Supplementary Appendix 20.1

Concerning the basics of the dispute between Abraham Kästner and Johann Beckmann

In this context, see the following satirical illustration by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki in 1780, “Die Philosophen” (The philosophers), Illustrationen zu Erasmus’ Lob der Narrheit in sechs Abteilungen [1780]; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur DChodowiecki WB 3.31):


F. Frensdorff, “Die Vertretung der ökonomischen Wissenschaften in Göttingen, vornehmlich im 18. Jahrhundert,” in Festschrift zur Feier des hundertfünfzigjährigen Bestehens der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen. Beiträge zur Gelehrtengeschichte Göttingens (Berlin 1901), 495–565, here 552–53:

After 1782 Beckmann withdrew from the activities of the Göttingen Society of Science and no longer attended their meetings. He did not even participate in the examination of the mummy that King Christian VII of Denmark had donated to the university, notwithstanding such would have been extremely interesting for him. Although the reason for his reservation is not known, Heyne opined suspiciones afferre non juvat [raising suspicions is not pleasing/helpful]. It was most likely his relationship with Kästner.

Whereas as a student Beckmann had experienced Göttingen’s wartime period, now, as a professor, he experienced years of inner turmoil and vehement oppositional partisanship. Kästner’s epigrams fanned the flames and had targeted especially the physicist Samuel Christian Hollmann [ed. note: whose niece Beckmann had married in 1767], whose adherents were also not spared.

The connection with Hollmann, who in 1757 had prompted the Society of Science to take a stand on a competition award based on incorrect data that it indeed had to withdraw, and whom Kästner accused of playing games with physics, made Beckmann a target of Kästner’s derision from the outset as well. Beckmann himself thought the reason was in fact his own lectures on mathematics, which, he thought, had stolen students from Kästner.

The more likely reason was Kästner’s disinclination toward the representatives of a new science whose fundamentals were still indistinct and incomplete, a science which drew, albeit economically, on all the other sciences such as mathematics, chemistry, and physics as auxiliary disciplines, and yet which some people hailed as the new salvation [ed. note: Beckmann had introduced the term “technology” to refer to the science of processing natural produce and to the manufacturing sciences, conceiving it as practical physics in the sense of technological theory and its practical application]. Considering such exaggerations, one of Kästner’s epigrams was not all that far off the mark in asserting:

Whosoever fails to discern God's power in dung and excrement
will surely disdain Beckmann's own fine element.

The opposition between the two men, which became increasingly vehement, was aired in caustic public reviews. In the conclusion to the preface to his Anleitung zur Technologie, oder zur Kentniss der Handwerke, Fabriken und Manufacturen vornehmlich derer, die mit der Landwirthschaft, Polizey und Cameralwissenschaft in nächster Verbindung stehn: nebst Beyträgen zur Kunstgeschichte (Göttingen 1777), Beckmann published a sharp assault on those who seek renown in slander and pasquinades. His Vorläufige Antwort auf die K—sche Erinnerungen wider eine Recension (Göttingen 1780) then used such insulting language against Kästner that the administration had to intervene.

Albert Leitzmann remarks in the note to a letter in which the Göttingen professor Georg Christoph Lichtenberg mentions Beckmann’s Ehren-Erklärung des Herrn Professor Johann Beckmann zu Göttingen (Frankfurt 1780) (Lichtenberg Briefe, 1:420-21):

Those responsible for publishing Beckmann’s letter on 8 October 1780 to Prorector Meister, in which he recanted over against Kästner, did not give their names. The following letter from Beckmann to Heyne preserved among Lichtenberg’s own letters to Heyne addresses this dispute between Beckmann and Kästner:

Since your esteemed Sir has hitherto been so successful in protecting your colleagues and the entire university against Kästner’s libel and reproaches in the Gelehrte Anzeigen, and since I hear that your esteemed Sir will be departing on a journey, I am taking the liberty to request most obediently and earnestly the stipulation and act of justice that Kästner not be given any more opportunity to write more contra me in the Gelehrte Anzeigen and supplements than I myself might receive to write contra him. I am yet hoping to receive a brief published refutation of his lies in time to have it distributed during the Anniversario. My own heavy lecture load and obligations for the book fair do not presently allow me to provide a thorough retaliation. I commend myself most obediently to your esteemed Sir’s favor.
12 September [17]80

Johannes Beckmann

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott