The Correspondence of the Natural Philosopher Henrik Steffens (1773-1845)

A scientific indexing and virtual consolidation

Korrespondenz Henrik  Steffens (1773-1845)

Project Management: Dr Thomas Burch  (Universität Trier - Trier Center for Digital Humanities (TCDH)) · Dr. Marit Bergner · Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Nordeuropa-Institut

Sponsors: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)

Running time: -

Contact person (TCDH): Dr Thomas Burch


Marit Bergner: Henrich Steffens. Ein politischer Professor in Umbruchzeiten 1806–1819. Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang Verlag 2016.  

Burch,  Thomas  (zus.  mit  Claudia  Bamberg):  Inventarisieren,  Analysieren  und Archivieren vernetzt. Digitalisierung und Edition größerer Briefkorpora mit der virtuellen Editionsplattform »Forschungsnetzwerk und Datenbanksystem (FuD)«. In: Hanna Delf von Wolzogen, Rainer Falk (Hgg.): Fontanes Briefe ediert. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2014, S. 265–282.

Research Area: Software Systems and Research Infrastructure, Digital Edition and Lexicography

Keywords: Letters, Virtual Reconstruction of dislocated Stocks, “born digital”, correspSearch, 18th century


Born in Norway, educated in Denmark, and teaching as a Prussian scholar in Halle, Breslau, and Berlin, the natural philosopher Henrik Steffens (1773-1845) - who is almost forgotten today - is one of the central figures in German and European intellectual and university history. In Scandinavia, he occupies a central role in the history of literature and philosophy. Steffens shaped the speculative direction of natural philosophy and, in unison with Schelling, was an authoritative representative of the principle of the unity of nature and spirit. His extensive work is significant beyond philosophy for the historical sciences, theology, and literary studies: thus, Steffens' writing "On the Idea of Universities" (1809) is one of the most important documents on the modern research university, along with the writings of Fichte, Schleiermacher, and Wilhelm von Humboldt. In the era of early Prussian nation-building, Steffens was a convinced cosmopolitan and member of a European intellectual community. His correspondence not only reflects this sense of Europe - his network included professors and generals, singers and actors, nobles and clergy in several European countries - but also represents an important source for the history of science. Steffens's position as a Scandinavian scholar in Prussia gave him a special mediating role among the scientists of his time. Contacts in the three Scandinavian countries and knowledge of the Danish and German languages enabled him to transfer knowledge across national borders.

Virtual networking of Henrik Steffens' correspondence

The correspondence of Henrik Steffens, which has so far only been published in fragments, is a central source corpus for the history of natural philosophy and knowledge networking in the early 19th century and at the same time documents the socio-political discourses of his time. To encourage and facilitate further research on Steffens, scholarly indexing of his letters and unpublished handwritten notes, which are scattered throughout Europe in various estates and administrative files, is essential. There is no Henrik Steffens estate - the aim is therefore not only to make his correspondence accessible, but also to bring it together digitally.

The intention is to systematically record and index the hitherto known corpus of 600 letters written by Henrik Steffens in German and Danish for the first time and to bring them together in a digital collection. The project is intended as a pilot project for a larger follow-up project and focuses on the inventory and virtual networking of the letters located in over 40 European archives and libraries. This networking and collection serves as a basis for further interdisciplinary research and enables quick and easy source research, even without prior knowledge of Henrik Steffens. The research data obtained will be published in two ways and subsequently not only made available to the DFG project correspSearch, but also linked to the Gemeinsame Normdatei (GND).

The technically oriented work packages

A digital portal in the form of an online publication environment is to be provided. Research data from the FuD database will be made accessible, so that researchers will be able to access an overview of Steffens' complete correspondence as well as detailed information on each individual letter and its recipient. Each letter is presented with the metadata collected for it, i.e. visual and content characteristics, and assigned to the institution owning it. Through suitable forms of presentation, the user receives an overview of Steffens' correspondence partners and their whereabouts, as well as thematic keywords for further searches. This minimizes the research effort for future research projects, since this database not only provides information about the content, but also about the owning institution of each autograph in a user-friendly way. For the implementation of the publication environment, the infrastructure already used in the above-mentioned projects as well as the developed online modules will be reused and adapted according to project-specific requirements. Thus, the captured letter metadata can be exported via the interface already integrated in FuD in the "Correspondence Metadata Interchange Format" (CMIF29) and made available for indexing in correspSearch.

Copyright: “Henrik Steffens to Unknown, January 14, 1836”
Private Collection: Loose Leaves Collection


Frank Queens
E-mail: queensatuni-trier [dot] de
Phone: +49 651 201-2935