UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Lichtenberg und die Französische Revolution : zum Verhältnis von Sprache, Naturwissenschaft und Aufklärung Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey


During the last ten years of his life, the German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was confronted with two major upheavals: the French Revolution and the revolution in chemistry. In his criticism of the former, Lichtenberg anticipated the new post-marxist "catechism" developed by Furet, Ozouf, Higonnet and others. The Revolution appeared to him primarily as a war of words and signs, a new and dangerous way of disseminating and controlling knowledge by coining new terms or limiting the semantic range of old words by way of obscuring all possible meanings in favour of the politically "correct" one. Lichtenberg was quick to point out similarities with the new chemical terminology of Lavoisier and his colleagues. Neologisms like oxygene appear to follow the same logic as the revolutionary discourse, especially in the shape of Jacobin linguistic terrorism. It is argued that Lichtenberg criticizes both as manifestations of a "culture of expression" (Lotman/Uspensky) in which both the scientific and the political discourse become ideological in the semiotic sense of the word, i.e. enforcing an inseparable, all-exclusive link between a given signified and one of several possible connotations. Events in France corroborated Lichtenberg's more conservative linguistic stance emphasizing that traditional signifiers (e.g. phlogiston) should be maintained in order to provide a common base for discussions that are not intended to culminate in some hastily proclaimed final truth but to achieve a consensus of the participants. The thesis therefore first analyzes Lichtenberg's criticism of the new chemical terminology, relating both his and the differing position of Lavoisier to a broader historical and epistemological background (chapter 1). Chapter 2 concentrates on Lichtenberg's disapproval of the French Revolution's language policy. The objections raised are analogous, at times even identical, which is made all the more interesting by the fact that recent scholarship has been stressing the importance of the nomenclature chymique as a model for the new political discourse envisaged by the revolutionaries. Chapter 3 aims to go beyond this linguistic antagonism by highlighting aspects and developments which influenced the way language, science and politics interacted in the "Age of Enlightenment". All these points were of importance to Lichtenberg, and some of them have not yet been adequately dealt with: the influence of the print media - their use of language and narrative structures, even their typographical appearance - on the message conveyed; the emergence of the scientific spectacle (e.g. ballooning) creating new audiences which cannot be contained within the traditional decorum; and the sudden explosion of social and scientific data that cannot be contained within the old frameworks of knowledge. Ultimately, all this results in the inability to organize information along the lines of traditional narrative and/or theoretical structures. It will be argued that this overflow of information produced by the enlightened quest for knowledge can be dealt with in two ways. Information can be "recontextualized" by shaping specialized and often autonomous fields of knowledge and research, each equipped with its own discourse. This is essentially the advent of modem science based on guiding paradigms (in the Kuhnian sense) and economic division of labour. On the other hand, information can be "decontextualized". Traditional boundaries of knowledge and research are neglected in favour of the mobility of individual elements of knowledge. They may express various interpretations and, furthermore, can be applied to completely heterogenous areas of investigation in search of some objective or heuristic structure. The thesis concludes that the former is closely linked to Lavoisiers modern "scientific" approach to science while the latter is related to Lichtenbergs consensus-oriented, more "artistic" treatment. Chapter 3, in short, relates the linguistic antagonism of chapters 1 and 2 to epistemological problems endemic to the Enlightenment - which is analyzed as the "first information age" and thus appears more closely related to our media-dependent world than traditional dichotomies like "reason vs. emotion "/"classicism vs. romanticism" suggest. This is the principal reason why modern media criticism (Postman, Baudrillard) will be used to understand certain contradictions within the discourse of Enlightenment. The thesis, therefore, hopes to provide the first in-depth discussion of Lichtenbergs objections to the French Revolution and its chemical counterpart. It also introduces the relevance of the new "semiotic" paradigm of the historiography of the French Revolution for the study of late 18th-century German literature. Finally, it strives to participate in preparing a new basis for the study of the 18th-century culture: a culture organized along media networks, spectacles, the substitution of history for fashion and knowledge for information, the changes from rural to urban perception - and the often tragic consequences arising from their enforced political implementation.

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