Einstein and the Cultural Roots of Modern Science

Gerald Holton, Daedalus, Vol. 127, No. 1, Science in Culture (Winter, 1998), pp. 1-44


The fruits of scientific research are nourished by many roots, including the earlier work of other scientists. Significantly, Albert Einstein himself characterized his work as the “Maxwellian Program.”1

But the imagination of scientists often draws also on another, quite different, “extrascientific” type of source. In Einstein’s own intellectual autobiography, he asserted that reading David Hume and Ernst Mach had crucially aided in his early discoveries.2 Such hints point to one path that historical scholarship on Einstein, to this day, has hardly explored— tracing the main cultural roots that may have helped shape Einstein’s scientific ideas in the first place, for example, the literary or philosophic aspect of the cultural milieu in which he and many of his fellow scientists grew up.3 To put the question more generally, as Erwin Schrodinger did in 1932: To what extent is the pursuit of science milieubedingt, where the word bedingt can have the strict connective sense of “dependent on,” the more gentle and useful meaning of “being conditioned by,” or, as I prefer, “to be in resonance with”? In short, the main thrust of this essay is to explore how the cultural milieu in which Einstein found himself resonated with and conditioned his science.

There are major studies of such milieu resonances for earlier scientists: for example, the effect of the neo-Platonic philosophy on the imagination of seventeenth-century figures such as Kepler and Galileo; the theological interests that affected Newton’s work; the adherence to Naturphilosophie that supported the discoveries of Oersted, J. R. Mayer, and Ampere; or the connection between the religious beliefs of the Puritan period and the science of the day, described in the apt metaphor that concludes Robert K. Merton’s famous 1938 monograph, “The cultural soil of seventeenth century England was peculiarly fertile for the growth and spread of science.”4

But there have thus far been few attempts to take up the influence of the cultural milieu on the scientific advances of twentieth-century physical scientists. The best known is that of Paul Forman, who more than two decades ago tried to interpret aspects of some scientists’ presentations of quantum mechanics chiefly as their response to the sociopolitical malaise in the Weimar Republic 5 —although that work has been vigorously disputed by John Hendry, Stephen Brush, and more recently by Kraft and Kroes.6 An example of a different sort is in an area in which Max Jammer and I have published, namely, the study of the extent to which Niels Bohr’s introduction of the complementarity principle into physics was influenced by his delight in Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophical writings, by his courses taken under the philosopher Harald Hoffding, and also, as he claimed, by his reading of William James.7

But so far, there have been few such investigations in the wider, intellectual-cultural direction. I have long thought (and taught) that the full understanding of any particular scientific advance requires attention to both content and context, employ ing the whole orchestra of instruments, so to speak, playing out the many interacting components, without which there cannot be a full description or understanding of a case. But this is rarely done, though a middle ground exists between the extremes of internalistic study of the text alone, on one end, and constructivist externalism on the other. Moreover, in tracing the contributions of twentieth-century physical scientists themselves, the bridge from the humanistic parts of culture to the scientific ones—which carried much traffic in the past—has narrowed and become fragile. That is a deplorable loss, and one that deserves our attention.

The specific case of Einstein demands such attention for at least two reasons. First, it may serve as an example for studying other major twentieth-century scientists whose work has been nourished by subterranean connections to elements of the humanistic tradition. Second, it will help us resolve an intriguing paradox that has plagued scholars concerned with the source and originality of Einstein’s creativity.


While it is fashionable for scholars to hide assiduously the private motivations and circumstances that initiated a specific research program, on this occasion it will be useful to sketch the personal trajectory that caused me to become aware of the puzzling, paradoxical aspects of Einstein’s early work.

I can fix the moment at which I was first drawn into this field of research. When the news of Einstein’s death on April 18, 1955, reached our physics department, my colleagues proposed a local commemoration of Einstein’s life and work. Although my own research was chiefly in experimental high-pressure physics, I had also begun to write on topics in the history of science, and so my assignment was to present how Einstein’s work had been analyzed by modern historians of science. Little did I know that this suggestion would start me on a search that eventually would change profoundly my life as a scholar.

First, I discovered to my dismay that practically nothing had been done by modern historians to study seriously Einstein’s scientific contributions—their roots, their structure, their devel opment, their wider influence. This was in striking contrast to the volume and distinction of scholarship on the work of scientists of earlier periods, which had examined and assessed the legacy of such giants as George Sarton, Otto Neugebauer, Joseph Needham, Marjorie Nicolson, Robert Merton, Alexander Koyre, Helene Metzger, Ludwig Fleck, and others—not to speak of their ancestors, such as Pierre Duhem and Ernst Mach. I seemed to be in virgin territory. Even among the many Einstein biographies, there were few serious sources.8

In truth, at the time of Einstein’s death he was still deeply respected, but chiefly by way of ancestral piety and for his courageous political opposition at the time to McCarthyism, the arms race, and the Cold War. Scientists generally regarded him as having become an obstinate seeker who had wasted his last decades pursuing in vain his program of finding a unified field theory; as he told a friend, “At Princeton they regard me as the village idiot.” Even his general relativity theory began to be widely taught again only after his death. In his last years, he had become a ghostly figure—a long way from the image of the vigorous young man, ready for a brilliant career.

Today, four decades later, this perception has vastly changed. To be sure, many bubbles are bursting from the deluge of trendy journalism, whose motto in writing on major figures is well summarized in a recent essay on Herman Melville that carried the headline “Forget the Whale—the Big Question is: Did He Beat His Wife?”9 But among the people at large Einstein’s image is perhaps more ubiquitous that ever; from professional science historians, there is now an increasing flood of good scholarship on Einstein, especially since a team of researchers at Boston University has begun to publish the volumes of Einstein’s Collected Papers, with their extraordinarily valuable editorial com ments providing further stimuli for research.

None of this could have been foreseen in 1955. In retrospect, I regret not having the wit, as I was drawn into this field, to quote Marie Curie. When asked why she took up the study of radioactivity, she is said to have replied, “Because there was no bibliography.” But as the historian Tetsu Hiroshige later commented, somebody had to take a “first step” in research on Einstein; eventually, it helped launch an industry analogous to the long-established ones on Newton or Darwin.10

That first step came in the form of a trip to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton to look for documents on which to base some original remarks at the memorial meeting. The key to access would be Helen Dukas, not only a trustee of Einstein’s estate, but active in Einstein’s household from 1928 as his secretary and later as general marshallin in the household—knowledgeable about much of his life and work, she was the untiring translator of his drafts into English and, as it turned out, endowed with an encyclopedic memory of the details of Einstein’s vast correspondence that had passed through her hands.

Elsewhere I have described something of my first encounter.11 In the bowels of Fuld Hall at the Institute was a large vault, similar to those in banks. The heavy door was partly open, and inside, illuminated dimly by a lamp on her desk, was Helen Dukas, still handling correspondence, among twenty or so file drawers that turned out to contain Einstein’s scientific corre spondence and manuscripts.

Once I had calmed her inborn suspicion about strangers and was allowed to have access to the files, I found myself in a state of indescribable exhilaration, in a fantastic treasure house?the kind of which most historians dream. Those documents, almost all unpublished, were arranged in a chaotic state through which only Miss Dukas knew her way with ease; they seemed to breathe the life of the great scientist and his correspondents from all points of the compass, a rich mixture of science and philosophical speculation, of humor and dead-serious calculations.

Eventually, during two stays at the Institute, I induced Miss Dukas to help reorganize the papers into an archive suitable for scholarly research, to have a catalogue raisonne made, and by and by to add to the files at the Institute what she called “the more personal correspondence,” which she had kept at Einstein’s Mercer Street home. The whole lot, now numbering about 45,000 documents, has since been transferred by Einstein’s will to the library at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Represented in that collection are most major physicists in Europe and abroad who were living at that time, as well as authors, artists, statesmen, and the wretched of the earth, seeking help. The collection is indeed a microscope on half a century of history.

It is an amazingly diverse correspondence. Take, for example, the letters exchanged during just one of Einstein’s immensely busy and creative periods (1914-18); they indicate a wide spectrum of interests among the correspondents—mostly scientists? even if gauged just by the references made to the works of major scientific, literary, and philosophical figures, including Ampere, Boltzmann, Hegel, Helmholtz, Hertz, Hume, Kant, Kirchhoff, Mach, Poincare, and Spinoza. And one word repeatedly ap peared in the correspondence—Weltbild, only faintly translat able as “worldpicture” or “worldview.” Initially I hardly knew how important this concept, and these authors, would become in understanding Einstein’s whole research program.

But to return to my mission at the time. How to proceed? In that mountain of papers at Princeton, the question of which problem I would use to start on a historical study was almost irrelevant; wherever one looked, there were exciting possibili ties. For example, what role did experiments play in the genesis of the special relativity theory? Like practically everyone else, I had thought that the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1886 was the crucial influence that led Einstein to the relativity theory. (Indeed, I had just recently published a textbook on physics that had said so.) I had read that opinion everywhere: Robert Millikan, for example, after describing the Michelson-Morley experiment,  simply concluded with the sentence, “Thus was born the special theory of relativity.”12

But looking at samples of Einstein’s correspondence, it turned out to be not so simple. One such warning occurs in his letter of February 9, 1954, to F. G. Davenport: “One can therefore understand why in my personal struggle Michelson’s experiment played no role or at least no decisive role.” Indeed, I later found that Einstein had repeated his stance over and over again.13 He had typically gone his own way, relying on well-established, much older findings—experiments by Faraday, Bradley, and Fizeau—saying, “They were enough.”14 The haunting question suggests itself: what helped young Einstein make the leap when other, more established physicists could have done it so much earlier?

Another example of a key document in the files was a copy of a letter dated April 14, 1901, from Einstein to his friend and fellow student Marcel Grossmann, the existence of which was known from Seelig’s biography.15 Its eye-opening content will become clearer when we later reread that letter in the context of others in the archive. Here we need only the key sentence, in which the twenty-three-year-old beginner announces the overarching theme that would guide him through the rest of his career: “It is a wonderful feeling to recognize the unity [Einheitlichkeit] of a complex of appearances, which, to direct sense experience, seem to be separate things.”


These hasty first glimpses of the products of a creative mind seemed puzzling, incoherent, contradictory to me at first. They also seemed to reinforce the paradox I have mentioned before, which, in its simplest form, runs like this: It is not difficult to document that, from the start, Einstein proudly rebelled against main conventions in science as well as the social and political norms of his time. But it can be shown that at the same time he also was deeply devoted to large parts of the existing cultural canons. Was this dichotomy a hindrance, or could it possibly be a clue to understanding Einstein’s uniqueness in a new way?

As to Einstein’s rebelliousness, that is easily summarized in its various forms—where “rebelliousness” is a shorthand term for such traits as disobedience or insubordination to authority, a tendency to be revolutionary, obstinately nonconformist, dissident, defiant, and, in a phrase he applied to himself, “stubborn as a mule.” That image of Einstein is embedded both in the public perception and throughout the literature. For example, an Einstein biography written jointly by the mathematician Banesh Hoffmann (who once worked with Einstein) and Helen Dukas herself is entitled Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel.6 Lewis Feuer, in his 1974 book Einstein and the Generations of Science, presented an Einstein whose whole attitude in life and science was shaped by the countercultural milieu of the throng of young revolutionaries of every sort who lived in Zurich and Bern around the turn of the century.17 Even the New York Times seemed to view the confirmation of the predictions of Einstein’s general relativity theory as a grave social threat. On November 16, 1919, under the title “Jazz in Scientific World,” the newspaper reported at length that Charles Poor, a professor of celestial mechanics at Columbia University, thought Einstein’s success showed that the spirit of unrest of that period had “invaded science,” and the Times added its own warning: “When is space curved? When do parallel lines meet? When is a circle not a circle? When are the three angles of a triangle not equal to two right angles? Why, when Bolshevism enters the world of science, of course.”18

But concentrating only on that aspect of Einstein overlooks an entirely different aspect of his persona, namely, Einstein as a cultural traditionalist, even within the limits set by his innate skepticism. If it can be proven that these opposites are combined in Einstein (as I shall show), his type of rebellion would be far from the modern image of our twentieth-century rebels in art, poetry, politics, parts of academe, or folklore—rebels who typically reject the social-political conventions of the bourgeoisie along with its cultural canon. Moreover, we shall see how Einstein’s assertion of obstinate nonconformity enabled him to clear the ground ruthlessly of obstacles impeding his great scientific ad vance, even though the program of that advance itself ran along one of the oldest traditionalist lines. Skepticism, while necessary,  was not enough to build the Temple of Isis, to use the metaphor that had long been current among German scientists.19 Einstein made that crystal clear in a famous letter to his friend Michele Besso, who had urged him now to apply Ernst Mach’s skepticism, as he had earlier, in attacking the infernal difficulties of quantum physics. Einstein replied: “You know what I think about it. [Mach’s way] cannot give birth to anything living; it can only exterminate harmful vermin.”20

We shall document Einstein’s rebellious image in more detail; then examine the contradictory element; and demonstrate how the paradoxi cal tension between Einstein’s rebellious image and his contradictory side was put to constructive use in his work. In particular, we shall examine the influence of this tension as he adopted with daring courage a set of personal presuppositions that had a history reaching back to antiquity— but for which, as he put it to Max Born, moral support came only from his own “little finger.”21 For these courageous presuppositions, on which his early success depended, he could and did draw on supporting allies— little noticed so far but far more powerful even than Einstein’s little finger—i.e., ideas he had absorbed through his cultural roots, from what Merton had called, in another context, the “cultural soil” of the time.22 In the end, we will be able to understand Einstein’s program, method, and results in a new way.


Here, a side excursion into the terminology and social stratification of Einstein’s milieu is necessary. When talking about “the cultural roots of Einstein’s science”—and especially today, when various definitions of “culture” are violently battling for primacy among anthropologists—a brief summary is needed of key concepts operative in the German context at the time of young Einstein’s formation, in order to understand the framework within which he and his work found their place, as well as the class to which he belonged, including the aspirations of that class. The main concepts that are relevant here are Kultur and its compan ions, Zivilisation and Bildung, as well as the two composite notions of Kulturtreger and Bildungsbergertum.

The German language distinguished more sharply between Kultur and Zivilisation than did the English or French languages between their equivalents.23 Although both Kultur and Zivilisation were generally understood in German-speaking Europe as supra individual, collective phenomena, typically Zivilisation focused on the material and technological side, while Kultur—as first adapted in the German context by Johann Gottfried Herder— referred to the spiritual and value-related products. In extreme cases, Zivilisation was identified with superficial “French reason,” Kultur with deep “German soul.”24

At the level of the individual, the term Bildung (loosely translated as “intellectual formation,” “self-refinement,” or “education”) referred to the process through which a person could acquire the attitudes and products of Kultur. In turn, the nation’s Kultur as a whole was sustained—and advanced at its upper, creative level—by such gebildete individuals. Bildung thus meant much more than job-related training; it defined an ideal of human development. And a chief tool for the young to acquire Bildung at its best, albeit for only a small fraction of the population, was by beginning one’s study in the Gymnasium, the neo humanistic secondary school for ages ten to eighteen or so. The students were expected to be quite thoroughly acquainted with the great German poets and thinkers (the Dichter und Denker) as well as classics from other cultures, especially of antiquity.

Happily, the team now preparing Einstein’s Collected Papers has found the curricula at Einstein’s Munich schools as well as at the high school in Aarau. A quick scan of a few mandatory parts of the canon gives a good impression of how the young minds of Einstein and his cohorts were meant to be shaped. Initially there are readings from the Bible; then Latin enters at age ten, and Greek at age thirteen; Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Ovid’s Metamorphoses are read; then, under the supervision of his only beloved teacher, Ferdinand Ruess, poems by Uhland, Schiller, Goethe, and others; Goethe’s prose poem “Hermann and Dorothea” is studied along with Xenophone’s “Anabasis”; and next year, more Schiller, Herder, Cicero, Virgil. At Aarau, Einstein encounters more of the classics in German, French, and Italian; a typical entry for his course in German in 1896 reads: “History of literature from Lessing to the death of Goethe. Read  Getz von Berlichingen . . . ,” and the list ends with Iphigenia and Torquato Tasso.

Such knowledge also was intended to contribute to forging a common bond between the gebildete individuals raised on similar Gymnasium curricula throughout German-speaking countries, regardless of the particular professional discipline they were later to study at the universities, whether law, medicine, the humanities, or science—a preparation for the common un derstanding of that class in their conversations, letters, and popular lectures, across specialties and even in their intimate personal relations.

But while the Gymnasium placed heavy emphasis on Latin and Greek and other aspects of “pure” Bildung, it had little concern for the kind of practical knowledge offered in other types of German secondary schools without such attention to classical languages, for instance, the so-called Realschulen (where Einstein’s father Hermann and uncle Jakob, headed for electrical engineering, had received their secondary education). Needless to say, those other schools were considered, with a dose of snobbism, to be culturally less valuable; their graduates were generally not considered for university training and hence un likely to achieve the status of Kulturtreger.

Here it is crucial to understand a subtlety in the German concept Kulturtreger. The term had a double meaning: both carrier and pillar of Kultur. On the one hand, gebildete individuals—chiefly the graduates of Gymnasium who had gone on to the universities—were seen as personally carrying or even embodying Kultur, living among its products, and, in the case of the most outstanding ones, advancing the Kultur. On the other hand, as a group they functioned also as the chief supporters (Trager, or “pillars”) of the nation’s collective project of Kultur. Although the term Kulturtreger itself became generally popular only after World War I, it was a key concept earlier, as the following episode illustrates. In 1910, a bill in Prussia proposed a change in the three-tiered electoral law so that Kulturtreger be expressly favored; they would be put into a smaller pool of voters “above the class for which their wealth would qualify them,” so that their votes would count more.25

At the level of social stratification, most of the Kulturtreger could be identified as belonging to what has been called the Bildungsbergertum (the educated members of the bourgeoisie). The sociologist Karl Mannheim usefully distinguished two components in the modern bourgeoisie. From the beginning, he wrote, it had two kinds of social roots:”on the one hand the owners of capital, on the other those whose only capital consisted in their education.”26 In nineteenth-century Germany, the latter formed the Bildungsbergertum; their social ranks were symbolized by the certificates they had attained during the process of Bildung and often also by a position within the hierarchies of the civil service. Bildungsberger worked predominantly in professions that required university training, as physicians, lawyers, and clergy, as well as teachers and professors and other higher officials in government service.

Variants of this social stratum of the Bildungsbergertum existed in many countries, but its social clout was particularly strong in nineteenth-century Germany. First, in the context of its relatively backward economy at the time, the importance of serving in the governments of the multitude of German territories large or small favored the prominence of the Bildungsbergertum over the economic bourgeoisie. Second, in the absence of a nation-state and a centralized economy, German nationalism focused on Kultur as the basis of the nation. What held the conception of Germany together was perhaps chiefly the cultural and scholarly output of its poets and drama tists, thinkers, composers, and, eventually, its scientists. One thinks here of Goethe and Schiller, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Holderlin and Johann Joachim Winckelmann (the prophets of Hellenism), Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel, Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, as well as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven.

Thus, the academic elite among the Kulturtreger had fundamentally a twofold mission. One was to help secure, through their scholarship, the foundation of German nationhood—though, for most of them, this also involved keeping their distance from participation in political life—and so they tended to be looked up to by those who did not, or not yet, qualify for that rank.  The other was to help prepare a cadre of gebildete individuals, high level functionaries who were, to adapt Fritz Ringer’s terminology, “Mandarins.”27

It is ironic that whenever Einstein, after becoming world famous, traveled abroad to lecture, an official from the local German embassy or consulate would secretly report to the foreign office in Berlin on how Einstein had behaved and how he had been received. A typical account, now available, would state that Einstein had behaved well enough, and Germany would be wise to use him to conduct what one report calls “Kulturpropaganda.”28 In short, he might yet be put to use as a Mandarin.

As Mannheim noted, there existed among the Kulturtreger themselves a small group of “free-floating” (freischwebende) intellectuals who led marginal existences, lacked a well-defined anchor in society, and had rather critical and even rebellious inclinations. They could not or would not share the staid material comforts of the Bildungsberger and disliked the whole business of “climbing up to the next rung of social existence.”29 At this point we can connect these concepts with the status and hopes of the Einstein family, asking what young Einstein’s place was within the cultural-social order of the time.

The Einsteins could trace their origins in southern Germany to the seventeenth century.30 On the male side of the family, they had largely come from the small town of Buchau, in Swabia, which in midcentury had some two thousand inhabitants, of whom a few hundred were Jews. On the maternal side, the origins were chiefly in the similarly small Swabian town of Jebenhausen. Einstein’s maternal grandfather Julius Koch left Jebenhausen for Cannstadt near Stuttgart and became quite wealthy through the grain trade. Einstein’s mother, Pauline, thus be longed to the bourgeoisie chiefly by virtue of capital. His father Hermann’s preparation in technical school and technical trade? like that of his brother and business partner, the engineer Jakob—also did not quite qualify them as part of Bildungsbergertum, and certainly not as Kulturtrager, though one may doubt that Hermann ever gave any thought to that. But at last the family tree had sprouted, in the form of Albert Einstein, a promise to grow into that higher social region—if only the bright lad would behave as he should!

We can now reformulate the paradoxical tension of Einstein’s tendency toward social-political rebelliousness and his adher ence to the products of Kultur. Was he just one of these rootless, rebellious intellectuals, reneging on his mission as a Kulturtreger, or did his sympathies lie with the true carriers and pillars of national culture? To make the question more graphic, imagine a scene in which Einstein first stands accused of being a free floating intellectual intent on undermining authority, and then is defended from that charge. The testimonials offered by either side will aid in understanding better the motivations behind Einstein’s behavior—and his science.


A prosecuting attorney would find it easy to establish, both by chronology as well as psychosociological profile, a portrait of Einstein as a rebellious individual throughout his life. I have no competence or deep interest in searching for the possible causes; but as to the documentable facts, many details are well known, and the pattern they form is persuasive. Einstein made his obstinacy known almost from birth, refusing to speak until about age two and a half, or, as Erik Erikson remarked, until he could begin to speak sensibly in whole sentences.31 When Albert reached school age, his penchant for defiance took a different form. In her memoir, his sister Maja reported that in opposition to his thoroughly secular home environment, young Albert decided to become a religious Jew and accordingly “obeyed in all particulars the religious commands,” including the dietary ones.32 But after he had advanced to the Munich Luitpold Gymnasium and encountered the state-prescribed, compulsory courses on Jewish religion there, Albert’s interest in Judaism came to an abrupt end. His reading in scientific books led him, as he put it in his autobiography, to the conviction that organized religious educa tion left him “with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.” He now turned to a “positively fanatic [orgy of] free thinking,” having formed a “suspicion against every kind of authority”; he found solace in what he later called his “holy little book of Geometry,” which was given to him as a present for self-study—a first hint of where his destiny would lead him.33

But as one would expect, he found school life too regimented for his taste, and he dropped out of the Gymnasium at fifteen and a half, surely much to the relief of some of his teachers. About a year later, he renounced his citizenship as well. When he moved for his final year of high school to Aarau, Switzerland, he arrived as a thoroughly alienated youth, having left his school, his country, and his family; he even failed in his first attempt to enroll at the Swiss Polytechnic Institute. Once Albert got into the Polytechnic he continued his “in your face” rebelliousness, to the point that when speaking to his main professor, Heinrich Friedrich Weber—on whom his career might well depend?he refused to use the obligatory title and obstinately called him just “Herr Weber.” In turn, Weber did nothing to help him in his job search later.

Einstein’s lifestyle at the time was distinctly bohemian.34 He lived on the margins of bourgeois society economically, socially, and (by the standards of the day and the place) morally; he lived together with his fellow student Mileva Maric, who bore their first child before they were married in 1903. To be sure, they passionately loved each other, and as their letters show, they were of one mind in railing against the “philistine” life and conventions they saw all around them.

Even in Einstein’s great paper of 1905 on relativity, one can find many touches of that self-confident defiance and seeming arrogance, not only with respect to accepted ideas in science, but also to accepted style and practice. Thus the paper contained none of the expected footnote references or credits, only a mention of his friend Michele Besso, a person who of course would be unknown among research physicists.

We shall come back to that magical first period of Einstein’s brilliance. Einstein, who often characterized himself as a gypsy, at first found only temporary teaching jobs, and those tended to end abruptly and noisily; finally, after the intercession of the father of his friend Marcel Grossmann, he found refuge at the Patent Office. By 1909, he began to be sought after by universities and in 1914 accepted a call to the University in Berlin and the Prussian Academy, chiefly to gain freedom from teaching and other obligations. In fact, he managed to avoid turning out more than a single Ph.D. of his own during his lifetime.35 As director of the Institute for Physics, his record shows that his model of leadership was to pay minimal attention to his directo rial duties, even to the recruitment of new members or to draw ing up regulations.36 “Red tape,” he explained, “encases the spirit like the bands of a mummy.” When he first met John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the two men compared notes on how to get things done. “I put my faith in organization,” Rockefeller said; “I put my faith in intuition,” came Einstein’s reply.37

When war broke out in August of 1914, ninety-three of the chief intellectuals of Germany published a manifesto with the significant title “Appeal to the World of Culture,” supporting the military. Einstein, for his part, supported a pacifist counterdeclaration entitled “Appeal to the Europeans”; how ever, it was never published, having attracted a grand total of only four signatures. But throughout the war Einstein never made a secret of his pacifist and cosmopolitan attitude, and in an increasingly hostile Germany he took care to express publicly his support for the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine. He also made it plain that he regarded himself again as a Jew and indeed as a religious person; of course, as shown in several essays in his book Ideas and Opinions, his idea of religion was contrary to any religious establishment. It was a Spinozistic pantheism that he called “cosmic religion,” and he put his posi tion simply and seriously in one of his letters: “I am a deeply religious unbeliever.”38

After his move to America when World War II broke out, the authorities kept Einstein uninformed about nuclear research. On the contrary, he was carefully monitored by the military and the FBI, which considered him a security risk. The FBI files on Einstein are voluminous; J. Edgar Hoover apparently was personally convinced that Einstein had to be watched—the physicist’s whole history showed that here was a really dangerous rebel.


One could add even more weight to the side of the balance that measures Einstein’s iconoclastic nature. But if now the defense attorney for the accused is given some moments for rebuttal, a counterargument might be introduced by noting that Einstein’s rebelliousness was only half the story; the other half was his selective reverence for tradition. Indeed, the counsel for the defense might well urge us to consider it a hallmark of genius to tolerate and perhaps even relish what seems to us such apparent contradiction.

For there were significant limits to the offenses cited. For example, one might be more lenient about Einstein’s leaving his Gymnasium early, since he preferred reading classics of science and literature on his own. After all, the school system was by no means beloved by all its pupils—not least because it devoted itself not only to educational goals but also to political indoctrination. Although there were variations among school systems in different parts of Germany, an official Prussian publication was typical in setting forth the plan and aims for the upper schools of 1892, when Einstein was a Gymnasiast. It announced, “Instruction in German is, next to that in religion and history, ethically the most significant in the organism of our higher schools. The task to be accomplished here is extraordinarily difficult and can be properly met only by those teachers who warm up the impressionable hearts of our youths for the Ger man language, for the destiny of the German people, and the German spiritual greatness. And such teachers must be able to rely on their deeper understanding of our language and its his tory, while also being borne up by enthusiasm for the treasures of our literature, and being filled with patriotic spirit.”39 Clearly, Bildung and Kultur were here instrumentalized in the service of the state. To young Einstein, it smelled of militarism.

Moreover, when the public and his fellow scientists later hailed him as the great scientific revolutionary, Einstein always took pains to deny this label. He emphasized over and over again that his work was firmly embedded in the tradition of physics and had to be considered an evolution of it, rather than a revolution. He would have been appalled to know that a few years after his death a philosopher would assert that a wall of incommensura bility existed between the world of Newton and the world of Einstein.

But points such as these pale in comparison to a central one: Einstein’s lifelong interest in and devotion to the European liter ary and philosophical cultural tradition, and especially to German literary and philosophical Kultur. That allegiance, in which his science was clearly embedded, had been fostered early in his childhood. While the classics of music were offered in their home by his mother, Einstein’s father would assemble the family in the evening around the lamplight to read aloud from works by such writers as Friedrich Schiller or Heinrich Heine.40 The family perceived itself as participating in the movement of general Bildung in this way, the uplifting of mind, character, and spirit that characterized the rising portion of the Bergertum. This was especially true for its Jewish segments. Kultur advocated and legitimized emancipation, and also provided a vehicle of social assimilation.

After all, during his scientifically most creative and intense period in Bern, Einstein formed with two young friends an “academy” for the self-study of scientific, philosophical, and literary classics. We have the list of the books they read and discussed at their meetings, which sometimes convened several times a week: Spinoza, Hume, Mach, Avenarius, Karl Pearson, Ampere, Helmholtz, Riemann, Dedekind, Clifford, Poincare, John Stuart Mill, and Kirchhoff, as well as Sophocles and Racine, Cervantes and Dickens.41 They would not have wanted to be ignorant of the cultural milieu, even if they did not necessarily agree with all they read.

To illuminate the point with but a single example: We know that Albert at the tender age of thirteen was introduced to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, starting with the Critique of Pure Reason, through his contacts with a regular guest at the Einstein home, Max Talmey.42 He reread Kant’s book at the age of sixteen and enrolled in a lecture course on Kant while at the Technical Institute in Zurich.43 He wrote a lengthy book review of a philosopher’s analysis of Kant, and at the Institute in Princeton his favorite topic of discussion with his friend Kurt Godel was, again, Kant.44 Einstein surely knew of the overwhelming influence Einstein and the Cultural Roots of Modern Science 19 ence of Kant on, for example, the late-nineteenth-century phi losophers arguing against materialism.

All this, typically, did not make Einstein a Kantian at all. While sympathizing with Kantian categories—and very likely to remember that Kant had listed “Unity” as the first of his categories45 —Einstein objected to the central point of Kant’s transcen dental idealism by denying the existence of the synthetic a priori, arguing: “[W]e do not conceive of the ‘categories’ as unalterable (conditioned by the nature of the understanding) [as Kant did], but as (in the logical sense) free conventions. They appear to be a priori only insofar as thinking without the positing of catego ries and of concepts in general would be as impossible as is breathing in a vacuum.”46 The essential point for him was, again, freedom, the “free play” of the individual imagination, within the empirical boundaries the world has set for us.

Thus Einstein’s reverence was carefully selective, even while his outreach into the traditional cultural environment was enor mous. He loved books, and they were his constant companions. A list of only those books found in the Einstein household that had been published up to 1910 includes the works of Aristophanes, Boltzmann, Ludwig B?chner, Cervantes, William Clifford, Dante, Richard Dedekind, Dickens, Dostoyevski, Frederick Hebbel, the collected works of Heine (two editions), Helmholtz, Homer, Alexander von Humboldt (both the collected works and his Cosmos), many books of Kant, Lessing, Mach, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Sophocles, Spinoza, and, for good measure, Mark Twain.47 But what looms largest are the collected works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: a thirty-six-volume edition and another of twelve volumes, plus two volumes on his optics, one on the exchange of letters between Goethe and Schiller, and also a separate volume of the tragedy Faust, which will become a significant part of our story.

Some of those books have such early dates of publication that they may have been heirlooms; others must have been lost in the turmoil of the various migrations and separations. But this list, though only a part of the total library, indicates roughly what an aspiring member of the culture-carrying class would want to know about. And their schooling had prepared them, willing or  not, to take such exemplars of higher culture seriously, not least as preparation for school examinations.

Einstein’s required courses in high school were mentioned earlier; at the Polytechnic Institute, where Einstein was training to be a high-school physics teacher, he took all the obvious required science courses, including differential equations, ana lytical geometry, and mechanics—although what he most wanted to learn about, Maxwell’s electromagnetism, he had to study on his own. In his first year, he enrolled in two additional optional courses, one on the philosophy of Kant, as noted earlier, and one entitled “Goethe, Werke and Weltanschauung.” No doubt—he had been captured.

I think we now have at least an outline of the gestalt of young Einstein’s complex intellectual-cultural inner life and an idea of his perception of his quite individualistic place among the Kulturtreger—to which his whole education, both through com pulsory or private reading, had carried him and where in fact he found a satisfying spiritual home.


The opposing evidences—Einstein’s rebelliousness and his atten tion to tradition?having now been presented, is not the obvious conclusion that in Einstein we are dealing with a sort of split personality? The answer is no; we have seen two different per spectives of one coherent mental structure that uses the appar ently conflicting parts to support each other.

The bonds between the apparent opposites are of three kinds. The first lies in the presence of an alternative subcurrent in the Kultur itself. As I have hinted, Kultur carried within itself a strain that we may call a “tradition of rebellion,” which made it in fact potentially unstable and volatile. The anti-Enlightenment Sturm und Drang and Romantic products of the earlier period had become canonized and remained part of the tradition-bound, late nineteenth-century Kultur; the ideal of the active, creative, unbounded individual continued to be championed. Employing the evocative phrase Max Weber had used in a different context, such a person had to accept the plain and simple duty “to find and obey the demon that holds the fibers of one’s very life”—to strive for authenticity and intensity of feeling, even heroism and sacrifice.48 The purest expression of individuality was embodied in the genius, who led an often marginal, tormented, and, by conventional standards, failing or even demonic existence but who nonetheless saw and created things far beyond the reach of comfortable philistines.49 Those philistines were the enemies for the Sturm und Drang authors, as they were for Einstein.

These two strains in Kultur, the rebellious and the traditional, often occurred in a complementary manner. Those formed by this Kultur were prepared to flout convention, while at the same time revering the outstanding cultural figures of all times. Though willing to dissent, they also understood themselves as loyal members of a supratemporal community of exceptional minds that existed in a universe parallel to that of the philistine masses. This mixture was not considered contradictory, although note must be taken here of what history was to record later in blood stained letters: When these elements of rebelliousness later broke away from their stabilizing counterparts in culture, they flamed up for a time in twentieth-century Germany into the transforma tion and destruction of Kultur itself—as Einstein and so many others were to experience. But during his formative years, this complementary nature of Kultur still functioned, and it was precisely what Einstein needed for his work and life.

The second of the three bonds connecting those seem ingly contradictory aspects of Einstein lies, unsurprisingly, in his approach to physics, both in his manner of radically clearing obstacles and in how he achieved his insights with the aid of tools from the traditional culture. Looking at his papers and letters, one can almost watch the seemingly centrifugal tendencies of Einstein’s spirit being used and tamed to his service. I found the first hint in the letter he wrote in the spring of 1905 to his friend Carl Habicht.50 In a single paragraph, Einstein poured out an accounting of major works he was then completing. First on his list is what is now known as the discovery of the quantum nature of light, as evidenced in the photoelectric effect. Another was his prediction and detailed explanation of a random, zigzag movement of small bodies in suspension that are large enough to be seen through a microscope, in which he traced the cause in exact detail to the bombardment of these visible bodies by the invisible submicroscopic chaos of molecules. (The existence of such motion, referred to as Brownian movement, was known.) And the last of the papers-in-progress he referred to was what became the original presentation of Einstein’s relativity, identifying that work to Habicht only as an evolutionary act, a “modification of the teachings of space and time.” To achieve that, in the published paper he casually discarded the ether, which had been preoccupying the lives of a large number of prominent physicists for more than a century, with the nonchalant remark that it was “superfluous”; dismissed the ideas of the absolutes of space, time, and simultaneity; showed that the basic differences between the two great warring camps, the electromagnetic and mechanistic worldviews, were easily dissolved into a new, relativistic one; and finally, as an afterthought, derived E=mc2.

Each of these papers, completed in 1905, is a dazzling achievement, and, what is more, they always have seemed to be in three completely different fields. But I could not rid myself of the thought that behind their obvious differ ences something common was motivating these articles, published rapidly, one right after the other. Something was missing in that exuberant letter to Habicht.

An important lead was found at last in an unpublished letter Einstein had written to Max von Laue in January 1952, which indicates the hidden connection.51 To put it very briefly, Einstein’s study of Maxwell’s theory, which had led him to the theory of relativity, had also convinced him that radiation has an atomistic (that is to say, quantum) structure, exhibiting fluctuation phenomena in the radiation pressure, and that these fluctuation should show up in the Brownian movement of a tiny suspended mirror. Thus the three separate fireworks—relativity, the quantum, and Brownian movement—had originated in a common cartridge.

Moreover, once this is understood, Einstein’s approach to the problem in each of these diverse papers could be recognized as having essentially the same style and components. Unlike most other physicists of the time, Einstein did not start with a review of puzzling new experimental facts, the latest news from the laboratory, but rather by stating his dissatisfaction with what seemed to him asym metries or other incongruities that others would dismiss as being merely aesthetic in nature. He then proposed a principle of great generality, analogous to the axioms Euclid had placed at the head of that “holy” geometry book. Then Einstein showed in each case how to remove, as one of the deduced consequences, his original dissatis faction; at the end, briefly and in a seemingly offhand way, he proposed a few experiments that would bear out the predictions following from his theory. Once more there was only one Einstein, not three.

Most significant, the fundamental motivation behind each paper was really the very same one he had announced five years earlier in the letter to Marcel Grossmann in which he revealed what would become his chief preoccu pation in science for the rest of his life: “To recognize the unity of a complex of appearances which . . . seem to be separate things.” Thus, the paper on the quantum nature of light begins with a typical sentence: “There is a deep formal difference between the theoretical understanding which physicists have about gases and other ponderable bodies, and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic processes in the so-called vacuum.”52 That is to say, energy of palpable bodies is concentrated, and not infinitely divisible; but as a light wave spreads out, its energy at a given point constantly decreases.

Why should atomicity not apply to both matter and light energy? The Brownian movement article declared that if there is chaotic motion, spontaneous fluctuation in the microcosm of classical thermodynamics, it must also show up in the macrocosm of visible bodies. And the relativity paper in effect removed the old barriers between space and time, energy and mass, electromag netic and mechanistic worldviews. In the end, all these papers endeavored to bring together and unify apparent opposites, removing the illusory barriers between them.


The longer I studied the papers and correspondence of this scientist, the more impressed I became by his courage to place his confidence, often against all available evidence, in a few fundamental guiding ideas or presuppositions, which he called “categories” in a non-Kantian sense, i.e., freely chosen. In studying other major scientists, I have repeat edly found the same courageous tendency to place one’s bets early on a few nontestable but highly motivating pre suppositions, which I refer to as themata. In Einstein’s case, an example of themata would be simplicity, harking back to Newton’s first rule of philosophy: “Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.”53 Einstein wrote veritable hymns to the concept of simplicity as a guide in science, and he exemplified it in his own lifestyle.54

Another of his thematic presuppositions was symmetry, a concept he introduced into physics in 1905, considering it basic—when most of his readers surely wrote it off as an aesthetic, optional choice. It has since become one of the fundamental ideas in modern physics. Yet another thema was his belief in strict Newtonian causality and complete ness in the description of natural phenomena, which ex plains why Einstein could not accept as final Niels Bohr’s essentially probabilistic, dice-playing universe. Einstein’s utter belief in the continuum was another such thema, as in the field concepts that enchanted him from the moment he saw his first magnet compass in boyhood.

There are a few more themata to which he also clung obstinately. But beyond that, we must ask a key question: Because the themata are not a priori or innate but choosable, are those that are selected chosen at random from some infinite set of possible themata? That I do not believe. Or are the themata so confidently held because they are rein forced by, and in resonance with, the scientist’s cultural milieu? That was the initial question here, but now it can be tested in a real case.

For that purpose, one thema that was the most impor tant to Einstein—that of unity, unification, wholeness—will serve as the prototypical example to answer the question whether themata in science may be reinforced by the cultural milieu.55 Einstein’s dedication to the presupposi tion of finding unities in Nature at work is evidenced in the motivation for his three great papers of 1905. As he put it in a letter of 1916 to the astronomer Willem de Sitter, he felt always driven by “my need to generalize” (mein Verallgemeinerungsbedurfnis).56 That need continued unin terrupted from his first paper on capillarity to his last ones on finding a general unified field theory that would join gravity and electromagnetism, and even provide a new in terpretation of quantum phenomena—as may yet happen, although along a path different from his.57 In between, that preoccupation had led him from the special theory to what he at first called typically the verallgemeinerte, the generalized theory of relativity.

That self-imposed, unquenchable desire to find unifying theories had possessed many other scientists (for example, Alexander von Humboldt, who celebrated in 1828 the “deep feeling for a unity of Nature”); however, this presupposi tion sometimes led Einstein astray, as had Galileo’s analogous obsession with the primacy of circular motion. To be sure, some splendid science is done by researchers who seem to have no need of thematic presuppositions, as I have found in other case studies. Nor do I want to paint all German scientists as having been caught up in the dream of unity; for example, as Pauline Mazumdar’s study of Ger man immunologists showed, there were “Pluralists” among them to oppose the “Unitarians.”58

But my subject is Einstein, and it is clear that his the matic acceptance of unity or wholeness was one of the demons that had got hold of the central fiber of his soul. He even lent his name?along with thirty-two other schol ars from a great variety of fields, ranging from David Hubert and Ernst Mach to Jacques Loeb, Sigmund Freud, Felix Klein, and Ferdinand Tonnies—to the publication, as early as 1912, of a public manifesto (Aufruf) calling for the establishment of a new society aiming to develop, across all branches of scholarship, one set of unifying ideas and unitary conceptions. As the Aufruf put it in its second paragraph, the new Society’s aim would be “to join all fields of learning [alle Wissenschaften] together in an organic association, to develop everywhere the unifying ideas, and thus to advance to a non-contradictory comprehensive conception.”59

Yet if it was allegiance to a few themata that supported Einstein in launching into uncharted territory, often with the barest encouragement from the phenomena, what provided the courage to adopt these themata, and to stick with them through thick and thin? This is where the various strands we have pur sued will converge, where we make closest contact with the “cultural soil” that helped to feed his scientific imagination, for one can show the resonance between Einstein’s thematic belief in unity in science and the belief in the primacy of unity contained in certain literary works to which he had allegiance. While here I can demonstrate the case for only one of his themata, and for one set of major literary works, the case made is more general and applies not only to this particular scientist.


So far, we have noted that Einstein drew on the work of other scientists, on the tools of his trade that he assembled during his education—so joyfully by himself, less so in his schooling. We have discussed his personal attitude as a gebildete individual, who refused to be a mere functionary of the state and kept his freedom of imagination and destiny. Other useful suggestions for pieces of the puzzle have also been proposed, for example, the interesting point made by Robert Schulmann and Jurgen Renn that Einstein’s reading in popular scientific books as a boy consisted largely of ones that did not dwell on details but instead provided an overview of science as a coherent corpus of under standing, and that this experience predisposed him early to fas ten upon the big questions rather than the small pieces.60

All this was necessary; but it was not enough. His wide reading in humanistic works beyond science—where the Bildung during his formative years was to lead to continued self-refine ment through study of the “best works,” analogous to Matthew Arnold’s concept of culture—hinted at what else was needed to understand his particular genius.61 From the list of icons of high culture at the time who greatly impressed Einstein, I must focus on just one author, indeed one who, with Friedrich Schiller, was among the most universally revered: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.62 Since Goethe is today certainly not on everyone’s mind, I will attempt to convey in a few words his unimaginable influence at the time, not merely on educated Germans in gen eral, but on German scientists in particular.63

There are two major parts to that influence. One was the fact that Goethe was arguably Germany’s most accomplished and productive poet. He began his long and fruitful career when, as we noted, Germany was not a modern state. Indeed, in many ways it was backward compared with Britain and France; it was politically impotent, a motley assembly of about three hundred fragments, large and small, within the dying Holy Roman Empire. In 1775, when the twenty-six-year-old Goethe arrived in Weimar, it was still an impoverished duchy, and his own youth ful presence there was possibly one of its biggest assets. His skill, intelligence, and humanity had begun to show itself even in his first, fiery works that were still linked to the Sturm und Drang tradition, for example, the irreverent revolutionary drama Gotz von Berlichingen, written at age twenty-four, and the romantic novel The Sorrows of Young Werter, written one year later. The Gotz drama was based on a legendary early sixteenth-century German knight, a bold and impudent adventurer who made it known to all, in strong language, that he was beholden to no one but God, Kaiser Maximilian, and his own independent self. (I find it delightful that during Einstein’s final Matura examination, his essay in the subject of German was on Gotz, the very embodiment of the independent individual spirit.64)

Goethe, too, was a complex of apparent opposites. In his early works he had established himself as the foremost German spokes man for the Sturm und Drang movement, the forerunner of the Romantic revolt, while still adhering to Enlightenment ideas (one of those contradictions when viewed from our level below). And he was still in his twenties when he began work on the first part of his Faust, the tragedy into which he poured his superb poetic skills and all the varied and mutually antagonistic aspects of his maturing soul. It was, like much of his writings, part of a “great confession,” but it had an especially strong grip on the German imagination, on the upward-striving bourgeoisie as well as the elite; the nearest analog that comes to mind is the indelible impression of Dante’s epic on intellectuals in Italy. As G. H. Lewes remarked, the Faust tragedy “has every element: wit, pathos, wisdom, farce, mystery, melody, reverence, doubt, magic, and irony.”65

In his early period, Goethe himself, like his Faust, accepted the dictum “To live, not to learn.” But this rebellion took a special form as he matured, similar to Einstein’s own. Goethe’s “central tenet” was the belief in individuality or individualism: one was a free person, defying some of the social conventions but at the same time revering the geniuses of history and legend, which for him (according to Goethe’s biographers) included the original Dr. Johann Faustus of the sixteenth century, Prometheus, Spinoza, Mohammed, Caesar, and the original knight Gotz von Berlichingen.66 Like Spinoza, Goethe saw God and Nature as two aspects of the same basic reality, and in that belief, too, he shared the spirit of Einstein and other scientists. Among German Kulturtreger, Goethe became a fascinating and inexhaustible part of their imaginative lives.67

I will return to that point in a moment. But it must be noted that a second aspect of Goethe’s power was his position as a serious and productive scientist on certain topics, such as the investigation of the subjective impression of color; the discovery, in his first scientific paper, of the presence of an intermaxilliary bone in man; his early version of what Ernst Haeckel later called an evolutionary mechanism; his concept of the metamorphosis of plants, and other such matters. Thus Goethe has an honored place even in the modern Dictionary of Scientific Biography, and despite the huge controversy about others of his contributions, especially on the theory of colors (the Zur Farbenlehre of 1810), his scientific activities—totaling fourteen volumes of the Weimar edition of his collected works—added to his standing as a figure representing the best of culture in all its dimensions.

To be sure, Goethe’s science was chiefly that of the poet philosopher. For example, one early “scientific” essay, entitled “Study after Spinoza,” begins with the sentence “The concept of being and of completeness is one and the same”; from this, Goethe goes on to ponder the meaning of the infinite.68 But significantly, the main point of that work was to argue for the primacy of unity in scientific thinking, and for the wholeness “in every living being.” The sorry and misguided war he waged for over four decades against Newton’s ideas, especially on color theory, must be understood in terms of Goethe’s philosophical and poetic beliefs. For example, the quantification and subdivi sion of natural phenomena, he thought, missed the whole point of the organic unity of man and nature in the explanation of phenomena, particularly for what he regarded as qualities, such as colors. This is a prominent aspect of much of Goethe’s whole corpus: the theme of unity, wholeness, the interconnection of all parts of nature. Those are main conceptions that informed both his science and his epics. As one of his commentators has men tioned, “The nature of the entire cycle [is this]: unity in dual ity.”69 It pervaded even his belief in the existence of an original, archetypal plant (Urpflanze), an archetypal man, and so on—all part of what has been called the Ionian Fallacy, looking for one overarching explanation of the diversity of phenomena.70 Even at age eighty-one, two years before his death, he was immensely excited by news that in France, the biologist St. Hilaire had associated himself with the concept of unity at the base of biology, and he exclaimed:

What is all intercourse with Nature, if we merely occupy our selves with individual material parts, and do not feel the breath of the spirit which prescribes to every part its direction, and orders or sanctions every deviation by means of an inherent law! I have exerted myself in this great question for fifty years. At first I was alone, then I found support, and now at last, to my great joy, I am surpassed by congenial minds.71

Much has been written about the interest among scientists in various aspects of Goethe’s work, and not only in Germany. A list of such scientists would contain names such as Johann Bernhard Stallo, Wilhelm Ostwald, the physiologist Arnold Adolphe Berthold, the neurophysiologists Rudolf Magnus and Emile du Bois-Reymond, the botanist Gottlieb Haberlandt, the physical chemist Gustav Tammann, the bacteriologist Robert Koch, the psychologist Georg Elias Muller, and the English scientist William Henry Fox Talbot. A curious case is that of Nicola Tesla, who, although not German by descent, was so caught up in the German style of Bildung that he claimed, and sometimes demonstrated, that he knew the whole of Goethe’s Faust by heart—all 12,110 lines.72

Of course not everyone shared Tesla’s enthusiasm. Many a scientist had to give lip service to Goethe’s dominance while actually fighting for a down-to-earth, pragmatic, properly ex perimental style of thought. But wherever these readers turned, from their school days on, they, like Einstein, were likely to encounter Goethe and so were liable to absorb and sympathize with that central point in Goethe’s work, the longing for unity, for wholeness, for the interconnectivity of all parts of nature. As Walter Moore put it in his biography of Erwin Schr?dinger, “All German-speaking youth [were] imbued with the spirit of Goethe. . . . They have absorbed in their youth Goethe’s feeling for the unity of Nature.”73 Fragments of Goethe’s poetry could be encountered routinely, not only in the popular lectures of other Kulturtreger or in the exhortations of politicians, but even in the lectures and textbooks on science itself, in the writings of physicists such as Hermann von Helmholtz, Erwin Schrodinger, Wilhelm Wien, and Max Born. Thus Arnold Sommerfeld, in the third volume of his Lectures on Theoretical Physics, sends his readers on the general relativity theory off with a quotation from Faust, part II.74

My favorite example of that ubiquity occurs on two pages of a textbook by one of Einstein’s own scientific predecessors, one whom in 1900 he had called “quite magnificent.”75 Ludwig Boltzmann’s Vorlesungen uber Maxwells Theorie der Elektricitat und des Lichtes was published in two parts (1891 and 1893), each preceded by a short epigraph. Boltzmann could count on every German reader to recognize the origin of the lines he quoted there, for they referred to the early pages of Goethe’s Faust tragedy. My free translation of the first passage is: “That I may no longer, with sour labor, have to teach others that which I do not know myself”; Boltzmann does not even have to add the next, most celebrated and programmatic lines of Faust: “and that I may perceive what holds the world together in its innermost.”

Boltzmann’s second epigraph refers to the passage given in italics below where Faust has just opened the book of Nostradamus, seeking even there a guide to the force that holds the world together; he gazes at the wondrous “Sign of the Macrocosm” and exclaims:

Ha! as I gaze what rapture suddenly

begins to flow through all my senses! . . .

Did some god inscribe these signs

that quell my inner turmoil,

fill my poor heart with joy,

and with mysterious force unveil

the natural powers all about me?

Am I a god? I see so clearly now!

In these lines’ perfection I behold creative nature spread out before my soul. . . .

How all things interweave as one and work and live each in the other.76

By referring to the God-like signs Boltzmann meant of course to indicate Maxwell’s equations, the summary of Maxwell’s syn thesis of electricity, magnetism, and optics. The equations relat ing the electric and magnetic field terms are indeed stunningly beautiful in their simplicity, scope, and symmetry, particularly when written in modern form:77

But back to the enchanted Boltzmann. It is quite significant that in both epigraphs Boltzmann’s version of Goethe’s lines are in fact just a bit wrong.78 He too was no doubt quoting from memory, going back to school days. Used constantly, such verses tend to be taken for granted and get fuzzy at the edges. Boltzmann’s errors are really one sign that Goethe’s lines have become part of common culture.

But never mind. We must dig a bit deeper to see why such literary allusions were so meaningful to the scientific reader. Consider the context of those lines, near the beginning of the first part of the Faust tragedy. Having painfully worked his way through every major specialty, Faust’s thirst for knowledge at its deepest level had not been satisfied by these separate (let us say, reductionist) studies?any more than were the signers of the 1912 Appeal for unity throughout all sciences and scholarship. Even if he has to turn to the realm of the magical, Faust must discover the secret of the world’s coherence. Nostradamus’s book offers him the blinding revelation in terms of the Sign of the Macrocosmos, that ancient symbol of the connection be tween the part and the whole, man and nature. This is why Boltzmann connects the passage to Maxwell’s equations, which express the synthesis of large parts of physics.79

The main point here is the strong resonance between the Goethean or Faustian drive toward a unified fundamental understanding of nature, symbolized by the Sign of the Macrocosmos, and that of the analogous ambition of Boltzmannian scientists and their pupils: the search for one single, totally coherent worldpicture, a Weltbild encompassing all phenomena. Physical science, too, yearned to progress by the discovery of ever fewer, ever more encompassing fundamental concepts and laws, so that one might achieve at last what Max Planck called, in the title of his 1908 essay, “Die Einheit des physikalischen Weltbildes.”80 Indeed, some physical scientists still work toward the day when one single equation, one world equation, will be found that will subsume all the diversity of physical phenomena. Then the Sign of the Macrocosmos will indeed stand before our gaze.

Einstein, starting with his very first publication in 1901 on capillarity, was committed to an early stage of such a Faustian plan. In that paper he tried to remove a duality between Newtonian gravita tion, which directs the motion of macroscopic objects downward, and capillary action, which drives the molecules of the submicro scopic world of the liquid upward. In its way this was also a search for the commonality between the macrocosm of observable gravitation and the microcosm of molecular motions. Here was a case where, he thought, apparently opposite phenomena could be brought into a common vision. Even though Einstein later dismissed the physics he had used in that first paper as juvenilia, he never turned his back on the inherent goal.

Perhaps its most eloquent expression appears in his address of 1918, “Principles of Research,” given in honor of Max Planck.81 There he solemnly states that into the shaping of a coherent worldview every serious artist, philosopher, or scientist, each in his own way, “places the center of gravity of his emotional life.” Einstein called that search for a worldpicture “the supreme task” of the physicist—the task “to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up. …”

The intensity of the impulse toward a unified Weltbild, so typical for many German scientists of the time?even while specialization was rising all around them—was not confined to them. David Cassidy has noted that

the “unifying spirit,” as it was called, pervaded much of central European thought at the turn of the century. German idealism, neo-Romanticism, and historicism, stretching from Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Hegel to Benedetto Croce and Wilhelm Dilthey, each pointed to some sort of transcendent higher unity, the exist ence of permanent ideas or forces that supersede or underlie the transient, ephemeral world of natural phenomena, practical ap plications, and the daily struggle of human existence. The scholar, the artist, the poet, the theoretical physicist all strove to grasp that higher reality, a reality that because of its permanence and transcendence must reveal ultimate “truth” and, hence, serve as a unifying basis for comprehending, for reacting to, the broader world of existence in its many manifestations.82

I can only add in closing that movements as different as turn of-the-century Monism, and later the “Unity of Science” move ment, were closely related to this set of aims and ideas. And as Anne Harrington has shown in her recent book, the “‘holistic’ biological impulse” in early nineteenth-century Germany later flourished with the assistance of our poet. As she put it, “Goethe’s resulting aesthetic-teleological vision of living nature would sub sequently function as one of the later generations’ recurrent answers to the question of what it ‘meant’ to be a holistic scientist in the grand German style.”83

At this end of Einstein’s century, many excellent scientists and some philosophers are ready to settle for a hierarchical or “dis united” science rather than participate in the pursuit of over arching unities.84 To them, the self-imposed task of those earlier culture-carriers in search of grand unifications appears perhaps overreaching, and even discussing it as a historic fact may be written off as nostalgia. Moreover, Ernst Mayr and E. O. Wilson have long insisted that for modern evolutionary biologists and naturalists the chief guiding concept should be diversity rather than unity. Perhaps Henry Adams was right when he wrote that after the nineteenth century the course of all history will be away from unity, and toward multiplicity and fragmentation.85

Yet the fundamental motivation of Einstein’s program has helped to keep alive the modern idea of a search for a physical theory that will encompass all phenomena, from gravitation through nuclear science (a path that Einstein had not explored). The ascent to that Mt. Everest is now taking various forms among different camps, along different routes. The physics jour nals and even the daily papers are witnesses; and the International School of Physics has announced a physics seminar at Lake Como with the title, in part, “A Probe of Nature’s Grand Design.” I have little doubt that hovering there above the audi ence will be a throng of kindred ghosts, including Kant, Max well, Boltzmann, and Einstein, and of course, among the poets, Goethe, with Faust himself next to him; and, way in back, the Greek philosopher Tha?es of Miletus in Ionia, who twenty-six hundred years ago had launched that Ionian dream, the thema that all things are made of one essence. All of those forebears had tilled and seeded the cultural soil of their time and, in turn, in their different ways, had been nourished and reinforced by it.


When death approached to claim Einstein in April of 1955, his last acts were still fully in character. He remained strong-willed to the end, obstinately adhering to his ways. He had recently signed a manifesto with Bertrand Russell and others, intending to bring together the international community of scientists as a unifying counterweight against the divisive, national ambitions then ram pant during the arms race. For seven years, Einstein had known that a growing intestinal aneurysm of his aorta might rupture at any time, but he had refused any major operation when it still might have averted the threat. He explained his uncomplaining state of mind to his stepdaughter Margot by saying simply, “I have done my thing here.” At about one o’clock in the morning, as the aneurysm burst, he suddenly spoke once more, but the night nurse did not understand German.

Einstein’s requests concerning his last rest also bore all the marks of his lifelong struggle for simplicity and against ordinary convention. There was to be no funeral—only a few family members and friends gathering at the crematorium. No speeches, no flowers, not even music. No gravestone. But as Einstein’s ashes were dispersed into the winds, an old friend and fellow emigre  felt moved to recite a few verses of poetry, ending with these lines:

He gleams like some departing meteor bright,

Combining, with his own, eternal light.

As it happened, the poem had been written a century and a half earlier, by the grief-stricken Goethe on the occasion of the death of his friend Friedrich Schiller. A great circle had closed. Sym bolically, Einstein’s lifelong comrades had helped him, once more, to move across those illusory divisions between space, time, and cultures.


In addition to thanking Robert and Maurine Rothschild for their support to the History of Science department, I also wish to acknowledge several colleagues whom I have consulted on aspects of this work, including Gordon Craig, Frederick Gregory, Roald Hoffmann, Robert Schulmann, S. S. Schweber?none of whom are responsible for possible errors—and above all, Gerhard Sonnert, who provided essential and dedicated help throughout. I am grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for support of a research project of which this essay is part.


1  It is symbolic that among the framed portraits he kept in his Princeton home there were only three scientists, each of whom pursued a great synthesis in physics—Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell.

2  Albert Einstein, “Autobiographical Notes,” in Albert Einstein: Philosopher Scientist, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp (Evanston, 111.: Library of Living Philoso phers, 1949), 53.

3 Looking in the opposite direction, e.g., how cultural elements later were af fected by relativity theory rather than initially helping to shape it, we know how certain of Einstein’s publications were interpreted to affect the culture of his and our time, misguided though most of these attempts have been—as Steven Weinberg recently warned?such as the transfer of relatively concepts into anthropology, ethics, religion, literature, and to the so-called relativism haunting other fields. Einstein himself was perturbed by popular misunder standing of his theory. He would have preferred if his theory—which Max Planck and Max Abraham, not Einstein himself, had named in 1906 the “theory of relativity”—had become known as the “theory of invariance” in stead. Einstein, letter to E. Zschimmer, 30 September 1921; cf. Gerald Holton, Einstein, History, and Other Passions: The Rebellion Against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 38 Gerald Holton 1996), 131-132. See also Steven Weinberg, “Sokal’s Hoax,” New York Review of Books, 8 August 1996, 11-15.

4 Robert K. Merton, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England (New York: H. Fertig, 1970; first published 1938), 238.

5 Paul Forman, “Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927: Adaption by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 3 (1971): 1-115.

6 John Hendry, “Weimar Culture and Quantum Causality,” History of Science 18 (1980): 155-180; Stephen G. Brush, “The Chimerical Cat: Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics in Historical Perspective,” Social Studies of Science 10 (1980), 393-447; P. Kraft and P. Kroes, “Adaption of Scientific Knowledge to an Intellectual Environment: Paul Forman’s ‘Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927,'” Centaurus 27 (1984), 76-99.

7 Max Jammer, The Conceptual Development of Quantum Mechanics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966); Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973, 1988).

8. specifically: Philipp Frank, Einstein: Sein Leben und seine Zeit (Munich: Paul List, 1949), published in English as Einstein: His Life and Times, tr. George Rosen, ed. Shuichi Kusaka (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947); Anton Reiser (pseud, of Rudolf Kayser), Albert Einstein: A Biographical Portrait (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1930); and Carl Seelig, Albert Einstein: Eine Dokumentarische Biographie (Zurich: Europa Verlag, 1954). One must in clude as well as Einstein’s own fascinating intellectual autobiography, in Schilpp, Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist.

9 New York Times Sunday Magazine, 15 December 1996.

10 Tetsu Hiroshige, “The Ether Problem, the Mechanistic World View, and the Origin of the Theory of Relativity,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 7 (1976): 3-82.

11 Gerald Holton, Einstein, History, and Other Passions, 174-175.

12 Gerald Holton, Introduction to Concepts and Theories in Physical Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1952), 506; Robert A. Millikan, “Albert Einstein on His Seventieth Birthday,” Reviews of Modern Physics 21 (1949), 343-344.

13 Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought, ch. 8 and 477-480.

14 Cited in Robert S. Shankland, “Conversations with Albert Einstein,” American Journal of Physics 31 (1963):47-57.

15 Seelig, Albert Einstein: Eine Dokumentarische Biographie, 61-62.

16 Banesh Hoffmann, with Helen Dukas, Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel (New York: Viking, 1972).

17  Lewis S. Feuer, Einstein and the Generations of Science (New York: Basic Books, 1974). ‘New York Times, 16 November 1919, 8. Einstein and the Cultural Roots of Modern Science 39

19 At the 1832 meeting of the Association of German Scientists and Physicians in Vienna, for instance, a hymn proclaimed, “Laet uns vereint der Isis Tempel bauen / Der Gettin, welcher keine andre gleich / Die retselhaft so nahe uns und ferne / Im Sandkorn thront wie dort im Flammensterne.” See H. Schipperges, Weltbild und Wissenschaft: Er?ffnungsreden zu den Naturforscher-Versammlungen 1822 bis 1972 (Hildesheim: H. A. Gerstenberg, 1976).

20 Einstein to Besso, 13 May 1917; from Albert Einstein and Michele Besso, Correspondance, 1903-1955, tr. and intro. Pierre Speziali (Paris: Hermann, 1972), 114.

21 Albert Einstein, Hedwig Born, and Max Born, Briefwechsel, 1916-1955 (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1969), 215.

22 Robert K. Merton, Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth Century England, 238.

23For a classic exposition of the contrast between Kultur and Zivilisation, see N. Elias, ?ber den Prozess der Zivilisation, 2 vols. (Basel: Verlag Haus zum Falken, 1939), vol. 1,1-42.

24See, for example, Brockhaus Enzyklop?die, 1990.

25Bruno Gebhard, Handbuch der Deutschen Geschichte, 8th ed. (Stuttgart: Union Verlag, 1962), vol. 3, 305.

26Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (translation of Ideologie und Utopie, 1929; tr. Lewis Wirth and Edward Shils) (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), 156. By 1843 Karl Marx had noted (in his Kritik des Hegeischen Staatsrechts) that “Geld und Bildung” were the main criteria for social differentiation in the b?rgerliche society; Marx, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Werke, ed. Institut f?r Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1957), vol. 1, 203-333. For a useful summary of the Bildungsb?rgertum, see F. Gre gory, “Kant, Schelling, and the Administration of Science in the Romantic Era,” Osiris (second series) 5 (1989):17-35.

27In the original sense of the educated Mandarinate that served the Chinese Em pire and were chiefly concerned with administering or furthering the political and social needs of the state authorities. Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (Cam bridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969).

28Christa Kirsten and Hans-Jurgen Treder, eds., Albert Einstein in Berlin, 1913 1933, 2 vols. (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1979), vol. 1, 207. This document collection contains reports to the German foreign office from German diplomats in The Hague, Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Madrid, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, New York, and Vienna. See vol. 1, 225-240.

29K. Mannheim, Ideologie und Utopie (Frankfurt: Verlag G. Schulte-Bulmke, 1969: first published in 1929), 221-222.

30For Albert Einstein’s family tree, see Aron T?nzer, “Der Stammbaum Prof. Albert Einsteins,” J?dische Familien-Forschung: Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft f?r j?dische Familienforschung 7 (1931): 419-421.

31Erik Erikson, “Psychoanalytic Reflections on Einstein’s Centenary,” in Gerald Holton and Yehuda Elkana, eds., Albert Einstein: Historical and Cultural Perspectives (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), 151-173.

32Maja Winteler-Einstein, “Albert Einstein?Beitrag f?r sein Lebensbild,” Col lected Papers: The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein (Princeton University Press, 1987), vol. 1, xlviii-lxvi.

33Einstein, “Autobiographical Notes,” 3-5.

34Nevertheless, Helen Dukas insisted that Einstein’s lifestyle in Zurich and Bern was “anything but ‘bohemian,'” as noted in L. Pyenson, The Young Einstein: The Advent of Relativity (Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1985), 77, note 9. Pyenson would have characterized Einstein not as a rebel but a stranger or marginal man (60-61).

35Seelig, Albert Einstein: Eine Dokumentarische Biographie, 125. The graduate student’s name was Hans Tanner; Einstein supervised Tanner’s dissertation while a professor at Zurich University.

36Giuseppe Castagnetti and Hubert Goenner, “Directing a Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut: Albert Einstein, Organizer of Science?” paper given at the Boston University Colloquium for Philosophy of Science, 3 March 1997.

37Cited in Otto Nathan and Heinz Norden, eds., Einstein on Peace (New York: Schocken, 1968; reprint of 1960 edition), 157.

38Letter to Hans Muehsam, 30 March 1954, Einstein Archive 38-434; cited in The Quotable Einstein, ed. Alice Calaprice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Uni versity Press, 1996), 158. See also Einstein’s declaration of his religiosity in Harry Graf Kessler, Tagebecher 1918-1937, ed. Wolfgang Pfeiffer-Belli (Frankfurt: Insel-Verlag, 1961), 521-522, and in Hubert Goenner and Giuseppe Castagnetti, “Albert Einstein as Pacifist and Democrat During World War I,” Science in Context 9 (1996): 348-349. See also Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Dell, 1954).

39Ministerium der geistlichen, Unterrichts- und Medizinalangelegenheiten, “Lehrpl?ne und Lehraufgaben fur die heheren Schulen, nebst Erleuterungen und Ausfuhrungsbestimmungen” (Berlin: Wilhelm Hertz, 1892), 20.

40Reiser, Albert Einstein: A Biographical Portrait, 26. Toward the end of his life, when Einstein’s sister Maja visited him in Princeton (as Einstein wrote to Besso), both would spend their time together reading “Herodotus, Aristotle, Russell’s History of Philosophy, and many other interesting books.” Einstein and Besso, Correspondance-, see also Albrecht F?lsing, Albert Einstein: Eine Biographie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1993), 819. One might add here that Heine was often excluded from the “official” cultural canon, especially out side Jewish circles, because of his religious background and his affiliation with French and revolutionary ideas.

41See the introduction by Maurice Solovine to Albert Einstein, Letters to Solovine (New York: Philosophical Library, 1987), 8-9. Auguste Comte is notably absent from Einstein’s reading list or exchanges. Comte remained relatively unknown in the German-speaking parts of Europe at the turn of the century. German translations of his works were slow to appear; see the chronology in Auguste Comte, Rede ?ber den Geist des Positivismus, tr. and intro. I. Fetscher (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1994; originally published in 1844), xliii-xliv. In 1914, none other than Wilhelm Ostwald translated Comte’s Prospectus des travaux scientifiques n?cessaires pour r?organiser la soci?t?, almost a century after it was first published in 1822.

42Max Talmey, The Relativity Theory Simplified, and the Formative Period of its Inventor (New York: Falcon Press, 1932), 164.

43Seelig, Albert Einstein: Eine Dokumentarische Biographie, 17. The course was Professor Stadler’s lecture course on “Die Philosophie I. Kants”; see Col lected Papers: The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein (multiple vols.; Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987- ), vol. 1, 364.

44Albert Einstein, “Eisbachs Buch: Kant und Einstein,” Deutsche Literatur zeitung 1 (ni.), 1685-1692.

45Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan, 1929), 113.

46Albert Einstein, “Remarks Concerning the Essays Brought Together in this Co operative Volume,” in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, 674.

47This data base for all books remaining after his death was compiled by NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and is scheduled to be published. A read ing list of additional books may be found in Abraham Pais, ‘Subtle is the Lord . . /: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Oxford: Oxford Uni versity Press, 1982).

48Max Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf(Berlin: Duncker & Humboldt, 1967), 37; cf. Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, ed. Henry Hardy (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 213-216.

49As Fritz Stern shrewdly observed in a passage mentioning both Goethe and Einstein: “A genius could also be seen as a public nuisance. …” Stern, Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987). See also the first chapter of this work, on “Einstein’s Ger many.” On the uses and abuses of Goethe by German ideologues, as well as on how Einstein’s view of himself as a Jew differed from others (e.g., Fritz Haber), see Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961).

50Seelig, Albert Einstein: Eine Dokumentarische Biographie, 88-89.

51The letter was printed in Holton, The Advancement of Science, and its Bur dens: The ]effer son Lecture and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni versity Press, 1986), 65; it is also hinted at in a letter to Max Born, cited in Born, “Physics and Relativity,” Helvetica Physica Acta, Supplementum IV (1956), 249.

52Collected Papers, vol. 2, 150.

53Issac Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (translation of Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica), 2 vols., original translation by Andrew Motte (1729), revised translation by Florian Cajori (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1962), vol. 2, 398.

54Holton, The Advancement of Science, and its Burdens, 15.

55The theme of unity and unification also played an important role in biology, as Vassiliki Smocovitis has documented in her Unifying Biology: The Evolution ary Synthesis and Evolutionary Biology (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univer sity Press, 1996). William Morton Wheeler commented (as cited in Smocovitis, 109) that it might take “a few super-Einsteins” to unify biology, using Einstein as the icon of the theme of unification.

56Cited in Holton, The Advancement of Science, and its Burdens, 86.

57Abraham Pais, “Subtle is the Lord. . .”, 9.

58Pauline Mazumdar, Species and Specificity: An Interpretation of the History of Immunology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

59Gerald Holton, Science and Anti-Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univer sity Press, 1993), 12-15.

60J?rgen Renn and Robert Schulmann, “Introduction,” in Albert Einstein? Mileva Marie: The Love Letters, ed. Renn and Schulmann (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), xi-xxviii.

61See Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. Samuel Lipman (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994; first published in 1869). 62Einstein kept sculptured busts of both Goethe and Schiller in his Berlin home. F. Herneck, Einstein privat: Herta W. erinnert sich an die Jahre 1927 bis 1933 (Berlin: Buchverlag Der Morgen, 1978), 47-48.

63In the latter part of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century, it was quite common to assemble “best book” lists of the outstanding works of lit erature. In 1911, Heinrich Falkenberg compiled such a bibliography, “Listen der besten B?cher,” in the Zeitschrift f?r B?cherfreunde; it comprised forty six entries. The earliest such bibliography was Johann Neukirch’s Dichterkanon of 1853; in Neukirch’s compilation, as well as in the subse quent ones, Goethe played a dominant role. Around 1906, the Viennese bookseller Hugo Heller polled a number of intellectuals about their choice of the “ten best books.” A selection of the responses was printed in the Jahrbuch deutscher Bibliophilen und Literatur freunde, ed. H. Feigl (Zurich: Amalthea Verlag, 1931), 108-127. As one might expect, Goethe figured prominently in these replies, both explicitly and implicitly. At that time, the consensus about the classic literary canon was so strong that it almost went without saying. Much has changed since then. Some ninety years later, the German weekly Die Zeit again asked a group of German intellectuals about the literary canon. This time they were to nominate only three to five works that they thought German Gymnasiasten had to read. Goethe, and particularly his Faust, still received numerous nominations, but now many respondents la mented the almost complete erosion of the classic literary canon. Indeed, this project of Die Zeit was intended to help resurrect a canon that had clearly faded. The report started with the statement that nowadays “up to 90 percent of those who begin to study German at a university do not know Faust” —which to the earlier generations of Bildungsb?rger would have sounded ut terly unbelievable. Die Zeit, 16 May 1997.

64Collected Papers, vol. 1, 26-27.

65George Henry Lewis, The Life of Goethe, 3rd ed. (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1875).

66Henry C. Hatfield, Goethe: A Critical Introduction (New York: New Direc tions, 1963), 28.

67And of course not only in German-speaking countries; to cite a single example, Ralph Waldo Emerson taught himself German specifically in order to read Goethe’s works. See Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Ber keley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1995).

68Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes Werke (Hamburger Ausgabe), 4th ed. (Hamburg: Christian Wegner Verlag, 1962), vol. 13, 7-10.

69Hatfield, Goethe: A Critical Introduction, 114.

70Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories (New York: Viking Press, 1979). 71 Lewes, The Life of Goethe, 558.

72On the other hand, there can be no doubt, of course, that many of the Bildungsb?rger and of those aspiring to their ranks rampantly quoted from this and all other classics merely to demonstrate their membership in the edu cated elite. Such people were greatly helped by Georg B?chmann’s Gefl?gelte Worte: Der Zitatenschatz des deutschen Volkes, 27th ed. (Berlin: Haude ?C Spenersche Buchhandlung, 1926), a best-selling compilation of classic quota tions and lengthier excerpts that was first published in 1864, and went through 27 editions by 1926. See Wolfgang Fr?hwald, “B?chmann und die Folgen: Zur sozialen Funktion des Bildungszitates in der deutschen Literatur,” in Bildungsb?rgertum im 19. Jahrhundert, part II: Bildungsg?ter und Bildungswissen, ed. Reinhart Koselleck (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1990), 197-219.

73Walter Moore, Schr?dinger: Life and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni versity Press, 1989), 47.

74Arnold Sommerfeld, Electrodynamics (volume three of his Lectures on Theo retical Physics, tr. Edward Ramberg) (New York: Academic Press, 1952), 311.

75In a September 1900 letter to Marie. Collected Papers, vol. 1, 260.

76Taken from Stewart Atkins’s prose translation, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust I & II (Cambridge, Mass.: Suhrkamp/Insel Publishers Boston, 1984), lines 430-431, 434-441, 447-448.

77Maxwell’s equations in empty space are taken from E. M. Purcell, Electricity and Magnetism, 2d. ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), 331. I am fairly sure no physics text would connect them today with Dr. Faust, who is under a dark cloud these days for his various transgressions. See Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996).

78In Boltzmann’s epigraphs, his rendering of Goethe’s lines was, for Part I of his treatise: “So soll ich denn mit saurem Schweiss/Euch lehren, was ich selbst nicht weiss.” For Part II, Boltzmann wrote: “War es ein Gott, der diese Zeichen schrieb, / Die mit geheimnissvoll verborg’nem Trieb / Die Kr?fte der Natur um mich enth?llen / Und mir das Herz mit stiller Freude f?llen.”

79There is no authoritative picture of how Goethe imagined that heavenly Sign of the Macrocosmos, since no stage directions for it appear in the text of Faust. There is, of course, a good amount of literature on that question; see, e.g., Ernst Beutler, ed., Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Die Faustdichtungen (Munich: Winkler Verlag, 1977), 754-757; Heinrich O. Proskauer, ed., Goethes Faust: Erster Teil (Basel: Zbinden Verlag), 1982; Rudolf Steiner, Geisteswissenschaftliche Erl?uterungen zu Goethes Faust (Freiburg: Novalis Verlag, 1955), vol. 1, 25-27 and Die R?tsel in Goethes “Faust”: exoterisch und esoterisch (Dornach, Switzerland: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1981); and Erich Trunz’s two editions, Goethes Faust (Hamburg: Christian Wegner Verlag, 1949), 496-497, and Goethe?Faust (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1986), 517-518). But we know at least the image that seems to have satisfied Goethe himself: in the 1790 edition of volume 7 of his writings (which included Faust), he com missioned as a frontispiece a version of an etching by Rembrandt, which his torically was known as representing “Dr. Faust,” named after the original sixteenth-century legendary figure (as shown in figure 4).

80Max Planck, “Die Einheit des physikalischen Weltbildes,” in his Vortr?ge und Erinnerungen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1970), 28-51.

81Originally entitled “Motiv des Forschens,” the address was published under the rather unfortunate title “Prinzipien der Forschung” in Einstein’s Mein Weltbild (Frankfurt: Ullstein B?cher 1955, first published in 1934), 107-110. This led to “Principles of Research” in the English translation of the address in Ideas and Opinions (New York: Dell, 1954), 219-222. While the second quote from this address is here taken directly from the published English translation, the first is my own translation of the original German text (in Mein Weltbild).

82David Cassidy, Einstein and Our World (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995), 14.

83Anne Harrington, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), 5,10.

84See, for example, Peter Galison and David J. Stump, eds., The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996) and Ian Hacking, “Disunified Sciences,” in Richard Q. Elvee, ed., The End of Science? Attack and Defense (Nobel Conference XXV; St. Peter, Minn.: Gustavus Adolphus College, 1992), 33-52.

85Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography (Boston: Houghton Miff lin, 1918).

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