Tuesday, November 14, 2006

German Sadness and Joy

Today is probably the saddest day of the year for German philosophers. This is because two major German philosophers died on this day.

On the 14th of November 1716, in Hanover, the philosopher and polymat Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz died of arthritis and gout. Leibniz made many interesting contributions during his life. He invented binary arithmetic. He may have invented calculus (although Newton appears to have also invented it at around the same time). An excellent and detailed philosophical biography of Leibniz is available on-line here, by George MacDonald-Ross. As a classic rationalist philosopher and a scientific innovator, Leibniz would have been a sad loss to the German people.

What is perhaps a little odd is that Leibniz has developed a new 'career' in recent years. He now features in certain kinds of historical novels. He appears as a character in Iain Pear's novel An Instance of the Fingerpost. He is also a major character in Neal Stephenson's three Baroque Cycle novels.

A little over one hundred years after Leibniz's death, in 1831 the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel also died on the 14th of November. Hegel was the most famous post-Kantian German philosopher and was extremely influential on subsequent German philosophy. Hegel exerted a strong influence on Karl Marx, in particular. Indeed, some have suggested that Marx's opposition between classes was based upon Hegel's conception of the Slave verses the Master moral types. As a major German thinker, Hegel too would have been a sad loss to the German people.

Hegel is not a philosopher I know well. He is quite a difficult writer to read. Indeed, until a couple of years ago, I knew exactly how many pages of Hegel I had read in my entire life (seven). Unfortunately, I then taught a history of philosophy class and one of our majors decided to write a paper comparing the work of the philosopher we were focusing upon (Nietzsche), to the work of Hegel. I was forced to read a good deal more Hegel in order to be able to grade the final paper.

Fortunately, there is also less maudlin news out of Germany today. It seems that human right's groups there have have filed a lawsuit accusing Donald Rumsfeld of war crimes. This can be nothing but good news!

The CP


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