Arts and Ideas

Mathematics, Philosophy, and Literature

A Two-Day Workshop
Thursday, April 11, 4 pm: Room 202, Sever Hall
Friday, April 12, 9 am: Room 133, Barker Center

Free and open to the public. Seating is limited. For more information, scroll down to "Program" or contact Julia Ng.

Made possible by the generous support of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, the Department of Comparative Literature, the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, the Seminar on France and the World, the Department of the History of Science, and the Department of Philosophy. Co-sponsored with the Harvard Colloquium for Intellectual History and the Philosophy, Poetry and Religion Seminar.

Stephanie Dick, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University
Peter Galison, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University
John Hamilton, Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University
Peter Fenves, Program in Comparative Literary Studies and Department of German Literature and Critical Thought, Northwestern University
Gregory Moynahan, Department of History, Bard College
Julia Ng, Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University
Markus Hardtmann, Harper and Schmidt Society of Fellows, University of Chicago
Arkady Plotnitsky, Department of English, Purdue University

The notion of the "mathematical" plays a distinctive role in contemporary speculations on the real across a variety of disciplines. Common to literary and philosophical approaches that draw ontological insights from the brain and behavioral sciences, that invest matter with its own agency, or that dwell on the "event," is a rejection of linguistic correlationism in favor of a more rigorous relation to being. Such speculative ontologies reject a view of language as fallen in the name of a nature or reality preserved in a presumably intact and immanently describable state. In this regard, the turn to mathematics is a reimagining of ontology as the rigorous viz. mathematical description of the real, as well as a reimagining of language as that which might be commensurate to this rigor.

The idea that language might be commensurate to a mathematical rigor is based on the presupposition that there is a mathematics readily available to immanently describe reality—but that therefore the language of this description is always already saying “nothing”: nothing that is not already circumscribed by the language of mathematical rigor, which is to say nothing other than itself. Speculations that hinge upon equating the mathematical with the ontological thus lead far beyond the mere question of borrowing particular precepts from mathematics for application to the philosophical inquiries of the day. Rather, such speculations are deeply entrenched within efforts to make philosophy into a rigorous science, most recently associated with the legacy of Idealism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and rooted in context of a Greek thinking of the relation between the one and the many. They find expression in inquiries into the “zero,” negative statements, and picturing in propositions, which form part of a tradition of thought that saw the transformations of the calculus in the nineteenth century run through the debates between intuitionism and axiomatic thinking and culminate in the “divide” between the analytic and continental traditions.

Correlating to investigations of whether mathematical logic might liberate or destroy the integrity of the integer are questions of the tenability of given paradigms for symbolic representation, objectivity, and historical time. Under the proviso that mathematics has ontological force, language serves as a placeholder for multiplicity, for the heterogeneity of being, for an originary ineffability of unity—that is, for a meaning that is always to come. Thinking the relation to reality in terms of mathematical rigor thus always involves a hypothetical, inventive moment. This hypothetical moment at the core of realism presents itself as prior to both constructivist and intuitionist theories of language; it is precisely the moment at which theories that reduce language to names “uniquely” designating reality are made to reflect back on themselves in their own self-positing. The hypothetical moment oscillates on and makes emergent the cusp of fact and fiction, the proper name and the poetic word, sensation and anticipation, tradition and freedom. Literary history provides case studies both famous and unknown, ranging from Romantic potentiation to archaeologies of the word that uncover the measure of the absolute in the essence of poetry; and from reflections on poetic force to the origins of speech acts. A literary theory of mathematical thinking throws into sharp relief the very shaping of historical time, and the concepts of freedom, futurity, and newness that persist in time at its most elemental. Finally, a mathematical thinking on the literary opens up the possibility for a new theory of literature, one in which literary representation resists being reduced to psychologism or to empiricism, but rather calls upon reason to give account of itself, on the one hand, and on the other hand points towards the poetic core of the semiotics of mathematics itself.

The present workshop explores the conjunction of mathematics, philosophy and literature. Its purpose is to consider the importance of the “mathematical” for a variety of areas of inquiry of historical and contemporary interest. What is “mathematical thinking,” and can it be defined in isolation from the history of mathematics? What is the significance of mathematical thinking for a philosophy of history, and for a theory of the political? In what way might mathematics be relevant to the understanding of linguistic and literary representation, and more generally, to the efficacy of our statements and judgments? What light can it shed on our capacity to authorize our utterances? What is its bearing on our understanding of the fundamental structure of the world, and the place of human language and action in it?

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