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:

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

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today