|Author||Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Steven Tester|
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Dennis J. Schmidt, editor
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by
Published by State University of New York Press, Albany
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph, 1742–1799.
[Sudelb¸cher. English. Selections]
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg : philosophical writings, selected from the Waste
books / translated, edited, and with an introduction by Steven Tester.
p. cm. — (SUNY series in contemporary Continental philosophy)
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 978-1-4384-4197-9 (hardcover : alk. paper)
1. Philosophy. I. Tester, Steven. II. Title. III. Title: Philosophical writings,
selected from the Waste books.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
We can use Lichtenberg’s writings as the most wonderful divining rod:
where he makes a joke, there a problem lies hidden.
—Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Note on the Edition, Text, and Translation
Philosophical Writings Selected
from the Waste Books
Notebook A: 1765–1770
Κέρας Ἀμαλθείας: 1765–1772
Notebook B: 1768–1771
Notebook C: 1772–1773
Notebook D: 1773–1775
Notebook E: 1775–1776
Notebook F: 1776–1779
Notebook G: 1779–1783
Notebook H: 1784–1788
Golden Notebook: Winter 1789
Notebook J: 1789–1793
Notebook K: 1793–1796
Notebook L: 1796–1799
I am very grateful for the advice and assistance of my professors at Northwestern University: Peter Fenves, for his mentorship and insightful comments on the translations and introduction; Rachel Zuckert, for her excellent
comments on various drafts of the introduction; and Samuel Weber, for
his thoughtful reflections on the very notion of translation. The comments
of Rolf-Peter Horstmann and the participants in his weekly colloquium at
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin have also been invaluable for my understanding of Lichtenberg’s place within eighteenth-century German philosophy. The translations and introduction have also benefited from my
discussions with Alfred Nordmann and other members of the LichtenbergGesellschaft and from an anonymous referee’s helpful comments. For his
assistance with proofreading and translating a few difficult passages, I am
also indebted to Karsten Schoellner. For any errors or omissions in the
text, I am of course solely responsible. The Niedersächsische Staats- und
Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen and Dr. Helmut Rohlfing have also been
kind enough to grant permission to use an image from Lichtenberg’s notebooks, containing remark A 136, for the cover of this edition. The editorial staff at State University of New York Press has also been a pleasure to
work with and a great help in preparing this edition for publication. This
translation and related research would not have been possible without the
generous support of the Fulbright program, Northwestern University, the
Rolf und Ursula Schneider-Stiftung of the Herzog August Bibliothek, and
the Steuben-Schurz-Gesellschaft during the academic year 2008–09. I would
also like to thank my parents and brother for their support, my wife, Karen,
for her encouragement, and my daughter, Vivian, for her smiles.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg born July 1 in Ober-Ramstadt to
Johann Conrad Lichtenberg and Henriette Katharina (Eckhardt)
as the youngest of seventeen children.
1752–61 Attended Därmstadter Pädigogium.
Matriculation at Georg-August University in Göttingen, where
he studied mathematics and physics under Abraham Gotthelf
Kästner until 1767.
Earliest preserved entries in his Waste Books.
Astronomical work at the Göttingen observatorium under Kästner. Publishes “Attempt at a Natural History of Bad Poets, Particularly the Germans” and “On the Uses Mathematics Can
Provide for a Bel Esprit.”
Finishes studies at Georg-August University.
Begins Waste Book B (1768–1771).
March–May, first trip to England. Appointed professor extraordinarius. Inaugural paper entitled “Examination of Some Methods for Resolving a Certain Difficulty in the Calculation of
Probability in Games of Chance,” on the Petersburg Problem.
Timorus, “Some Experiments with Polyps,” “On Comets.”
1774–75 Elected to Royal Society of Sciences in Göttingen. Second visit
to England. Edits and annotates Tobias Meyer’s Opera Inedita
containing papers on astronomy, color theory, and magnetism.
Begins Waste Book F. “Observationes astronomicae per annum
1772 et 1773 ad situm Hannoverae, Osnabrugi et Stadae determinandum institutae.”
Discovers Lichtenberg Figures. Designates electricity with the
mathematical symbols + and –. Becomes editor of the Göttingen
Begins his renowned lectures on experimental physics at
Georg-August University. “On Physiognomy; Against the
Begins editing Göttingen Magazine for Science and Literature with
Georg Forster. Continues research on electricity.
Address to Academy of Sciences entitled “Observationes super
dubiis quibusdam circa aptitudinem vulgatae mensurae sortis.”
Publishes “Orbis Pictus” and “A Most Gracious Epistle from the
Earth to the Moon.”
“On the Pronunciation of the Sheep of Ancient Greece in Comparison with Their Newer Brothers on the Elbe: Or, on Beh Beh
and Bäh Bäh.”
Elected to Society of Natural Scientists in Halle. “On Attempts
Recently Undertaken in France to Cause Hollow Bodies to Rise
in the Air,” “Miscellaneous Thoughts on Aerostatic Machines.”
Review of Joseph Priestley’s Experiments and Observations Relating to Various Branches of Natural Philosophy with a Continuation
of the Observations on Air (1781).
Research on aerostatic machines, balloons, and gases. Visit from
Goethe. “Fragment on Tails,” “A Contribution to Physiognomical Fragments,” “Orbis Pictus.”
Edits third edition of Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben’s Foundations of the Natural Sciences. Three subsequent editions appear
in 1787, 1791, and 1794. Most likely begins Waste Book H.
“On Hogarth’s Engravings.”
“Continuation of Observations on the Cosmos,” “On Comets.”
Begins Waste Book K (1793–1796). Correspondence with
Goethe on the color theory (1792–1796). Elected to Royal
Society in London.
Beginning of the appearance of “Commentaries on Hogarth’s Engravings.” Elected to Royal Academy of Sciences St.
“Geological Fantasies” and “Franklin’s Geogony.”
Waste Book L (1796–1799). Elected member of the Society of
Natural Scientists in Jena. “Does the Moon Rotate on Its Axis?”
Elected to Scientific Society of Holland. “I Wish You Were on
the Blocksberg,” “A Dream Like Many Dreams.”
Lichtenberg dies on February 24 and is buried on February 28.
Note on the Edition, Text,
The texts that have come to be known as the Sudelbücher (Waste Books)
consist of fifteen notebooks kept by Lichtenberg from 1765 until his death
in 1799. Beginning with A, which consists of five notebooks, each volume
was designated by Lichtenberg himself with a letter of the alphabet up to
L. Notebooks G and H were lost in the nineteenth century; notebook K
was for the most part destroyed; and L is incomplete. The remarks in this
State University of New York Press edition were selected from volumes
1 and 2 of the most recent edition of Lichtenberg’s works, Schriften und
Briefe, edited by Wolfgang Promies (München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1968–),
and follow the numbering of the Promies edition. The Albert Leitzmann
edition of the Waste Books, Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs Aphorismen: Nach
den Handschriften (Berlin: Behr, 1902–1908) follows a different numbering scheme. Readers who wish to research older secondary sources that
follow the numbering of the Leitzmann edition will find the concordance
in the Promies edition helpful. Portions of notebooks G, H, and K were
reconstructed by Promies from texts published in the first (1800–1806)
and second (1844–1853) editions of Lichtenberg’s Vermischte Schriften. The
“Golden Notebook,” refers to a notebook designated by Promies as the Goldpapierheft (GH) because of its gold-colored binding. Lichtenberg also kept a
notebook of excerpts and commentaries on his readings, to which he gave
the title Κέρας Ἀμαλθείας, meaning “horn of Amaltheia” or “cornucopia”;
this notebook has since been designated by Promies as KA.
In this edition, I have focused on presenting the reader with a selection
of Lichtenberg’s writings that will expand our understanding of Lichtenberg’s
philosophical thinking and his relation to the history of philosophy.
Note on the Edition, Text, and Translation
Many of Lichtenberg’s remarks appear here in English for the first time.
In my translations, I have consulted a number of previous translations:
R. J. Hollingdale, The Waste Books (New York: NYRB Classics, 2000); F.
Mautner and H. Hatfield, The Lichtenberg Reader (Boston: Beacon, 1959);
J. P. Stern, Lichtenberg: A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions; Reconstructed from
his Aphorisms and Reflections (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959);
and Normann Alliston, The Reflections of Lichtenberg (Swan Sonnenschein,
1908). At times, we are in agreement regarding the translation of a passage.
Each has influenced my translation in its own way, so I am greatly indebted
to them. I am also indebted to the Wolfgang Promies edition of Lichtenberg’s
Schriften und Briefe for its extensive notes, which have formed the basis for
many of my own critical notes.
Lichtenberg’s writings in his notebooks are often not punctuated
or poorly punctuated, so in order to facilitate readability I have inserted
appropriate punctuation. Where possible, I have retained Lichtenberg’s
technical vocabulary but have also added or removed minor words and
altered syntax for clarification. Where I have not translated Lichtenberg’s
entire remark, I indicate this with bracketed ellipses [. . .]. As might be
expected of texts from the eighteenth century, most of Lichtenberg’s gender
references are male, and he almost exclusively uses the male pronoun. I
have not attempted to alter this. Where the grammar of Lichtenberg’s
remarks demands it, “Der Mensch” (human, human being, person, man)
has also been translated as “man,” as this would have been the formulation
common to Lichtenberg’s time and to the English authors he read (for
example, Hartley’s Observations on Man and Pope’s An Essay on Man). But
Lichtenberg’s thoughts on language also tell us why such formulations
should not be regarded as innocuous. The aim of the translation has been
to convey the content of Lichtenberg’s thoughts while retaining as much
of the form as possible. As Lichtenberg himself observes, however, every
commentary and every translation acquires something new, altering the
thought even to the point that it is unrecognizable. It is only my hope
that such a transformation will be productive.
There is perhaps something dubious in suggesting that the thoughts of Georg
Christoph Lichtenberg could be organized under the heading of “Philosophical Writings.” He was, after all, not a philosopher in the current sense of the
term, instead dedicating his life and work to advancing the nascent field of
experimental physics, toiling away his days in the laboratory and classroom
where he dazzled his students with strange apparatuses, electrical and magnetic phenomena, and the manipulation of various gases. The short remarks
contained in his Sudelbücher (Waste Books) have traditionally been regarded
as satirical and humorous, as have most of his lengthier contributions to
eighteenth-century journals. In Germany, where he is well known and widely
read, he is largely regarded as a witty observer of humanity, credited with
introducing the literary form of the aphorism into German literature, while in
the English-speaking world he is known for little more than his commentaries on Hogarth’s engravings and his discovery of the electrical phenomenon
known as “Lichtenberg figures.” Yet many thinkers have appreciated Lichtenberg for the trenchant philosophical thoughts he offers obliquely in his work:
Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Freud, Benjamin, Mach, Mauthner,
and Wittgenstein, among others, have all engaged with his work to advance
their own thinking on topics ranging from self-consciousness and the unconscious to the relationship between philosophical and ordinary language. In this
regard, Lichtenberg occupies an important, if largely unacknowledged, role
in the history of philosophy, and this role is likely to grow as we understand
his writings from a philosophical point of view.
Lichtenberg was born in Ober-Ramstadt, near Darmstadt, Germany, on
July 1, 1742, the youngest of seventeen children, most of whom died at a
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
very young age. A malformation of the spine, the cause of which continues to be a matter of speculation, led to his small stature (about 4 feet 9
inches) and hunched back and was the source of various pains and medical
ailments throughout his life, no doubt contributing to his often hypochondriacal disposition. His father was a Protestant clergyman associated with
the pietist tradition popular in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. From 1752 to 1761, he attended the Darmstädter Pädagogium
under Johann Martin Wenck (1704–1761), after which he received private
lessons. In 1762, he was awarded a stipend to pursue his studies at the
Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, where he matriculated in 1763 as a
student of mathematics and physics. Founded under the Hanoverian ruler,
King George II of England, the university was one of the most modern
and liberal in Germany, focusing in large part upon the empirical sciences
and Newtonian physics and well connected to English academic life. While
a student at the university under the eminent mathematician and natural
scientist Abraham Gotthelf Kästner (1719–1800), Lichtenberg befriended
Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben (1744–1777), whose Anfangsgründe der
Naturlehre (Foundations of the Natural Sciences) Lichtenberg would later edit
and use as the foundations for his own lectures on physics. Under the
direction of Kästner, Lichtenberg conducted astronomical observations at
the Göttinger Observatorium from 1766 through 1774, graduating from
his university studies in 1767. In 1770, Lichtenberg was appointed professor extraordinarius in Göttingen, where he would for the most part remain
throughout his career until his death from pneumonia on February 24,
1799, at the age of fifty-seven.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Lichtenberg’s romantic life has been the topic
of much interest and speculation in both academic and literary works. The
most scandalous of his relationships was with the twelve-year-old flower
girl Dorothea Stechard (1765–1782), whom he met in 1777. With the
permission of her family, she was employed as Lichtenberg’s housekeeper,
and although they were never married, she lived with Lichtenberg from
1780 until her death in 1782. Shortly thereafter, in 1783, he employed
Margarethe Elisabeth Kellner (1759–1848) as a housekeeper; she was also
from a working-class family and at twenty-two years old was much younger
than Lichtenberg. This relationship eventually developed into a secret affair
that produced three children out of wedlock. In 1789, as Lichtenberg’s
health deteriorated, they were married to ensure that she would receive his
pension after his death, and between 1791 and 1797, they had four more
children. She died well into the nineteenth century, some fifty years after
Lichtenberg. That Lichtenberg was not readily bound by social conventions,
and indeed often flouted them, is reflected not only in his romantic life
but also throughout his writings.
Lichtenberg achieved notoriety during his lifetime primarily through
his lectures and his revisions of Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben’s
Anfangsgründe der Naturlehre (Foundations of the Natural Sciences), rather than
for his own advancements in the natural sciences. Between 1784 and 1794,
Lichtenberg published four editions of this physics compendium, including
his own critical comments and revisions, which remained the standard
German physics textbook even into the beginning of the nineteenth century.
His lectures based on Erxleben’s text were supplemented by experiments
that brought him renown throughout Europe and were attended by famous
scientists and intellectuals, including Alessandro Volta (1745–1827), Johann
Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832), Karl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855), and
Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). Election to numerous scientific
societies, including the Royal Society of Sciences both in Göttingen and
London, the Royal Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg, and the Scientific
Society of Holland, among others, attests to Lichtenberg’s prominence in the
natural sciences and the great respect accorded him by his contemporaries.
He was renowned not just for his scientific work but also for his
literary publications and work as an editor. From 1778 to 1799 he edited
the Göttinger Taschenkalender (Göttingen Pocket Almanac), which published
essays on the natural sciences and philosophical and literary observations
in the humanist spirit of the Enlightenment. These essays, such as “Von
Cometen” (“On Comets”) (1787) and “Amintors Morgenandacht” (“Amintor’s
Morning-Prayer”) (1791), and his commentaries on Hogarth’s engravings,
which appeared between 1794 and 1799, represent an important part of
Lichtenberg’s literary corpus, supplementing and extending many of the ideas
found in his Waste Books. Between 1780 and 1785, Lichtenberg, together
with Georg Forster, edited the Göttingische Magazin der Wissenschaften und
Literatur (Göttingen Journal of Science and Literature), which was dedicated
to updates and reviews of current scientific research and also contained
numerous literary contributions. To today’s readers, however, Lichtenberg
is best known for his Waste Books.
The Waste Books
In 1764, while still a student in Göttingen, Lichtenberg began the Waste
Books for which he was later to become famous. They consist of a series of
fifteen notebooks that he kept throughout his life, and in which he notes
Author Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Steven Tester Isbn 978-1438441962 File size 3MB Year 2012 Pages 224 Language English File format PDF Category Philosophy Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare This is a great project by an extremely knowledgeable translator. Tester does a fine job making the case for Lichtenberg and explaining his thinking. Carl Niekerk, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign” Download (3MB) Kant And The Concept Of Race: Late Eighteenth-century Writings The Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche On Morality Fichte: Foundations Of Transcendental Philosophy Sextus Empiricus: Against The Logicians Beyond Aesthetics and Politics Load more posts