Comet 1744

The comet of 1744 (Ger., Eng.) must have been a remarkable celestial spectacle; up to six tails have been visible, the whole show lasted for some months. (Go here and here for lists of appearances of comets from the 15th to the 18th century, see the links that lead to illustrations.) A side effect of the comet’s appearance was that Martin KNUTZEN (1713-1751) (Ger., Eng., ADB) was shot to scientific stardom. At least in Königsberg (Ger., Eng., today).
KNUTZEN was teaching philosophy and mathesis (mathematics, physics) at the university of Königsberg, following NEWTON’s ideas. In 1738 KNUTZEN had predicted that a comet that had appeared in 1698, would show up again in 1744. This was basically totally wrong, as the great mathematicus Leonhard EULER (1707-1783) (Ger., Eng.) criticised in a letter to GOLDBACH (1690-1764) (Ger., Eng., ADB) an 23rd of June 1744:

“He seriously thinks that this comet has a tempus periodicum of 45 3/4 years, because he saw from the catalogus Hevelianus (Ger., Eng.) that nearly always after this intervall a comet appears. He believes that the one seen 1652 is identical with the one from 1698: Exploring the matter closer one finds that scarcely two comets can be found that are more different than these two.”

KNUTZEN’s short shot to fame is inasmuch more important as he was a teacher of young Immanuel KANT (1724-1804 (Ger., Eng.), who studied  at the university since 1740. KANT’s first important book, Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels (Ger., Eng. – which by the way is not written in 1755 as the wiki-articles state, but published! – is surely not un-influenced by all the events of 1744. KNUTZEN did not accept KANT’s work in 1746 as dissertation and young Immanuel went through the home-tutor hell in the East-Prussian province for eight years; at least this enabled him to own undisturbed study and – notably the last position in the family of Count Keyserling – helped to shape his manners and allowed him access to the higher society.
In his book KANT tried to structure the world of the fixed stars, the most important impact gave him Thomas WRIGHT’s (1711-1781 (Ger., Eng.) An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe from 1750. WRIGHT explains the look of the milky way as “an optical effect due to our immersion in what locally approximates to a flat layer of stars.” The stars of the milky way are on one level in disk shape rotating around a center – all the distant nebulae are rotating disk-shaped galaxies too. They form a super-system of galaxies rotating around one center – KANT goes further and thinks that there are several super-systems. The analogy between the local solar system and higher cosmical systems works only – according to KANT – when the permanent movement of the systems as a whole is accepted: Ohne die “fliehenden Kräften” würden alle “Weltsysteme” “über kurz oder lang in einen Klumpen zusammenfallen”. Without centrifugal forces all world systems would sooner or later collapse in one clump. It will take another hundred years until Friedrich Wilhelm BESSEL (1784-1846) (Ger., Eng.) shows that the fixed stars have a motion of their own.
KANT changes the idea of space and explains the origin of it all from the basic material forces, attraction and repulsion. It is no static cosmos, the creation of solar systems and galaxies is not the end of the development, the end of the creation – in fact there is no creator God, but an ongoing periodic process of chaos and new start. And of course mankind is no singularity: “Indessen sind doch die meisten unter den Planeten gewiß bewohnt, und die es nicht sind, werden es dereinst werden.” Roughly: “Most of the planets are surely inhabited, and those which are not yet surely will.” The world is not in the center anymore, and is no exception: The Vernunft believes in a universe of inhabitable worlds and reasonable beings. Hans BLUMENBERG (1920-1996) (Ger., Eng. here) has reformulated the sky’s ambiguity KANT mentions in the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (Ger., Eng. Text): The sight of the sky annihilates our importance by its sheer largeness, but at the same time it forces us by its sheer emptiness to take nothing else serious but ourselves.

KANT’s publisher went bancerott while the book was printed, it was delivered too late for the spring book fair in Leipzig, and thus went nearly unnoticed by the public, neither LAMBERT (1728-1777) (Ger., Eng.) nor LAPLACE (1749-1827) (Ger., Eng.) knew it.

See also: Weigl, Engelhard: Schauplätze der deutschen Aufklärung. Ein Städterundgang, Reinbek 1997


In the course of seminars we always at some point came to the question: What is “Mythos” and why do have intellectuals and thinkers have dealt with that topic?
Martin Scharfe is a very learned man and as a kind of sum he published 2002 his book “Menschenwerk. Erkundungen über Kultur” (roughly: “Man’s deed: Reconnaissance of Culture”, an English edition is desirable) where he dedicates a chapter to the question “Was ist Mythos?” (What is Myth?). He leans on the work of Hans Blumenberg, whom I already mentioned on this site, “Arbeit am Mythos”, a fine, useful and learned book.
After all “Mythos” is a story that never gets old and never ends – the “Moderne” and the modern science did not make the myth obsolete. Mythos is the effort to explain the origin – obviously other kind of explanations do not work, are insufficient. The Mythos stands at the beginning of all. Scharfe, following Blumenberg, gives four points, describes four functions of Mythos.
(1) It helps man to stand against the impact of hostile forces as forces of nature and unpredictability of man himself. As Blumenberg puts it, Mythos is un-frightening man (“entängstigen”), bans angst, reduces the absolutism of reality, helps man to win distance; Mythos enables man to leave back the old terror as monstrosity – in one sentence: The world looses monsters. (“Die Welt verliert an Ungeheuern.”)
(2) Mythos does this by giving names (“benennen”). The terror is nameless, the highest grade of fright has no name and no face. The Mythos is a story and there are beings or entities with names: The Mythos transforms the nameless numinous (“numinos”) vagueness into nominal definiteness, he makes the “Unheimliche” approachable, speakable.
(3) It is not the case that Mythos and ratio (“Vernunft”, reason) are opposite and excluding each other. Blumenberg calls that a “late and bad invention”. They are not only no contradictions – Mythos has and is a kind of ratio of his own: It is ratio. So it does NOT vanish when the modern science “takes over” – the question is whether the latter really does. Science is not total, Mythos is.
(4) If one sees Mythos not only and always as a regression in barbarity the idea and the dialectics of enlightenment can be seen in a new light. Blumenberg speaks of the “tortous connection of myth and enlightenment”, and his word of “myth as enlightenment and enlightenment as myth” is not just a joke or play with words.

Adam and Eva eat the apple. They do against the divine command, follow their own idea. The beginning is marked not with a crime, but a sacrilege, a “Frevel”. As Kant and Schiller pointed out, they leave the old order of the instinct, in which the animals remain.
Eva’s first son is Kain, a man of the field, a farmer and founder of the first settlement (Gen 4,17); her second son is Abel, a shepherd. No human knows why Abel’s offering of an animal was pleasant to God and Kain’s grain not. They were on a field and Kain beat Abel to death. The text reveals nowhere what GOd meant about the sacrifices. Kain thought his sacrifice to be lessened – he was offended, he was jealous, he could not control his impulse. He is no criminal, he is man in full when he does his deed. The mark protects him from being killed, but he has to wander. The mark of Kain is the mark of man: He has the possibility to decide, he knows right from wrong, he has moral. He fails.
For the cultural theory it is important to note the power of the impulse and the knowledge of man about good and bad, that stand at the beginning.
Prometheus is a Titan, a mortal. He not only doubts the total knowledge of the Gods – he laughs about them. In the end he creates humans of his own and steals the fire. He gets punished.
His sacrilege – as the others – is culture-causing. He is – among other things – the founder of medicine. Aischylos lets the chorus say in his drama “Prometheus bound”: I made men cease from contemplating death. Dass Sterbliche auf ihren Tod hinstarren, schaffte ich ab. (That the mortals stare upon their death – I abandoned that.”

On the beginning is the sacrilege, die Untat, der Frevel, outrage. Man gets the highest and best what mankind can get – itself, the way of life, technology – by committing a monstrosity, bound to and by the results, the consequences of the ruthless deeds, the flood of pain and “Kümmernis” the offended celestial beings let descend on humanity – have to let descend.