Italy and met Campetti in order to verify and systematically test his capacities.

At Gargnano Ritter convinced himself that Campetti was the right person to begin a serious experimental inquiry. Before going back to Munich he decided to bring himself up-to-date with the Italian debate on rhabdomancy and galvanism. He went to Milan and met Carlo Amoretti, who for a long time had been theorizing a possible explanation of rhabdomancy as galvanism. Then to Pavia where he interviewed Alessandro Volta. He was back in Munich in December 1806 and started experiments with Campetti.

3. Testing rhabdomancy

Ritter was able to devise experiments which are as ingenious as they are curious. After many tests which show Campetti's ability to find hidden metal objects, Ritter tries to prove the existence of the presumed force that causes the movement of the divining rod when the rhabdomancer "feels" the presence of water or metals. It is essential to exclude that the rod oscillates because of imperceptible muscular solicitations in the arm or hand. To this end Ritter thinks up a new instrument, the balancier. It is a sort of metal lance which lays horizontally upon a fingertip while the other fingers are bent. In this way the balancier can rotate and point to the objects that the rhabdomancer feels, excluding movement of the fingers. Moreover the balancier allows to discriminate different degrees of sensitivity in different persons. Ritter does tests on different rhabdomancers and is assured that Campetti is certainly one of the most talented. Placing zinc under Campetti's feet the lance turns on the right. Placing gold under his feet it turns on the left. Ritter observes what happens when establishing a contact with magnets, vegetals (fruits, trunks, roots) and persons. In these cases too the rotation is inverted when a vegetal is overturned or a person is upside down. Different movements of the balancier occur when Campetti feels running or stagnant water. If the contact between the rhabdomancer and an object is mediated by other persons the balancier still turns, even thought the result is weakened. Even the physiology of Campetti's own body modifies sensitivity: expiration or inspiration, flexing or extending arms, speaking or being quiet. A curious experiment was the result of the balancier in relation to Campetti’s speach. The balancier is on the left hand's middle finger while the right hand touches repeatedly a zinc plate and Campetti counts loudly every time he touches the zinc plate. On the first contact the lance points towards Campetti himself. At the second it points outwardly. At the third it does not move. At the fourth once again inwardly and so on until the tenth contact where it yields no movement. A regularity does appear, but there are exceptions. When Campetti does not count for each touch no regularity is observed: “il paroît évident que l'idée du nombre même produit sur son corps certains effets physiques qui décident le mouvement observé”. It is then necessary to evaluate every circumstance, even the smallest one, in order to understand the causes of the observed phenomena6.

So many tests make it clear that Campetti is not a mystifier. This is not enough however as Ritter's aim is to grasp phenomena within a coherent conceptual frame. In order to develop a satisfying theory explaining the apparent results of the experiments with Campetti however it is necessary to define experimental conditions and this seems impossible with a human being as an instrument. Ritter becomes aware that the functioning of a galvanic chain in a laboratory is too simple a model if one wants to explain the functioning of a living organism. Rhabdomancers' extraordinary and rare capacities require a model of interactions within a complex physical system which is not easily reducible to the usual galvanic phenomenology. Ritter has no intention to update old hypotheses about presumed universal fluids, but his aspiration after a new theory based on the interconnection of many galvanic chains seems frustrated by any experimental refinement. In the meantime governmental authorities and the scientific community are waiting for results. Maybe an excessive enthusiasm by Ritter and the unconditioned support by influential scholars such as Baader and Schelling have fed too many expectations.

An initial report of the experiments published at the end of January 1807 describes Campetti's capacities and some tests, but it does not present explanations nor answers to the fundamental question if are the experiments leading to a theory that is coherent with the system of universal galvanism7. In a letter dated the 25th of January Maréchaux mentions one of the first of Ritter's accounts at the Academy «von der man die Früchte mit Ungeduld erwartet»8.

In the following months doubts persist. Ritter continues to work without letting anything be known. On the 8th of March Maréchaux wonders whether Ritter's intention is to present all together «die unerwartetsten Resultate zu überraschen» or is to he remain silent because the experiments have given unwanted results and fears public judgement. Yet a new questioning is rising: that the marvels of rhabdomancy «nachdem man sie aus der Theologie verbannt hat, flüchten sie sich unter den Schutz der Philosophie»9. On the 28th March a rumour about the negative results is registered. It seems that Campetti's capacities are not so extraordinary and that galvanic theories are disproved. Maréchaux concludes that maybe it is better to search in the physics of electricity than to invoke the existence of animal (magnetic or electric) fluids10.

In May 1807 two new reports are published: in the Allgemeine literarische Zeitung of Jena and in the Bibliothèque britannique of Geneva. The second is an abstract of a Ritter's letter to Weiss while the first report is sympathetic with Ritter, but both acknowledge that the questions opened by the experiments have no answer.

The Allgemeine literarische Zeitung enumerates the results of the experiments with Campetti: there is a dynamical (not mechanical) force in the human body which has an effect on inorganic matter. This force operates according to a polarity principle and allows a glimpse of the general potences which rule phenomena (the words are taken from Schelling's doctrine of potences). There is a connection between phenomena produced by Campetti and the general dynamism of nature and it seems that such a connection is grounded in electrical forces (or galvanism). The report's writer is optimistic thinking that it is possible to glimpse a relationship of the rhabdomancy with the marvellous phenomena of animal magnetism; and this means progress towards the comprehension of the essential unity of the natural forces11.

Ritter's letter abstract published in the Bibliothèque britannique is mainly devoted to explain the experimental techniques developed by Ritter during his work with Campetti. The results appear sensational: it seems that Campetti is only the conductor of a force that, according to Ritter, is an electrical force. Ritter's project, in order to confirm his hypothesis, is to perform the experiments again using inert instruments. His aim is to demonstrate that rhabdomancy is submitted to the same natural laws which rule the activity of second class electromotors. This is of course an optimistic expectation: «bien des choses, regardées comme impossibles, parce qu'elles se trouvoient en opposition avec de faux systèmes, déjà adoptés, deviendront non seulement possibles et réelles; mais leur nécessité pourra être démontrée par des théories auxquelles ces systèmes seront peut-être obligés de céder». The purpose is to disclose the potences which rule all phenomena: «c'est alors aussi, qu'on envisagera d'une manière plus étendue, et en même temps plus précise et plus vraie, la physique et la science de l'homme»12.

4. Elusive results

Six months of experiments were not enough to find what Ritter was looking for. On the 7th of July Maréchaux declared that what was happening was becoming more and more obscure13. The Allgemeine literarische Zeitung honestly acknowledged that working with Campetti does not contribute to the advancement of learning: «allein der Sinn ist neu, in dem das ganze Phänomen aufgefasst und combinirt wird». Much more work was necessary in order to explain an unprecedented theory which can offer a new insight into the matter under debate. In any case there was much confidence, because «die Sache wird endlich mit deutschem Ernst und Tiefe behandelt, unter einer glücklischen Constellation, wo höhere Ansichten der Natur dem Experiment entgegenkommen» and because the leader of the research project was a first rank experimenter such as Ritter14.

So much enthusiasm was worthless. It was not by chance that Ritter did not speak openly and chose to publish in a mediate way through a letter to Weiss which was divulged in shortened form. He feared to obtain only negative results and realized that around him things were changing. We have to remember that experiments with Campetti became the leading project of the Munich Academy of Sciences due to the will of the government and involving the Academy's prestige was dangerous. Now the government was waiting for definitive results and Ritter's enemies within the Academy were ready to raise their voices. As consequence Campetti was no longer at Ritter’s disposal and Ritter lost his freedom to choose experiments and methods of inquiry. Now Ritter was dependent on the Academy presidency and was directly responsible to the government. He tried to regain a leading role and obtain the charge for preparing an experimentational protocol, but things went for the worse. When he understood that it was impossible to once again postpone publication he also realized that his material was not convincing. Instead of insisting on the few positive results he decided to discuss the difficulties of his experiments and to explain the methodological and epistemological issues of his research. He founded a new periodical, Siderismus, mainly devoted to his research with Campetti. In the first volume published in 1808 Ritter seemed uncertain that rhabdomancy was reducible to the galvanic forces. He even admitted the active role of the rhabdomancer's will. But this meant the end of the dream of a general and complete theory of universal galvanism.

The irreducibility of Campetti's capacities to physics and the necessity of a psychological explanation cast a shadow on Ritter's credibility. Admitting «daß der Willensreiz gleiche Dignität mit dem ordinärphysischen habe»15 was an inexplicable denial of the theoretical premises on galvanism which induced Ritter to ask academic support for his researches. Moreover referring to the will of Campetti, and not his supposed physical powers, could be interpreted as an implicit admission that Campetti's powers were a fraud. In a note dated the 7th of October 1807 Maréchaux is certain once and for all that it is Campetti's will which moved his rod and there is no mysterious force acting between him and metals. Phenomenology related to Campetti does not lie in the domain of experimental physics but of psychology: «ich bin völlig überzeugt, dass alle Phänomene, die lediglich von dem Willen des Menschen oder von einem Gedanken abhängen, nicht mehr in das Gebiet der Naturlehre gehören». Refusing to accept this remark Ritter deliberately places himself out of the Newtonian and Laplacian tradition, because «so würde man die unsichtbaren Ursachen, die hier im Spiele seyn sollen, ohne Ende vervielfältigen müssen»16.

Ritter's periodical Siderismus did not arouse much interest, but this did not depend entirely from the failure of his research project. New events were attracting German scientists' attention such as the first exceptional results of Humphry Davy's electrochemical experiments, which were presented at the beginning of 1808 in Gilbert's Annalen der Physik17. Writing to Hegel on the 13th of March 1808 Seebeck underlined that Davy's discoveries were the most important scientific results of the day and it was wise to put apart discussions on Ritter's inquiries. And Ritter himself, as soon as he knew about Davy's results, dismissed Campetti and began to replicate the English scientist’s experiments18.

5. Gilbert and Seebeck on science

Campetti's case aroused much interest during its time in the German scientific world. It was not interest in the curious phenomena of rhabdomancy but in the scientific explanation pursued by Ritter. Scientists and natural philosophers were not discussing the truthfulness of Campetti's powers but Ritter's conception and development of scientific theories. These are the aspects to take into account in order to understand Ritter's intellectual path after the meeting with Campetti and the Italian research on rhabdomancy.

For this reason it is important to evaluate Gilbert's attitude and scientific policy in relation to Campetti and Ritter. During the year 1807 Gilbert gave much room in his Annalen der Physik to the critical discussion of Ritter's experimentation and expectations19. What is relevant is not that Gilbert's polemic could feed doubts about Ritter's research and contribute to discredit them. Rather it is interesting that Gilbert considered the necessity to revise methods and aims of science, starting with a reflection on the relationship between science and philosophy. It was not only a methodological and epistemological concern, it also put to question the position of German science in Europe, whether it being marginal or advanced.

Seebeck had the same preoccupation when he discussed Davy's exceptional results: «warum wir (denn ich will nicht ausgenommen sein) deutschen Galvanisten mit solcher wichtigen Entdeckung als die Davy’sche die Welt nicht „regaliert“ haben»? Seebeck suggested some possible explanations. The first depended on a precise psychological attitude of German scientists, who are used to insist on their inquiry into a subject even though they have already found an answer. They do not switch to other arguments because they fear that other scientists do not acknowledge their merits. They are conditioned by the doubt – of philosophical origin – regarding the relevance and the certitude of the important discoveries carried out in Germany. Another explanation was likewise meaningful: «unsere große Gründlichkeit. Die Reihe war noch nicht an diesen Entdeckungen. So ein Korsar von Engländer achtet aber nicht Gesetz und Ordnung und tappt eben in alles hinein. Hätten wir uns nicht der belobten Wissenschaftlichkeit (der deutschen) ergeben, was hätten wir nicht alles schon ertappt!»20. Seebeck words remind us, with an opposite evaluation, of the German "seriousness and deepness" which had grounded the confidence and optimism of the Allgemeine literarische Zeitung in Ritter's research. On the contrary Seebeck sustained unscrupulousness and freedom from philosophical criteria of justification. Scientific research had to impose its autonomy.

6. Gilbert's strategy against Ritter

This claim of scientific autonomy was precisely one of the tasks of Gilbert's polemics against Ritter. Refusing to appreciate experiments with Campetti was the first step towards a redefinition of scientific research. It was not a will of indexing Ritter's errors, rather it was the necessity of defining the elements which characterize as scientific an experimental inquiry. An experiment is not scientific by itself: it is the conceptual frame of the experiment which justifies its scientific nature. If the conceptual structure is Schelling's doctrine of potences, Gilbert argues, it is impossible to be sure that an experimental result is satisfying from a scientific point of view. On the contrary it is probable that its scientific aspect is only apparent and nothing new about nature is discovered.

Gilbert's criticism makes use of various means. He compares Ritter's experiments with others elsewhere. For example he publishes Jacob Joseph Winterl's account and Christian Heinrich Pfaff's commentary of the experiments performed at Kiel during the same period. These two papers contribute to increase the doubts on the truthfulness of the reports from Bavaria, because they admit that the rod's oscillations are produced by unintentional muscular motions of the rhabdomancer21.

Gilbert's second strategy is the referring to history. Through a series of documents and reports he reminds the reader of theories and experiments on rhabdomancy which have abounded in many Italian towns during the two last decades of the eighteenth century. Such a survey is useful to outline the background of the argument and to above all relativize the presumed validity of results with Campetti. Ritter's supporters claim that with Campetti new evidence is finally available to science, but thanks to Gilbert's contribution it is easy to see that Ritter's arguments in 1807 are not so different from the ones of the 1790s. Gilbert lists the many publications on rhabdomancy and recalls the words of Ritter's great friend Alexander von Humboldt, who in 1797 had not a decisive judgement regarding the research in Italy due to the fact that it was impossible to discriminate 20whether the rod's movements were really produced by water and metals or by the muscular activity of the rhabdomancer22.

Gilbert cleverly uses historical documents and gives them much room in his discussion. He publishes many pages from the history of rhabdomancy compiled by the director of the Bavarian central library, Christian Aretin, whose effect is devastating: it is a sort of list of the standard wonders described by all the supporters of rhabdomancy. Precisely the same wonders mentioned by Ritter during his work with Campetti. Gilbert explains that such coincidence has a reason: there is a book, abbé de Vallemont's La physique occulte, ou traité de la baguette divinatoire (1696), which is the common source of the narratives about rhabdomancers' powers. What is interesting, as Gilbert comments sardonically, is that the good abbé was not wasting his time in looking for unknown or mysterious forces but he simply explained such wonders as gifts of divine origin23. The "unexpected" phenomena and movements of the rod, Gilbert concludes, are nothing new or unexpected, but widely and precisely described in many publications over the last two centuries.

Gilbert's perfidy is even greater in deciding to publish the opinions of Ritter from two of the most important scholars which had led Italian debate at the end of the eighteenth century: Amoretti and Thouvenel. These two had written some pages in the Archives littéraires de l’Europe in order to claim their priority in the inquiries directed by Ritter in 1807. Their standing is very clear – and we understand the reason why Gilbert gives publicity to it: Ritter's experiments with Campetti have revealed nothing new concerning the facts and theories of rhabdomancy. Thouvenel is even more explicit: Ritter's theory on rhabdomancy as a form of galvanism is nothing more than a copy of Thouvenel's ideas about the essential unity of rhabdomancy, animal magnetism and electricity24.

7. Gilbert's arguments against Ritter

Gilbert's own contribution to the debate was a strong attack against the enthusiastic reports published at the beginning of 1807. He criticized their unscrupulousness and their unfairness in glorifying Ritter's genius without mentioning that the experiments with Campetti did not afford new evidence to those of Italian research of the 1790s. He contested the ambiguity and the vagueness of the vocabulary: asserting that the forces are "not only mechanical" but even "dynamical" has no real meaning, because "dynamical" is a concept without reality. Are the forces physiological, psychological, electrical (galvanic) or chemical ones? The experiments are not able to answer these questions, the arguments are not strictly logical, the Naturphilosophie influences Ritter's methods and thus the words are like magic formulas25.

Gilbert acknowledged that the government's role in the events had modified the usual trial procedures. Moreover Gilbert judged negatively the intention to persuade the public that Ritter's enterprise was an epochal one. As we could say nowadays Gilbert's opinion was that Ritter's supporters were trying to create a scoop: «alle wahre Physiker finden es gewiss lobenswerth, dass man eine Sache, welche so problematisch ist, als die geheime Kraft der Metall- und Wasserfühler, neue Reihen von Versuchen zu erhalten. Doch durften sie mir nicht weniger bestimmen, wenn ich die Art, wie man bei diesen Versuchen verfahren ist, und mehr noch die vielsagenden und vielversprechenden Berichte, welche man erlassen hat, und die den Nichtkenner blenden, missbillige, und das um so mehr und offener sie missbillige, da es in der Geschichte der Naturlehre nicht an Beispielen fehlt, dass es Männern, die häufig verkündend und begeistert vor dem grossen Publicum auftraten, vorzüglich nur darum zu thun war, Erstaunen zu erregen, und sich in den Ruf eines überlegenen Genies zu setzen»26. Ritter's supporters were convinced by an irrational faith that in the future Ritter would have obtained exceptional results. But such an argument, according to Gilbert, had the same epistemic value of the astrologers' hopeful prophecies when they were still trustworthy27.

Gilbert's analysis was recalling a scientific methodology based on patience, spirit of collaboration, good arguments and convincing experiments. It was a harsh criticism against the romantic conception of the genius, whose scientific research was less indebted to precise and codified experimental conditions than to personal prestige and appeals of enthusiasm for future wonderful discoveries28. It was a severe criticism against the almost magic use of the word "galvanism", ambiguously defined as an intermediate force between electricity and animal magnetism. Instead of this casual meaning, exploited by regardless real evidence produced by research, Gilbert proposed the definition of galvanism as following from Volta's discoveries: «ist Galvanismus für uns nichts anderes, als Electricität, die auf eine eigenthümliche Weise, in einer höchst geringen Intensität, ununterbrochen erregt wird»; «durch entscheidende Versuche … (nicht durch ein vages Raisonnement, wie man es in der Medicin und in der Philosophie gewohnt ist)»29. The same argument applied to animal magnetism: either it was a new kind of electricity or it was absolutely not electricity. Certainly it was useless and absurd to reduce galvanism to animal magnetism, or to speak of analogies between the two forces without first explaining one of them independently from the other.

Gilbert tackled another crucial argument: the scientist. He thought of Ritter, who was a clever and good experimenter «dem es weder an Scharfsinn, noch an Geschicklichkeit im Experimentiren, noch an Geduld fehlt», and wondered how it had happened that diffused, yet never verified, ideas could lead to his commitment of truth. Gilbert admitted the importance of biases and presuppositions in the experimental method, as an experiment is always prepared in accordance with some ideas. Gilbert refused however that a scientist could already know what nature is before the beginning of the experiments: «zwar soll der Naturforscher nicht in das Blinde experimentiren, sondern die Natur nach einem wohl durchdachten Plane befragen; aber er muss deshalb keine vorgefasste Meinung haben, wie es in der Natur seyn müsse». Understanding nature, discriminating good from bad ideas and confronting them with nature was actually the purpose of an experiment. Making an experiment was useful if it put theories under pressure. It was useless and not scientific if it was looking for the confirmation of some philosophically founded ideas. Ritter's appeal to the highest conceptions of nature, such as «Dualismus, Polarität, Periodicität, Galvanismus, das allegemeine Triebrad in der belebten wie in der todten Natur, im Makrokosmus wie im Mikrokosmus», was unacceptable if it concealed truth instead of contributing to reveal it. Without rigorous and repeatable experiments science could fall under the domination of authorities: a revival of esotericism inspired by "the gods of physics" and their revelation to people waiting "at the doors of the temple"30.

Gilbert's criticism against Ritter became a general reflection on extent, limits and properties of scientific knowledge in comparison with other kinds of knowledge. Science appeared as characterized by radical scepticism against inconstant credulity, severity in the process of verification against self-confident acceptance of general and preconceived views and as progressiveness against stagnancy: «In wie fern unser Zeitalter diesen Vorwurf vedienen mag, ist mir unbekannt. Nur so viel weiss ich, dass noch zu keiner Zeit die Naturkunde mit einem solchen lebhaften Wetteifer von so viel vorzüglichen Mathematikern und experimentirenden Forschern betrieben worden ist, als jetzt, und dass es schwerlich irgend eine Zeit gegeben hat, in der sie mannigfaltigere Fortschritte gemacht  hätte»31.

8. Demarcation criteria and autonomy

It is difficult to evaluate how important Gilbert's criticism was in contributing to extinguish Ritter's prestige among the scientific community and within the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. Sociological conditions certainly played a role. Ritter's governmental sponsorship was essential to gain scientific support among the academicians and to obtain money for sustaining the experimental program with Campetti. But when Ritter slipped towards a weak position - not having achieved positive results and having lost governmental protection - he suffered a reaction which isolated him from the rest of the scientific community. His friends too dissociated themselves from him, as Seebeck pointed out as an external observer: «die Herren scheinen aber den Mut verloren zu haben, eine so verfängliche Sache ins Klare zu bringen»32. Moreover it was very important what happened at the end of 1807 as a consequence of the breaking news about Davy's electrochemical discoveries. Many scientists, and Ritter himself among them in Febraury 1808, were attracted to replicate Davy's experiments and consequently abandon any quarrel about Campetti. Gilbert's attack had certainly an important role in isolating Ritter, but even the news from England contributed to put aside the research on rhabdomancy.

Maybe the most relevant contribution of Gilbert's was his attempt to distinguish genuine science from pseudoscience. He was aware that it could be very difficult, especially in cases such as of Ritter's, where the rhetoric of experimentalism contributed to muddle the ideas of the scientific community about the value of the project. In any case Gilbert sketched a scheme of demarcation which is not surprising: on one side there is the galilean-newtonian tradition, which focuses on the mutual collaboration of concepts and experiments; on the other side there is pseudoscience, characterised by vagueness, verbosity, experiments grounded not on concepts but on words. On one side there is scepticism and critical mind, on the other credulity. Experimental rigour versus the manipulation of the procedures which prevent an effective test of the preconceived beliefs. Commitment to the scientific enterprise and devotion to the truth against the expectation of gaining power and prestige. Deepness, precision and severity contrasted by vainness of philosophy applied to natural research. Only genuine science is progressive while pseudoscience is always in the marsh of polemics and expectations of future conclusive results.

This counterposition of science and pseudoscience is not particularly original and yet it is useful to examine and compare it with other demarcation criteria, those stated by Seebeck in his letter to Hegel. Seebeck wrote without any theoretical intention: rather he wanted to understand a historical event - Davy's discoveries – and its meaning from the point of view of methodology, sociology and philosophy of science. He thought of the reasons why English science was more progressive than German science and wondered why Davy had succeeded in his electrochemical research while many German galvanists had not obtained such results. Seebeck's explanation enhanced the same aspects of scientific enterprise that Gilbert judged as negative: impudence and audacity - qualities shown by Davy the "Korsar von Engländer" - instead of scrupulousness and severity. Seebeck argued that the path to important discoveries had to be a new one and that it was a waste of time inquiring into subjects already investigated. He felt that it was meaningless to follow traditional prescriptions and methods. The modern reader's impression is unequivocal: it seems a sort of methodological anarchism ante litteram33.

Yet there is a common element between Gilbert's and Seebeck's stands: both acknowledge the necessity of a scientific research being autonomous from philosophy. Gilbert states explicitly that philosophy and science must be separate and independent: if some phenomena are not in the field of the Naturkunde but of psychology or human physiology, the methods of inquiry must be taken not from science but from philosophy or medicine. Seebeck's argument is richer in nuances, even because it is in a letter to a philosopher, yet it is essentially the same. He is aware that scientists and philosophers can collaborate and cross their lines of research, but he is convinced that their fields are different. Even if scientists can put philosophical questions looking for questions or raising doubts about scientific discoveries or asking about the nature of knowledge are typical philosophical activities.

In Germany in the first decade of the nineteenth century it was almost impossible to separate science from philosophy. Later things changed and Gilbert was an active promoter of this change. Ritter's research with Campetti was a paradigmatic example of inquiry within that scientific-philosophical tradition which is called Naturphilosophie. Campetti's trip to Munich meant more than spreading debates on rhabdomancy from Italy to Germany. Ritter's travel to Italy, meeting Amoretti and Volta, and his trip back to Munich with Campetti involved the transfer of the research on rhabdomancy from a physical and medical context to one dominated by the relation between philosophy and the sciences as defined by Schelling's Naturphilosophie. The transfer caused a radical transformation of rhabdomancy and its meaning34. In Italy in the 1780s it had been considered a class of phenomena reducible to animal magnetism and, since 1791, to animal electricity. In Munich it became the access key to the innermost secrets of nature and was considered paradigmatic to unveil the essential unity of nature. Understanding the consequences of this transfer makes clear the reason why not only Gilbert but even Amoretti and Thouvenel judged negatively Ritter's approach. They agreed that Ritter's research within the frame of philosophy would have perverted genuine scientific research. Ironically it was Ritter's support of the Naturphilosophie which stimulated the reflection on the autonomous role of science.


1  See Luca Ciancio, Autopsie della terra. Illuminismo e geologia in Alberto Fortis (1741-1803), Firenze, Olschki, 1995, pp. 217-230.

2  Schelling published Die Weltseele in 1798 (Von der Weltseele, eine Hypotese der höhern Physik zur Erklärung des allgemeinen Organismus, Hamburg, Perthes, 1798).

3  See Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Beweis, daß ein beständiger Galvanismus den Lebensproceß in dem Thierreich begleitet. Nebst neuen Versuchen und Bemerkungen über den Galvanismis, Weimar, Industrie-Comptoir, 1798 and Beweis, daß der Galvanismus auch in der anorganischen natur zugegen sey (1799), in Physisch-Chemische Abhandlungen in chronologischer Folge, vol. 1, Leipzig, Reclam, 1806, pp. 139-164.

4  Secondary literature on Ritter is too vast to mention here. I refer the reader to the recent most complete contribution about German science at the time of Ritter, which is also useful as bibliography: Stefano Poggi, Il genio e l'unità della natura. La scienza nella Germania romantica (1790-1830), Bologna, Il Mulino, 2000, chapters VII e IX.

5  J. W. Ritter, "Versuche und Bemerkungen über den Galvanismus", Magazin für den neuesten Zustand der Naturkunde mit Rücksicht auf die dazu gehörigen Hülfswissenschaften, hrsg. von J. H. Voigt, VI, 1803, pp. 97-129 and 181-215.

6  "Notice sur un nouvel instrument, dont Mr. Ritter, Membre de l’Académie de Munich s’est servi dans les expériences qu’il a récemment faites avec Mr. Campetti, et sur l’usage de cet instrument, auquel l’auteur a donné le nom de Balancier; extraite d’une lettre écrite par Mr. Ritter à Mr. Weiss, Prof. dans l’université de Leipsick, et communiquée par ce dernier aux Rédacteurs de ce Recueil", Bibliothèque britannique: Sciences et arts, 35, 1807, pp. 80-96.

7  Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände, n. 26, 30 Januar 1807. Reprinted in Adolph Ferdinand Gehlen's periodical: "Nachrichten von den neuern, durch Francesco Campetti wieder rege gewordenen Versuchen über Pendel, Baguette", Journal für die Chemie, Physik, und Mineralogie, 4, 1807, pp. 98-104.

8  "Auszug aus einigen Briefen des Herrn Prof. Maréchaux", Annalen der Physik, 25, 1807, p. 340.

9  "Auszug aus einigen Briefen des Herrn Prof. Maréchaux", Annalen der Physik, 25, 1807, p. 342.

10  "Auszug aus einigen Briefen des Herrn Prof. Maréchaux", Annalen der Physik, 25, 1807, pp. 342-344.

11  Intelligenzblatt der Jenaischen almgemeinen Literatur Zeitung, n. 36, 9 Mai 1807. Reprinted in Gehlen's periodical: "Nachrichten von den neuern, durch Francesco Campetti wieder rege gewordenen Versuchen über Pendel, Baguette", Journal für die Chemie, Physik, und Mineralogie, 4, 1807, pp. 104-114.

12  "Notice sur un nouvel instrument, dont Mr. Ritter, Membre de l’Académie de Munich s’est servi dans les expériences qu’il a récemment faites avec Mr. Campetti, et sur l’usage de cet instrument, auquel l’auteur a donné le nom de Balancier; extraite d’une lettre écrite par Mr. Ritter à Mr. Weiss, Prof. dans l’université de Leipsick, et communiquée par ce dernier aux Rédacteurs de ce Recueil", Bibliothèque britannique: Sciences et arts, 35, 1807, pp. 80-96 (citations from pp. 95-96).

13  "Auszug aus einem Briefe des Herrn Professors Maréchaux", Annalen der Physik, 26, 1807, p. 237.

14  "Nachrichten von den neuern, durch Francesco Campetti wieder rege gewordenen Versuchen über Pendel, Baguette", Journal für die Chemie, Physik, und Mineralogie, 4, 1807, pp. 111-112.

15  Ritter's assert was mentioned by Seebeck in a letter to Hegel on 13 March 1808: see Johannes Hoffmeister (Hrsg.), Briefe von und an Hegel, 3, Hamburg, Meiner 1952-54, Bd. 1, p. 221

16  "Etwas über die hier angestellten Versuche mit Campetti, vom Professor Maréchaux in München (In Bezug auf eine Note des Herrn Gehlen)", Annalen der Physik, 27, 1807, pp. 33-40; citations from pp. 37-38.

17  Humphry Davy, "Ueber die chemischen Wirkungen der Elektricität", Annalen der Physik, 28, 1808, pp. 1-43, 161-202.

18  Seebeck to Hegel, 13 March 1808: «in München sind die Davy’schen Entdeckungen schon am 12. Dec. bekannt gewesen, doch erst den 18ten Febr. hat Ritter darüber Versuche angestellt» (Johannes Hoffmeister (Hrsg.), Briefe von und an Hegel, 3, Hamburg, Meiner 1952-54, Bd. 1, p. 221).

19  "Einige kritische Aufsätze über die in München wieder eneuerten Versuche mit Schwefelkies-Pendeln,Wünschelruthen, u. d. m.", Annalen der Physik, 26, 1807, pp. 369-449, 27, 1807, pp. 1-85 e 158-220. "Einige Zusätze und Verbesserungen zu diesem und dem vorigen Bande der Annalen, besonders die kritischen Aufsätze über die wieder erneuerten Versuche mit dem Wünschelruthe und dem Schwefelkiess-Pendel betreffend", Annalen der Physik, 27, 1807, pp. 477-488.

20  Seebeck to Hegel, 13 marzo 1808, cit., p. 220. About the negative role of philosophy: «Haben wir, worüber nur solche ketzerischen Philosophen sich in Zweifeln befinden können, in dieser Zeit unendlich viel wichtigere Dinge entdeckt und zum Teil auch offenbart, die wir mit allen Kräften des Leibes und der Seele nun auch zu erhärten gesonnen sind».

21  "Zusatz, einige von den Herren Winterl und Bucholz angestellte Versuche mit dem Schwefelkies-Pendel betreffend", in "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 26, 1807, pp. 424-428. "Versuch einer aus mechanischen Ursachen hergeleiteten Erklärung der Schwingungen, welche ein Würfel von Schwefelkies, oder ein Stück jedes beliebigen Metalles, über Metallplatten und verschiedenen andern Körpern macht, wenn er, an einem seinem Zwirnsfaden aufgehängt, mit der Hand frei darüber gehalten wird", in "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 27, 1807, pp. 41-55

22  "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 26, 1807, pp. 369-380.

23  "Einiges zur Geschichte der Wünschelruthe und der frühern Wundermänner, die durch sie berüchtigt worden sind, grossen Theils nach dem Freiherrn v. Aretin", in "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 27, 1807, pp. 158-220. See Chr. Freiherr von Aretin, Beiträge zur litterarischen Geschichte der Wünschelruthe, München, 1807.

24  "Reclamationen für Hrn. Amoretti u. den Dr. Thouvenel, gegen Herrn Akademicus Ritter, veranlasst durch dessen Versuche mit Wünschelruthen und Pendeln, und etwas von ihrem neuesten Werke über die unterirdische Electrometrie", in "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 27, 1807, pp. 56-71.

25  "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 26, 1807, pp. 425-26 e 27, 1807, pp. 18-19: «ist diese dynamische Weise für uns ein Begriff ohne Realität».

26  "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 27, 1807, pp. 15-17.

27  "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 26, 1807, pp. 428 e 449.

28  "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 26, 1807, pp. 381-399.

29  "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 27, 1807, p. 25.

30  "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 27, 1807, pp. 27-31: «Sollen aber die übrigen Naturforscher schweigen, wenn jene von ihnen fordern, ihre Geleiterinnen in demselben Lichte zu sehen, wie sie, und ihnen auf das Wort zu glauben, schon stünden sie an der Schwelle des Tempels, aus den sie uns bald die wahren Götter der Physik hervor führen werden, bei deren Erscheinen das Alte untergehen und die Herrschaft eines bessern Neuen beginnen müsse».

31  "Einige kritische Aufsätze…" cit., 27, 1807, p. 32.

32  Seebeck to Hegel, 13 marzo 1808. See Johannes Hoffmeister (Hrsg.), Briefe von und an Hegel, 3, Hamburg, Meiner 1952-54, Bd. 1, p. 221.

33  Seebeck a Hegel, 13 marzo 1808, cit. p. 220.

34  On the concept of "transfer" see at least: Michel Espagne - Michaël Werner, "La construction d’une référence culturelle allemande en France. Genèse et histoire (1750-1914)", Annales ESC, n. 4, 1987, pp. 969-992, and Michel Espagne - Michaël Werner (eds.), Transferts. Les relations interculturelles dans l'espace franco-allemand (XVIIIe et XIXe siècles), Paris, Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1988.


Cet article analyse la controverse autour des expériences conduites à Munich entre 1806 et 1807 par Johann Wilhelm Ritter avec le rhabdomancien Francesco Campetti. L’insistance de Ritter à ignorer l’absence de résultats expérimentaux en faveur de ses idées fut contredite par certains savants et surtout par l’éditeur des Annalen der Physik, Ludwig Gilbert. La reconstruction de la controverse donne la possibilité d’analyser les idées philosophiques des protagonistes – le même Gilbert et Thomas Seebeck entre autres – et de remonter à la genèse de leur intérêt à réviser les méthodes et les buts de la science. Il ne s’agissait pas seulement de soucis d’ordre philosophique, mais aussi d’évaluer la position de la science allemande en Europe pour comprendre si avec ce genre de recherches elle risquait d’être marginalisée au lieu de progresser.


This paper follows the controversy around Johann Wilhelm Ritter’s experiments with the Italian rhabdomancer Francesco Campetti held in Munich in 1806 and 1807. Ritter’s stubborn resolve to ignore the lack of the conclusive experimental results for his views was fiercely attacked by some scientists and above all by the editor of the Annalen der Physik, Ludwig Wilhelm Gilbert. The reconstruction of the controversy offers the opportunity to analyse some philosophical notions of the protagonists – Gilbert himself and Thomas Seebeck among the others – and to trace the genesis of their interest in revising methods and aims of science. It was not only a methodological and philosophical concern: it also put forth the question of the position of German science in Europe, whether it was being marginalized or advanced.

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MARCO SEGALA, «An Italian in Bavaria: Campetti, Ritter and the destiny of science in Germany», Item [En ligne],
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Notice bibliographique

Marco Segala, “An Italian in Bavaria: Campetti, Ritter and the destiny of science in Germany”, in Ferdinando Abbri, Marco Segala (eds.), The Routes of Learning. Italy and Europe in the Modern Age, Florence, Olschki, 2003, pp. 101-118 (p. )

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