Georg Christoph Lichtenberg  

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"The book which most deserved to be banned would be a catalogue of banned books."

"The proof that man is the noblest of all creatures is that no other creature has ever denied it."

"A knife without a blade, for which the handle is missing"

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Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1 July 1742 – 24 February 1799) was a German scientist, satirist, and Anglophile. As a scientist, he was the first to hold a professorship explicitly dedicated to experimental physics in Germany. Today, he is remembered for his posthumously published notebooks, which he himself called Sudelbücher, a description modeled on the English bookkeeping term "scrapbooks", and for his discovery of the strange tree-like patterns now called Lichtenberg figures.

Waste books

The "waste books" (Lichtenberg rendered it roughly as Sudelbücher in German) are the notebooks he kept from his student days until the end of his life. Each volume was accorded a letter of the alphabet from A, which begun in 1765, to L, which broke off at Lichtenberg's death in 1799.

These notebooks first became known to the world after the man's death, when the first and second editions of Lichtenbergs Vermischte Schriften (1800-06 and 1844-53) were published by his sons and brothers. Since the initial publications, however, notebooks G and H, and most of notebook K, were destroyed or disappeared. Those missing parts are believed to contain sensitive materials. The manuscripts of the remaining notebooks are now preserved in Göttingen University.

The notebooks contain quotations that struck Lichtenberg, titles of books to read, autobiographical sketches, and short or long reflections. It is those reflections that help Lichtenberg earn his posthumous fame. Today he is regarded as one of the best aphorists in the Western intellectual history.

Some scholars have attempted to distil a system of thought out of Lichtenberg's scattered musings. However, Lichtenberg was not a professional philosopher, and had no need to present, or to have, any consistent philosophy.

The waste books nevertheless reveal a critical and analytical way of thinking and emphasize on experimental evidence in physics, through which he became one of the early founders and advocates of modern scientific methodology.

The more experience and experiments are accumulated during the exploration of nature, the more faltering its theories become. It is always good though not to abandon them instantly. For every hypothesis which used to be good at least serves the purpose of duly summarizing and keeping all phenomena until its own time. One should lay down the conflicting experience separately, until it has accumulated sufficiently to justify the efforts necessary to edifice a new theory. (Lichtenberg: waste book JII/1602)

The reflections also include keen observations on human nature, à la the 17th-century French moralists.

Schopenhauer admired Lichtenberg for what he had written in his notebooks greatly. He called Lichtenberg one of those who "think ... for their own instruction", who are "genuine thinkers for themselves in both senses of the words". Other admirers of Lichtenberg's notebooks include Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein. Lichtenberg is not read by many outside Germany. Leo Tolstoy held Lichtenberg's writings in high esteem, expressing his perplexity of "why the Germans of the present day neglect this writer so much." (Carl Brinitzer, trans. Bernard Smith, A Reasonable Rebel, New York: Macmillan, 1960, p. 194.) The Chinese scholar and wit Qian Zhongshu quotes the Waste books in his works several times. A crater on the Moon, Crater Lichtenberg, has been named in his honour.

Selected bibliography

Works published during his lifetime

  • Briefe aus England, 1776–78
  • Über Physiognomik, wider die Physiognomen, 1778
  • Göttingisches Magazin der Wissenschaften und Litteratur, 1780–85 (ed. by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Georg Forster)
  • Über die Pronunciation der Schöpse des alten Griechenlandes, 1782
  • Ausführliche Erklärung der Hogarthischen Kupferstiche, 1794–1799

Complete works in German

  • Schriften und Briefe, 1968–72 (4 vols., ed. by Wolfgang Promies)

English translations

  • The Lichtenberg Reader, 1959 (trans. and ed. by Franz H. Mautner and Henry Hatfield)
  • The World of Hogarth. Lichtenberg's Commentaries on Hogarth's Engravings, 1966 (trans. by Innes and Gustav Herdan)
  • Hogarth on High Life. The Marriage à la Mode Series, from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's Commentaries, 1970 (trans. and ed. by Arthur S. Wensinger and W. B. Coley)
  • Aphorisms, 1990 (trans. with an introduction and notes by R. J. Hollingdale), ISBN 0-14-044519-6, reprinted as The Waste Books, 2000, ISBN 9780940322509

See also

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