The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, The Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century

Peter Watson

I wanted to like this book, a survey of the German contribution to intellectual history eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The introduction stopped me dead for about a month: it is all about British attitudes to German history, and is insular to the point of feeling like one has walked into the middle of a heated family argument. Watson argues that we are remembering the Holocaust for too long, in some sense, unlike the Vietnam War, which we’ve apparently forgotten (really?) and that this is somehow the fault of the American Jewish community. In support of which proposition he brings in a couple of pages about David Irving.


I guess I can understand someone who has written a 900-page book about German culture being a bit flinchy about the possibility of being accused of soft on Nazis, but  under such circumstances I think Mr Irving is the last person you want to invite to the party.

I eventually got past that, and found the first half quite illuminating, especially about the eighteenth century Pietist culture of Bildung: roughly speaking, self-cultivation, and a big influence on the new German universities (and thence on all modern higher education).

But then I got to Cantor.

But it was his [Cantor’s] next step that took mathematicians by surprise (though in truth it was also a surprise that no-one had noticed this before). The series 1, 2, 3 . . . n, was an infinite set and so was 2, 4, 6 . . . n. But it followed from this that some infinite sets were larger than others—there are more integers in the infinite series, 1, 2, 3 … n than in 2, 4, 6 . . . n.

I don’t need to explain to anyone who has some knowledge about the history of set theory how this gets Cantor almost exactly, but not quite, entirely wrong, and explaining it to those who don’t would make this post longer than it already is. The main conclusion I drew is that, to be blunt, Watson is bad at science and maths: he’s OK on applied science and engineering, but past a certain moderate level of rigorous abstraction, he gives the impression that he just doesn’t get it, not even at a smart-generalist level.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the fact that the development of new forms of rigorous abstract thought by German thinkers is an important and interesting part of the story he’s trying to tell. The older German tradition prized intuition as a source of knowledge: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a parade of German mathematicians and scientists inexorably tore this dependence on intuition to shreds, not without some bitter opposition. The context given by Watson has allowed me to see just why Kronecker, for example, was such an ornery bugger: but that story isn’t in the book. The Nazis’ reaction against what they called “Jewish science” (roughly speaking, to the extent that they had any idea of what they were on about, they wanted intuition back in the driving seat) is part of the story which Watson does cover, but, again, it feels like it’s missing a certain depth.

(OK, in a wider sense, it is a big deal that a heavy-hitting mainstream intellectual historian like Watson can’t do maths, and one could draw all sorts of morals about how, in the light of the GFC, having a ruling class whose members find derivatives, say, to be infernally complicated, is probably not a good thing. But I digress.)

More broadly, rather than hanging together as an argument, the book reads like a series of biographies, albeit very readable and interesting ones. I still ended up finishing it, though. Spoilers: Heidegger is going to save us from human genetic engineering. (Don’t ask.) Although I feel like I should actually read some Heidegger now, to confirm my long-held suspicion that he was not just a Nazi but also a dickhead.

Once I’d slogged though the last third, I was really grateful to @peterjcaseytwit for having written this song. Because, believe me, I was.

One response to “The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, The Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century

  1. Pingback: Books read, 2012 | Nannygoat Hill

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