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Nachlass (sometimes spelled Nachlaß) is a German word, used in academia to describe the collection of manuscripts, notes, correspondence, and so on left behind when a scholar dies. The word is a compound in German: nach means 'after', and the verb lassen means 'leave'. The plural can be either Nachlasse or (with Umlaut) Nachlässe. The word is not commonly used in English, and when it is, it is often italicized or printed in capitalized form to indicate its foreign provenance.


Editing and preserving a Nachlass

The Nachlass of an important scholar is often placed in a research library or scholarly archive. Other workers in the scholar's area of specialization may obtain permission to comb through the Nachlass, seeking important unpublished scholarly contributions or biographical material. The content of a Nachlass can be catalogued, edited, and in some cases published in book form.

Such publication is more difficult for a Nachlass that contains a great deal of material, such as that of Gottfried Leibniz. In such cases, it may not be financially possible to publish its entire contents. The Nachlass of Ludwig Wittgenstein, kept at the University of Bergen, has been digitized and published in compact disc format.

Klagge and Nordmann note a conflict that faces an editor choosing what to publish draft material from a Nachlass: to understand a scholar (in this case Wittgenstein) "as he would want to be understood, we should focus on the works that came closest to passing muster with him." Yet publication of draft material may perhaps assist in a deeper understanding of the published versions, and also help understand the process whereby the scholar created his or her works.

The author's viewpoint

Sometimes it is known what the original scholar's view was concerning what should be done with his or her Nachlass, and these views differ greatly. Near the end of his life Gottlob Frege wrote to his adopted son:

Kleinen, 12 January 1925
Dear Alfred,
Do not scorn my handwritten material. Even if all is not gold, there is gold in it nevertheless. I believe that some of it will one day be held in much greater esteem than now. See to it that nothing gets lost.
With love, your father
It is a large part of myself that I here bequeath to you.

Frege's wishes probably went unfilled: his Nachlass, although duly archived in the library of the University of Münster, is believed to have been destroyed in 1945 by an Allied bombing raid during the Second World War.

The philosopher Edmund Husserl developed a strong commitment to his Nachlass (which included about 40,000 pages of sketches) during the last years of his life, allowing his colleagues to sort and classify it. Bernet, Kern, and Marbach suggest that because Husserl had difficulty in putting his thoughts into a definitive, publishable form, he accordingly attached great importance to the survival of his notes. In fact, because Husserl was of Jewish ethnicity and died in Germany in the year 1938, his Nachlass only narrowly escaped destruction under the Nazi regime.

Alfred North Whitehead, in contrast, asked that his Nachlass be destroyed, a wish that his widow carried out. According to Lowe (1982), Whitehead "idealized youth and wanted young thinkers to develop their own ideas, not spend their best years on a Nachlass." Gilbert Ryle likewise disapproved of scholars spending their time editing a Nachlass. According to Anthony Palmer, he "hated the Nachlass industry and thought that he had destroyed everything of his that he had not chosen to publish himself so that there would be no Ryle Nachlass." (A couple papers did survive, however, and were published.)

Henri Bergson's Nachlass was destroyed by his widow at his request. Lawlor and Moulard suggest that the destruction of Bergson's papers, by depriving later scholars of the stimulation of examining a Nachlass, actually affected his posthumous standing: "The lack of archival material is one reason why Bergson went out of favor during the second half of the Twentieth Century."

Notable Nachlasse

  • The Nachlass of the mathematician Bernhard Riemann is notable for posing problems in mathematics that remain unsolved. Marcus Du Sautoy writes:
Most mathematicians passing through Göttingen take the time to visit the library to examine Riemann's famous unpublished scribblings, his Nachlass. Not only is it a moving experience to feel a bond with such an important figure in the history of mathematics, but the Nachlass still contains many unsolved mysteries, locked inside Riemann's illegible scribbles. It has become the Rosetta stone of mathematics.
  • The Nachlass of the German polymath philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, which contains over 200,000 pages of works in philosophy, theology, history, mathematics, science, politics and physics in seven languages remains largely unpublished.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Nachlass" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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