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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Es sind nicht alle frei, die ihrer Ketten spotten.- Lessing

Mirror in the bathroom

Lichtenberg again.

From the history of culture jamming, here is an amusing sidenote. At midnight on January 6, 1777, Lichtenberg, with the help of his posse, consisting of a few amused officials and a bookstore owner named Dietrich, who later wrote an account of it, plastered Gottingen with posters that were supposedly written by a showman/magician, Philadelphus Philadelphia. Philadelphia had been raising money by subscription for his act – and claimed that he would unveil marvels if he could get 100 people to pitch in a Louis D’or a-piece.

(Amazingly, wikipedia actually has a translation into English of Lichtenberg’s “avertissement” – I don’t have to translate it!) You will notice that this is the kind of action which forms the basis of
The Trolls among us”, an article in last week’s Sunday NYT magazine which article shows zero knowledge of popular acts of “wild justice” – which range from practical jokes to charivaris to pograms – which have existed throughout recorded history.

I broke off in a post last week before I could get to Lichtenberg’s Samples of Curious Superstitions. But monomania never stops, people! And thus I come back to the subject – which is discussed by Tadeusz Zatorski here. Zatorski’s article emphasizes the contrast between Lichtenberg as an enlightener and Lichtenberg as a man whose own private life was riddled by obsessive searches for signs, omens, and irrational but significant patterns. Zatorski has collected a number of Lichtenberg’s own reflections about this: God almighty ... I have always preached against superstitions, and have always been the greatest reader of signs for myself. As N... lay on his deathbed, I allowed the outcome to depend on the flights of cranes as a way to comfort myself.” “One of the most remarkable features in my character is certainly the odd superstition by which I pull premonitions out of everything, and in a day make a hundred things into an oracle. Every creeping of an insect serves to answer questions about my fate. Isn’t this a curious thing in a professor of physics?"

Zatorski quotes an interesting literature over the question of Lichtenberg and superstition – including the opinion of Franz Overbeck, Nietzsche’s friend, that Lichtenberg understood the fundamental absurdity of accounting for being: L lets the absurd count as absurd, refraining from finding reasons for it [verzichtet auf seine Begründung] and thus strictly limits its domain.” This would make Lichtenberg a predecessor of the school of therapeutic nihilism – and indeed, the Vienna Circle was attracted to Lichtenberg, as to Schopenhauer.

Zatorski’s point is that Lichtenberg’s self-observations led to a psychology of superstition. Or a social psychology. Not that the enlightenment philosophes did not possess a social psychological explanation of superstion: ultimately, they derived from fear. It was Justus Möser, in his articles directed against the French Revolution in the 1790s, who cast doubt on this explanation for a whole set of traditional practices. But Lichtenberg, too, didn’t see fear – and the inevitable chain of references leading to the chained and the unchained – as the one cause of superstition. Rather, he saw that (to put it in contemporary terms) the division between erudite and popular culture was neither absolute nor unchanging. I’ll end with these two paragraphs from Zatorski:

Even the relationship between superstition and science can, in Lichtenberg’s opinion, not so easily be brought under the rule of an unambiguous and simple formula, as it seemed to contemporary advocates of the enlightenment, who wanted to see in superstitions simply the continual “classical” opposite pole to reason. Really, superstition can be tied to diabolical evil, and even promote the emergence of infamies – Lichtenberg points her to the sad history of witch trials. But this doesn’t change the fact that, looked at more closely, especially when we see knowledge as a continually evolving whole, the borders between superstition and reason prove to be flowing and flexible on both sides: “The philosophy of the common man is the mother of ours, out of his superstitions we make our religion, just as we make our medicine out of his home remedies.” Even the concept “science” itself is observed to be highly unclear: “Where in the past one found the borders of science, we now find its middle.”
This demands a high degree of judgmental forsight. A quantum of distrust is evidently indispensable, but this means, at the same time, a certain distrust against dogmatic laws of reason. One would rather “neither deny nor believe.” For even the offerings of “rational” philosophy is nothing other than a treaty of peace that has come to stand “in the “counsels of men” – “superstition is itself a local philosophy, it also gives in its voice.” For this reason, even reason must remain continually conscious of the relative and time conditioned character of knowledge. Thus it would be adviseable to be very careful in labeling certain beliefs as superstitions, because what counts as such today can be transformed tomorrow into a serious theory: “There is thus a great difference between believing something “still” and believing it “again.” To still believe that the moon effects plants betrays stupidity and superstition, but to believe it again shows philosophy and reflection.” A researcher thus needn’t be ashamed of his interest in supernatural phenomena, so long as he observes these phenomena as like all others, requiring a completely natural explanation, even when one is not yet apparent at the moment: “Your letters on premonitions”, he wrote to the Hanover City official Wolff, “I have read with great satisfaction. I am not against these things, only I think, that one must not assume them, as long as there is space for the shadow of another explanation.” For even the doubt of everything, which seems to spring from the frame of a flat rationalism, must never be taken to a point beyond a certain un-preconceived vigilance, otherwise it can itself, in certain circumstances, degenerate into a kind of superstition. “By most people, disbelief in one thing is grounded in blind belief in another.” Then one is running the risk of tossing the baby out with the bathwater – out of fear of being laughed at as superstitious, phenomena are explained as non-existent, that still deserve to be fundamentally taken seriously and investigated by any science worthy of the name – an otherwise wholly understandable attitude in the case of a physics professor, whose greatest discovery, the “Lichtenberg Figures,” he could only describe, but not explain.”

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