Notes: The First 200 Pages

Peter Watson maintains that Hitler and the Holocaust are preoccupying the world to such an extent that we are denying ourselves important aspects elsewhere in German history.


Notes From the Introduction


Germany went from being a poor relation among Western countries, intellectually speaking, to the dominant force – more influential in the realm of ideas than France or Britain or Italy or the Netherlands, more so even than the United States.  This remarkable transformation [between 1754 and 1933] is the subject of The German Genius.


Peter Watson cautions the reader to understand there is a huge difference between culture and civilization (to Germans):  Politics and the affairs of the state represented the area of their humiliation and lack of freedom, while culture represented the sphere of their freedom and their pride.

There is a German obsession for distinguishing between “civilization” and “culture.”  In German usage, Zivilisation means something that is indeed useful, but nevertheless only something of value of the second rank, comprising only the outer appearance of human beings, the surface of human existence.  The word through which Germans interpret themselves, which more than any other expresses their pride (in their own being), is Kultur.

Whereas the French as well as the English concept of culture can also refer to politics and to economics, to technology and to sports, to moral and to social facts, the German concept of Kultur refers essentially to intellectual, artistic and religious facts, and has a tendency to draw a sharp dividing line between facts of this sort, on the one side, and political, economic, and social facts, on the other.

This division, between Kultur and Zivilisation, was underlined by a second opposition, that between Geist and Macht, the realm of intellectual or spiritual endeavor and the realm of power and political control.


Thomas Mann wrote, “Interested in metaphysics, poetry and music but not in voting rights or the proper procedures of the parliamentary system, for them Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was a more radical act than the proclamation of the rights of man.”


The German genius was cut off in its prime.  All the world knows WHY this happened.  Much less well known is why and how the Germans acheived the pre-eminence they did.  Yes, people know that Germany lost a lot of talent under the Nazis (60,000 writers, artists, musicians, and scientists sent either into exile or to the death camps by 1939).  But even many Germans appear to have forgotten that their country was such a dominant power intellectually until 1933.

Notes From PART I: The Great Turn In German Life


Bildung. Difficult to translate, in essence it refers to the inner development of the individual, a process of fulfillment through education and knowledge, an amalgam of wisdom and self-realization.

amalgam – a mixture of different elements

Bildung – true (inner) freedom

Notes From PART II: Third Renaissance Between Doubt and Darwin

The Origins of Modern Scholarship


Bildung – true (inner) freedom – involved three things:  Zwecklosigkeit, Innerlichkeit, and Wissenschaftlichkeit (non-purposiveness inwardness and scholarliness).


Goethe had a serious aim.  He had told Caroline Herder that he had lost his belief in divine powers in the summer of 1788 and the purpose of life, when there is no god, is to become, to become much more than one was.

“The ultimate meaning of our humanity is that we develop that higher human being within ourselves, which emerges if we continually strengthen our truly human powers, and subjugate the inhumane.”

Some non-Germans have found it too much.

Goethe’s most famous masterpiece is FAUST.  It was by no means a new story, being a well-known medieval legend, made into a play by Christopher Marlowe, though Goethe wasn’t aware of Marlowe’s work until he had written more than half of his version.  It took him sixty (60!) years to complete.

The legend [of Doctor Faust] may be grounded in fact.  Therer was a Georg Faust alive at the turn of the 16th century (1500) who wandered through central Europe claiming to possess recondite forms of knowledge which gave him special healing powers.

recondite – (1) hidden from sight : concealed; (2) difficult or impossible for one of ordinary understanding or knowledge to comprehend : deep; (3) of, relating to, or dealing with something little known or obscure

After his death he gradually acquired a slight change of name and an academic title, as Dr. Johannes Faustus, a professor at Wittenberg.  In his lectures, he was alleged to “conjure up at will personages from classical Greece, and he was notorious for allegedly playing tricks on both the pope and the emperor.

According to the legend, Faust becomes disillusioned with the many forms of secret knowledge he has tried out, and the devil, Mephistopheles, makes a wager with God that he can tempt Faust into his world.

New Light on the Structure of the Mind

Kant had introduced a rigorous new way of observing, of observing ourselves.  While this sometimes got out of hand, this observation of ourselves, the concentration on subjective universality, consciousness and self-consciousness, was the real beginning of modern psychology.

It is one reason why the unconscious, and with it the therapeutic approach to life, was at root a German idea.

The Symphany as Philosophy


Vocal music was more popular than instrumental music up to the 16th century.  In Italy rose the first organ school.  Germans visited Venice to learn from the masters there.  From this rose Bach, Leipzig, Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Beethoven (1770-1827), Haydn, etc. Music was very much influenced by Idealistic Philosophy.

Modern math begins with Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), who was much influenced by Kant.  Kant’s arguments implied that mathematics was an aspect of the imagination and, therefore, a form of freedom.


Modern math begins with Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), who was much influenced by Kant.  Kant’s arguments implied that mathematics was an aspect of the imagination and, therefore, a form of freedom.

Number patterns don’t have to be useful.  The masses don’t have to understand WHY prime numbers are so fascinating or WHY it is so important to understand their behavior.  Because of this, mathematicians are destined to inhabit their own private, solitary worlds.  Gauss kept a mathematical diary.  Gauss never published his ideas and the friends this troubled man sharded his thoughts with were sworn to secrecy.  Not only did Gauss recognize the pattern of prime numbers, but, according to his mathematical diary, Gauss was still quite young when he began to consider that the ancient Greeks – Euclid in particular – had got it wrong with some of their fundamental axioms in geometry.  In particular, he began to have doubts about parallel lines.

It occurred to Gauss that three-dimensional space might be curved in the way that the two-dimensional surface of the earth was.  Lines of longitude all meet at the poles.  They appear parallel, but they are not.  Noncommunative algebra refers to the posibility that, in mathematics, xy, strange as it may seem, is not always equal to yx.  “Rightness” and “leftness” determine chemical properties.  This, plus the second law of thermodynamics, which says that time is a fundamental aspect of space, shows that a purely mechanical (i.e., Newtonian) understanding of the universe has to be incomplete.  Gauss’s noncommunative algebra was an early attempt to come to grips with this problem.

Speculative philosophy had a special status at the turn of the 18th to 19th century (1800) because Europe was in an intellectual time between doubt and Darwin.  There was a small closed circle of German Romantics.  Schopenhauer was outside this circle of Young Hegelians.  Hegel died in 1831, Goethe died in 1832.  Enter “The Young Hegelians.”  Enter Karl Marx (1818-1883) who was greatly influenced by Feurbach.

Feurbach produced in Marx the conception of man “as a being whose very essence is modified by his contact with nature and his fellow men in society.”  This is how Marx, following Feurbach, came to regard Hegel’s conception of alienation as central.  Moses Hess, also a Young Hegelian, insisted that “money is the worth of men expressed in figures, the hallmark of our slavery.”

For Marx, “Money is the jealous God of Israel beside which no other God may exist.”


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