No Comment, Quotation — January 3, 2008, 12:00 am

Lichtenberg on Observation and Human Nature

lichtenberg

Eine große Rede läßt sich leicht auswendig lernen und noch leichter ein großes Gedicht. Wie schwer würde es nicht halten, eben so viel ohne allen Sinn verbundene Wörter, oder eine Rede in einer fremden Sprache zu memorieren. Also Sinn und Verstand kömmt dem Gedächtnis zu Hülfe. Sinn ist Ordnung und Ordnung ist doch am Ende Übereinstimmung mit unserer Natur. Wenn wir vernünftig sprechen, sprechen wir nur immer unser Wesen und unsere Natur. Um unserm Gedächtnisse etwas einzuverleiben suchen wir daher immer einen Sinn hineinzubringen oder eine andere Art von Ordnung. Daher Genera und Species bei Pflanzen und Tieren, Ähnlichkeiten bis auf den Reim hinaus. Eben dahin gehören auch unsere Hypothesen, wir müssen welche haben, weil wir sonst die Dinge nicht behalten können. Dies ist schon längst gesagt, man kömmt aber von allen Seiten wieder darauf. So suchen wir Sinn in die Körperwelt zu bringen. Die Frage aber ist, ob alles für uns lesbar ist. Gewiß aber läßt sich durch vielen Probieren, und Nachsinnen auch eine Bedeutung in etwas bringen was nicht für uns oder gar nicht lesbar ist. So sieht man im Sand Gesichter, Landschaften usw. die sicherlich nicht die Absichten dieser Lagen sind. Symmetrie gehört auch hieher. Silhouette im Dintenfleck pp. Auch die Stufenleiter in der Reihe der Geschöpfe, alles das ist nicht in den Dingen, sondern in uns. Überhaupt kann man nicht genug bedenken, daß wir nur immer uns beobachten, wenn wir die Natur und zumal unsere Ordnungen beobachten.

A great speech is easy to learn by heart and a great poem is easier still. How hard it would be to memorize as many words linked together senselessly, or a speech in a foreign tongue! Sense and understanding are thus critical to the function of memory. Sense is order and order is in the final analysis conformity with our nature. When we speak reasonably, it is our being and our nature that speaks. When we want to incorporate something into our memory, we always search for a sense or another kind of order as a tool to that end. That is why we utilize the notions of genus and species in the case of plants and animals. The practice of forming hypotheses must be considered in this same light: we are obliged to have them because otherwise we would be unable to retain things. And while this is frequently observed, we must return to it again and again. The question is whether everything is legible to us. Certainly experiment as well as reflection enable us to introduce a significance into what is not legible, either to us or at all: thus we see faces or landscapes in the sand, though they are certainly not there. The introduction of symmetry belongs here too, seeing silhouettes in inkblots, for instance. Likewise the gradation we establish in the order of creatures: truly, all of this is not to be found in the things themselves, but in us. In general we cannot recall too often that when we observe nature, and especially the ordering of nature, it is always ourselves alone we are observing.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Sudelbuch ‘J,’ No. 392 (1789) in: Schriften und Briefe, vol. 1, p. 710 (W. Promies ed. 1968)(S.H. transl.)

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2017

Blood and Soil

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Grim Fairy Tale

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Little Things

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Patient War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Remainers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Post
Illustration (detail) by Steve Brodner
Article
The Patient War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
Photograph (detail) © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Redux
Article
Little Things·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
Photograph (detail) of miniatures by Lori DeBacker by Thomas Allen
Article
Blood and Soil·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $27. I am writing from Germany, the world’s last major stronghold of liberal democracy. The United Kingdom fell to Brexit in June; the United States fell, with the election of Donald Trump, in November. We can dispute whatever “the West” was for as much time as humanity has left, but that it collapsed on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, seems to me beyond question. Perhaps Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is the heart still beating faintly within its brain-dead body, but …
Illustration (detail) by Nate Kitch

Years that a Nigerian woman appealing a sentence of death by stoning in March will be allowed to live to wean her baby:

1.5

Movie editing was found to have evolved toward the natural pattern of human attention, which corresponds to the natural rhythm of the universe; Rebel Without a Cause, in particular, was found to possess a near-perfect universal rhythm.

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, announced that he has ordered the country’s navy and coast guard to bomb the ships of kidnappers even if civilian hostages are on board.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today