The unifying theme of The Disinherited Mind is the sense of values, or the value of life, as shown and embodied in the works of some modern German and Austrian poets, writers, and thinkers from Goethe to Kafka. That Erich Heller wrote this way about German literature and thought, at a time when the Germans (and Austrians) had demonstrated their total contempt for humanity, was particularly remarkable. Heller made the English-speaking world of the 1950’s and 1960’s aware of the literary and philosophical heritage of the “other” Germany.
In 1949, the two hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s birth was celebrated not only in Germany but also in Great Britain and the United States. Goethe was a poet who could be claimed as the representative of German humanism at home and abroad. Yet, according to Heller, Goethe distinguished himself by anticipating the central crisis of twentieth century science. In his introductory essay, Heller maintains that Goethe as scientist exposed the “potential hubris” inherent in the pursuits of modern science. In addition, he considers Goethe one of the first to be fully conscious of the morphological problem in biological studies. Goethe is placed in the company of Plato and Aristotle, on the one hand, and Charles Darwin, on the other. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) would have probably attracted and repelled Goethe, the poet who discovered the intermaxillary bone in the human skull (which...
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