Revolutionary Travel Writer
Georg Forster’s Passionate Beginnings

"Without experience... We can possess no knowledge of the world."

Johann George Adam Forster was born on November 27, 1754, in Nassenhuben, a village near Danzig, the first-born son of Johann Reinhold Forster and his wife Justina Elisabeth, née Nicolai; three brothers and four sisters followed. He was called “George” until the family moved to Germany, at which point he became “Georg.” In 1765 his father took him along on a journey of several months to the Volga, on behalf of the Russian empress Catherine the Great. In 1766 father and son moved to England, where Rein-hold Forster accepted a position at the Warrington Academy. His family joined him there. In 1772 Reinhold Forster was invited to accompany James Cook on his second expedition around the world. Georg went with him.


The Greek historian Herodotus, at the beginning of the second book of his Histories, recounts a remarkable experiment. The Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus wanted to know which people were older, the Egyptians or the Phrygians. So he arranged for two newborns who were selected at random to be placed in the care of a shepherd. From that point on, the children were kept isolated; their only companions were goats, so that they could get milk. Left on their own in this manner, the children, it was thought, would develop without external influence. The children’s first word would thus reveal whether the Egyptian or the Phrygian people were older. It so happened that one day the shepherd heard the two children—now two years old—calling out, with outstretched hands, bekos, the Phrygian word for bread. With this it became apparent to the Egyptian Pharaoh that the Phrygians’ culture surpassed his own in venerability. The reliability of this experiment, as Herodotus’s account suggests, stemmed from the inconvenient outcome for the Egyptians.

In this case, it is the research design that is important. Isolating the test subjects from all social ties was underscored by agrarian simplicity, because what could be learned from goats? Cultural stimuli were minimized to such an extent that the children would be able to develop from a natural state. The hope was that an immediacy would emerge from the two children if they were not encumbered by education. This model of creating an ideal situation for unhampered findings proved fascinating for modern science, because among the most peculiar findings of natural science to date was the insight that knowledge can make one blind. Modern science virtually began with a motion for censure against the traditional knowledge base. There was good reason for this position: in 1492 Columbus pushed the limits of the known world; in 1543 Copernicus displaced the earth from the center of the planetary system; in 1610 Galileo first pointed his telescope at the night sky, and the number of known stars grew immeasurably. The ancients’ knowledge, passed down over generations, was being proved false. The suspicion was becoming palpable that the tomes in the libraries were full of nonsense about the world.

Ever since, all knowledge has borne the caveat that we operate with “world models” and cultivate a skeptical caution toward the latest truths and homogeneous worldviews. Above all, though, tradition has forfeited its aura of normativity. The history of science that has been handed down seems like a sequence of errors and corrections. The sheer willingness to join issue with experience as the basis for all knowledge owes its triumph to modern science. The abundance of existing knowledge can be a hindrance, however, to the acquisition of experience. It stands in the way of comprehending that which is new. What, though, if one could shelve the knowledge that has been handed down, refute it, neutralize it? No thought experiment has been more fascinating to modern thinkers than the premise of a possible tabula rasa, a new beginning without preconceptions. Since Plato’s dialog Meno, in which Socrates demonstrates a slave’s capability for mathematical learning through skillful questioning, it had been accepted that the human mind has innate ideas that need only to be roused. In the seventeenth century, this was the departure point for thinkers like John Locke, for whom the human mind resembled a blank slate, free of all ideas.

Surrounded by books since childhood, Forster wanted with all his heart to remedy the limitations of his unsystematic education and always give preference to the freshness of immediate impressions over reflection.

It is only from impressions, as David Hume formulated it in the eighteenth century, that our ideas are derived. Without experience, however, we can possess no knowledge of the world. Forster expressed this same view. He consistently defended the advantage of experience over mere ideas, which he mistrusted because, in his view, “for there to be innate ideas” was not possible. Indeed, humankind has command only over “inherited organizations and inherited susceptibility.” At a prominent opportunity, during the inaugural lecture of his professorship in Vilna in 1784, Forster made his position public, provoking the clergy in attendance: “Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, and Jesuits were present when I demonstrated yesterday,” he wrote in a letter to his publisher, Johann Karl Philipp Spener, “that mankind has no innate ideas, that its mind is material, that the whole of reason rests on received sensory impressions.”

It would almost seem as if nature itself engaged in an experiment when it brought Georg Forster into the world on November 27, 1754, in a remote village near Danzig. Nassenhuben, as the scattered group of farmsteads was called—Mokry Dwór in Polish—seemed isolated enough to keep the talent he was blessed with from the ballast of education. His father, Johann Reinhold Forster, was of English descent, and he attended secondary school in Berlin, studied in Halle an der Salle, and went to lectures by Christian Wolff. Despite all his ambitions, reflected by his library of twenty-five hundred scientific works, issued in wood and copperplate, he became a Lutheran pastor in the provinces, without any prospect of what one might call a career. His son Georg did not attend school in Nassenhuben. He later missed the opportunity to complete his university studies, too, and thus lacked a proper education. Reinhold Forster taught Georg, but Reinhold was a dogmatic man with a tendency to quarrel.

That he might sail around the world with James Cook was something Georg scarcely could have imagined as he grew up in his parents’ cloistered home. The particular appeal of his observations during his three-year exploration of the world stems from the fact that he was highly gifted but had not been shaped by any educational canon that might have guided or constrained him in his observations of new and strange things. In that respect he was uneducated but tremendously capable. He himself did not consider it a flaw that he lacked the systematic outline of knowledge: “There is no wisdom from education; wisdom is merely the child of one’s own experience,” he later said. He was a thoroughly “sensual person,” so much so that his reflections, theories, and philosophical approaches routinely fell short of the force of his descriptions of nature. “Nature is all the world to me,” he professed.

Nevertheless, he certainly saw the limits to his powers of reflection. He “neither read nor heard logic, nor metaphysics, nor natural law” and admitted to Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, “Truthfully all that I know is not much more than mere feeling.” “My complaint was always,” he disclosed to Johann Gottfried Herder, “that I was yoked too soon, that I was forced to work when I still should have been learning.” Such comments imply that the incredible liveliness of his descriptions stems precisely from the unspoiled quality of his immediate experience, which was virtually without prejudice, at least in intention. Forster proved himself, even in the most bewildering experiences, to be open-minded and unbiased. From Heinrich Heine comes the bon mot “Nature wanted to see how she looked, and she created Goethe.” We might also say, when nature wanted to be sensitively described in all her variety, she created Forster.

To be sure, this claim is unfair to the others who have explored the world and discovered nature. But the most significant German-language naturalist after Forster, Alexander von Humboldt, learned from Forster how to describe nature: not to dwell on outer appearances alone, but to portray how those appearances are reflected in the interiority of humankind. Charles Darwin, in turn, admired Humboldt, particularly the chronicle of his journey to the tropical regions of the new world. As if Forster had taken heed of the terms by which he was contracted in nature’s experiment, he later wrote:

Truly, it is from darkness that man comes into the world. His soul is as naked as his body; he is born without knowledge, as he is without defenses. Bringing only a capacity for suffering into the world, he can only receive impressions of his external circumstances and allow his sense organs to be touched. The light shines long in front of him before he is illuminated by it. In the beginning he receives everything from nature and gives her nothing in return. As soon as his senses have attained greater sharpness, however, as soon as he can draw a comparison between his feelings, he goes into the wide world with his views; he sets his own terms, he maintains them, expanding them and making connections between them.

Forster conceived of himself as a blank slate, willing to accept all that nature dictated to him by impression. He upheld the advantage of life and experience over theory. “Letters, formulae, and conclusions,” he argued, “will never prevail over that dark and mighty drive in the young sprout to investigate through his own actions the properties of things and to ascend by experience into the wisdom of life.” Often it was “precisely this systematic knowledge which bars an otherwise fine mind from grasping good ideas.” From childhood, Forster was familiar with Carl von Linné’s system of botanical and zoological taxonomy, and he expressly recognized its defining achievement of a scientific classification of nature. Increasingly, though, the system proved to be a restrictive “framework,” into which Linné “fitted the things of nature.”

To Forster, every system that nature seeks to bring to order is only of provisional value, because “as soon as the range of vision is expanded and the viewpoint shifted,” the systematic definition becomes “one-sided and half true.” All systems follow from experience. For Forster, the “impartial observer” is the source of natural classification, not the definition that purports to be able to guide experience. He wants “to eavesdrop” on nature, to “only record facts,” then “carefully draw conclusions,” thereby “banishing all exuberant hypotheses back into the narrow room” in which they are conceived by disallowing immediate experience. In light of nature’s exuberance, Forster is seen as being such an opponent of systems that he is distrustful of the immobilizing achievement of nomenclature: “I have adopted no particular system,” he writes in A Voyage round the World. Humankind is generally inclined “more to action than to speculation” in the world and influenced “more by feeling than by abstraction.”

The sheer willingness to join issue with experience as the basis for all knowledge owes its triumph to modern science.

Nevertheless, if there is a formative influence on the young Forster that can be read in A Voyage round the World, it is most likely that of the Scottish school, as represented by authors like David Hume, Henry Home, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson. Ludwig Uhlig thoroughly examined Forster’s “prior understanding” of this school and singles it out as being decisive for his reflection on the circumnavigation of the world. Although it cannot be dismissed, it also should not be overstated. Uhlig himself emphasizes that Forster’s reflections in A Voyage round the World are “always derived from observations and do not, in turn, color the chronicle.” Surrounded by books since childhood, Forster wanted with all his heart to remedy the limitations of his unsystematic education and always give preference to the freshness of immediate impressions over reflection.

Even if the conditions of Forster’s upbringing did not seem favorable, sometimes “eccentricity” is a “condition without which the highest point in the education of certain assets cannot be achieved, whereas a broadly dispersed balance of strengths is present throughout the bounds of mediocrity.” If Forster’s remarks about the psychological conditions for the possibility of great character may be read geographically, then, Nassenhuben—this backwater in what was then the Prussian part of Poland—was eccentric enough to draw out Forster’s gift for observation as a defining trait. Or, to put it another way, it was boring enough to awaken an irrepressible appetite for the world.

Georg Forster

Reprinted with permission from The University of Chicago Press. Georg Forster: Voyager, Naturalist, Revolutionary by Jürgen Goldstein, translated by Anne Janusch, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by The University of Chicago. Originally published as Georg Forster. Zwischen Freiheit und Naturgewalt by Jürgen Goldstein. © Matthes & Seitz Berlin Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Berlin 2015. All rights reserved.

Jürgen Goldstein
Jürgen Goldstein
Jürgen Goldstein is full professor of philosophy at the University Koblenz-Landau.

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