10 questions about motive for crime – today to Gabriel Finkelstein

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12. Oktober 2022 von ibohnet

A series of conversations with writers, artists, scientists around the personal motive of their cultural work. Today with American historian and author Gabriel Finkelstein.

Gabriel is an associated professor of history working at the University of Colorado Denver in the USA. His scholarly interests and expertise areas are related to modern European culture, modern German culture, science, neuroscience, historiography, and he is also interested in travel and exploration, gender, marriage, and childhood. He has written several articles and a widely acclaimed book on Emil du Bois-Reymond. Therefore, I virtually met Gabriel, due to his multimedia activities related to Emil, just at the time when I was myself working on the book „Das rätselhafte Universum”, which contrasts Emil’s world riddles of the 19th century with those of current physics research. Since then, I have been following with great interest the small and large clues that Gabriel Finkelstein (under his real name or for said Emil) posts on Twitter. Accordingly, I look forward to learning more about Gabriel’s motives for engaging with science and society.

The man from overseas with a view on European Modernity

1. You are a historian of modern European history; you are, among other things, a great connoisseur of Emil du Bois-Reymond, whom you rightly describe as „the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century“; accordingly, you are very well acquainted with the history of natural sciences and doing research in this field as well.  What is your motive? What is the driving force for you and your activities in this field?

I’m interested in the origins of our modernity. Studying science, and in particular, German contributions to it, seems central to this endeavor, and Emil du Bois-Reymond offered me a fascinating subject. First, he pioneered technical methods of investigating the nervous system. If we ever develop androids, it will be because of his work. Second, he cautioned that scientists would never understand consciousness, a claim that continues to animate both the philosophy of mind and the field of neuroscience. Third, he was the first professor in Germany to convert to Darwinism, as well as the first to teach the Darwinian theory in the form we recognize today. Fourth, he was one of the founders of my own discipline, arguing that science is the only aspect of culture that has evidenced demonstrable progress. Finally, as a public figure with a strong interest in the Enlightenment, he reminds us that Germany owes as much to traditions of tolerance and restraint as it does to those of intolerance and excess. Du Bois-Reymond may not have been Voltaire, but he was Voltaire’s heir.

2. In addition to research and teaching activities you are also active in communication and publication. What does it mean for you, or in other words, does your publishing work give you a specific kind of pleasure?

I have an Austrian friend who makes documentaries who once told me that 100 million people have seen his films on television! I’m never going to have that kind of audience, but I spent 25 years researching du Bois-Reymond, and I want readers to recognize his originality and importance. It has been a pleasant surprise to see that my biography is of interest not only to historians but also to scientists, philosophers, and the public.

3. How do you work as an author?

Slowly and methodically. First, I read everything my subjects wrote. Then I read everything people wrote about them. Then I read about their time. I think I am going to have to shorten this process by relying more on secondary scholarship.

4. Is there a specific recurring theme in your writing, or in other words, to what extent do basic issues vary in your publications?

I like to tell stories of lesser-known figures who did important work that deserves to be rediscovered.

5. Do you have role models, probably also German ones?

The two friends Emil du Bois-Reymond and Hermann von Helmholtz among scientists. And I like Owen Chadwick, Tony Judt, Leszek Kołakowski, and Karl Löwith among intellectual historians. Jacob Bronowski was the historian of science who inspired me to go into the field.

6. What constitutes good publishing from your point of view?

It’s great to have an editor knowledgeable enough to find good referees. I’ve been fortunate in this regard. I was also blessed with a senior copy editor who corrected mistakes in my style. That sort of thing doesn’t happen much anymore.

7. What are you currently writing?

Currently I’m working historical writings of Henry Thomas Buckle, Hippolyte Taine, and Emil du Bois-Reymond. These 19th-century intellectuals spurred their professional colleagues to develop a methodology of contextualization that has remained, for better or worse, the standard of my discipline. Moreover, they are some of the originators of narratives of “Big History” that have caught contemporary imagination. Buckle espoused a progressive view that saw the growth of knowledge as the engine of historical progress; Taine favored a regressive view that blamed French decline on the Revolution, and du Bois-Reymond promulgated a neutral view that identified science as the measure of progress, albeit at the cost of traditional humanist values. Each owed a debt to Comte; what is surprising is the divergence of their outlook.

8. What role does the “Zeitgeist” play for you?

It’s an interesting but vague concept. My main objection to the idea of a Zeitgeist is that it implies that there’s only one general mood. I don’t necessarily agree. There are always dissenting voices; the question for the historian is to determine whether they represent anything more than isolated opinion. By the 1870s railroads and literacy had spread to such an extent that every corner of society could find a newspaper to interpret events. But then it’s hard to tell if anyone took seriously what they read. It might be that the Zeitgeist is merely an artifact of intellectuals airing their frustrations for public consumption.

9. What would you like to see from your work as a public scholar?

I’d like to change the image of the German past. Historians tend to ignore science, and those who don’t tend to focus on Romantic topics. What gets lost is an entire realm of research that laid the foundations of our views today.

In graduate school I had an advisor who was expert on the Weimar Republic. He cautioned me not to see German history as an express train with one stop in 1918 and another in 1933. Foreshortening events doesn’t do justice to the past. By the same token, the history of German science is often portrayed the same way: an express train with one stop in Jena and the next in Auschwitz. German science, like German history, is more than just a fable of aberrant thinking.

10. And last but not least: What question would you like to ask yourself at the end?

The question I’d ask is, Was your career worth the sacrifice? And the answer is, I don’t know. I’ve always been interested in the history of science, but it wasn’t the easiest discipline to master. In college I studied physics. Boy, that was humbling! Then there’s the process of becoming a historian, which requires languages, and research, and writing, and teaching, and finding a job, all of which was much more of a struggle than I had imagined. But I’ve had three major consolations. The first is that I didn’t waste my talent. As hard the life of a scholar is, most people never get the chance to study. It’s an enormous privilege. The second is that history is endlessly fascinating. There’s always something new to learn. And the last, and the most inspiring, are the people I’ve met, both now and from the past. No times are ever easy, but history reminds you of the countless individuals who meet life with courage, and decency, and grace.

Dear Gabriel Finkelstein, many thanks for this inspiring interview!

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