Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph

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Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph (1742-99) German scientist satirist, and philosopher.

Lichtenberg was a leading figure of the German late enlightenment, who combined a career of experimental scientist with that of popular writer, and who was famous for his satirical style.

Lichtenberg studied mathematics, astronomy and natural history at the university in Göttingen, where he became a professor in mathematics and physics in 1770. Humboldt, Alexander von and Christian Gauss were among his pupils.

Lichtenberg’s main contribution to physics was his discovery of the geometrical arrangements of particles on electrically charged plates; a discovery that developed into xerography in the twentieth century. Lichtenberg also engaged in several polemics against the Strurm und Drang movement and against the physiognomy of his younger contemporary Johann Lavater (1768-1819). Lichtenberg further gained renown for an annotated edition of Hogarth, William’s prints (1794-1799). Today Lichtenberg is known primarily for his posthumously published notebooks or Sudelbücher (waste books). In these ‘waste books,’ which he kept for over thirty years, he recorded witty and daring remarks on himself and the world. Many of the remarks concern philosophic issues, especially the relation of mind and body and methodological issues in the study of nature. As for the latter, Lichtenberg developed the idea of paradigms, advocating that theories devised for particular sets of phenomena be used as an aid in thinking about different, apparently unrelated phenomena. Lichtenberg’s eclectic notebooks stand in stark contrast with the highly systematic works of the academic philosophers of his time.

Further Reading:

Stern, J. P. Lichtenberg. A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions, 1959.

Cornelis de Waal

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

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