Mathesis universalis is perhaps the ultimate formal system. The fact that the concept ties together truth, possibility, and formalism marks it as one of the most important concepts in Western modernity. “Mathesis” is Greek (μάθησις) for “learning” or “science.” The term is sometimes used to simply mean “mathematics”; the planet Mathesis, for instance, is named after the discipline of mathematics. It is philosophically significant when rendered as “mathesis universalis,” combining a Latinized version of the Greek μάθησις (learning) with the Latin universalis (universal). The most significant modern philosophers to develop the term were René Descartes (1596–1650) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), who used it to name a formal system that could support a project of scientia generalis (Descartes) or the ars combinatoria (Leibniz). In each case, mathesis universalis is a universal method. In this sense it does not constitute the content of the sciences but provides the formal system that undergirds no less than the acquisition and veracity of knowledge itself. Although mathesis universalis is only rarely mentioned in the literature of Descartes and Leibniz, philosophers including Edmund Husserl, Ernst Cassirer, and Martin Heidegger considered it one of the key traits of modernity, breaking with the era of substance (Rabouin) or resemblance (Foucault) to signal a new period defined by formalism and quantification. Thus, in the 20th century, the scant and often contradictory literature on mathesis actually produced by the great philosophers of the Enlightenment comes to take on an importance that far exceeds the term’s original level of systematic elaboration. The term mathesis universalis was rarely used by either Descartes or Leibniz, and the latter used many different terms to refer to the same concept. The complexity and subtlety of the term, combined with difficulties in establishing a rigorous systematic interpretation, has meant that mathesis universalis is often used vaguely or to encompass all scientific method. It is a difficult concept to account for, because although many philosophers and literary theorists will casually refer to it, often in its abbreviated form (Lacan references mathesis in opposition to poesis to contrast the procedures of the sciences and the arts, for instance), there is not a great deal of consistent theoretical elaboration of the term in literary and cultural theory. Although mathesis universalis is not simply an avatar of mathematics, it is difficult to establish exactly where maths ends and mathesis begins, so to speak. The distinction is murky in both Descartes’s and Leibniz’s work, and this ambiguity would become a key controversy surrounding the term in the 20th century, with Bertrand Russell arguing that the significance of symbolic logic to mathesis universalis prevented it from being a “premier” science. Along with Russell, Ernst Cassirer and Louis Couturat would contest the relation between symbolic logic and the symbolic algebra of mathesis universalis, providing the terms of the debate for 20th-century philosophical work on ontology. Mathesis universalis was also a source of debate and controversy in the 20th century because it provided a node from which to examine the status of scientific truth. It is the work of 20th-century philosophers that expanded the significance of the term, using it to exemplify aspects of Enlightenment thought that many philosophers wished to react against, namely the aspiration to a universal science and the privileging of formal systems as avenues to truth. In this respect, the term is associated with Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and especially Michel Foucault, whose extensive work on the “classical episteme” provided a popular method of characterizing the development and enduring features of Enlightenment science. Although Foucault’s rendering of mathesis universalis as a “science of calculation” in The Order of Things (1970) is the most commonly used definition in literary and cultural studies, debates centering on Leibniz’s work in the early 20th century suggest that critics still took divergent approaches to the definition and significance of the term. It is Foucault who has popularized the contraction of the term to “mathesis.”
While the relationship between humans and environment in Australia stretches back some 50,000 years, the colonization of the continent by Europeans in the late 18th century dramatically altered Australia’s ecology. Creative literature has responded variously to the encounter that colonization precipitated. In particular, modulations appear through successive epistemological and ideological paradigms: Enlightenment rationality, romantic sensibility, nationalist celebration, and ecological alarm. While early conservationist impulses are visible in the colonial period, in the middle of the 20th century, the birth of the modern ecological consciousness understands that not only particular species or habitats are at risk, but the entirety of nature seems to suddenly face a historically unprecedented vulnerability. In this sense, it is methodologically useful to separate Australian environmental texts between those that are “pre-ecological” and those that are “post-ecological.”
From its emergence and early evolution in and through the writings of Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx, critique established its parameters very early on as both porous and dynamic. Critique has always been, in this sense, mutable, directed, and both multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary, and this very fluidity and flexibility of its processes are possibly among the central reasons for its continuous relevance even when it has been dismantled, rebuffed, and attacked for embodying traits, from gender bias to Eurocentrism to neuro-normativity, that seem to indicate the very opposite of that flexibility. Indeed, once it is examined closely as an apparatus, the mechanism of critique will invariably reveal itself as having always contained the tools for its own opposition and even the tools for its own destruction. Critique has in this way always implied both its generality as a form and autocritique as an essential part of its process. For the past two centuries this general, self-reflective, and self-dismantling quality has led to its constant reinvention and re-adaptation by a wide range of thinkers and writers and across a broad range of disciplines. In the case of literature and literary theory, its role can often best be grasped as that of a meta-discourse in which the nature and purpose of literary criticism is shadowed, reflected upon, and performed. From this perspective, from the 18th-century origins of critique in its gestation in the fields of theology and literary criticism to its formalization by Kant, the literary expression of critique has always been bound up with debates over the function of literary texts, their history, their production, their consumption, and their critical evaluation. In the early 21st century, having evolved from its beginnings through and alongside various forms of anticritique in the 20th century, critique now finds itself in an age that favors some variant or other of postcritique. It remains to be seen whether this tendency, which suggests its obsolescence and superseding, marks the end of critique as some would wish or merely its latest metamorphosis and diversification in response to the multivalent pressures of digital acceleration and ecological crisis. Whatever path or paths contemporary judgment on this question may follow, critique as the name of a series of techniques and operations guided by a desire for certain ends is likely to remain one of the most consistent ways of surveying any particular field of intellectual endeavor and the relations between adjacent or even divergent fields in terms of their commonalities and differences. As Kant and Voltaire understood so well of their own age, modernity is characterized in the first instance by its will to criticism and then by the systematic criticism of the conditions for that criticism. By the same token now in late or post- or neo-modernity, if contemporary conversations about literature and its pleasures, challenges, study, and criticism require an overview, then some version of critique or its legacy will undoubtedly still come into play.
In the early 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that Western modernity was “disenchanted.” He meant that modernity was defined by the growth of rationalization, which evacuated the shared spiritual meanings and purposes that had characterized premodern societies oriented toward supernatural worldviews. Rather than relying on “mysterious, incalculable forces,” Weber maintained that modernity relied on reason, science, and bureaucracies to manage existence. Weber’s disenchantment paradigm influenced thinkers throughout the 20th century, but since the turn of the 21st century, it has been substantially revised. Critics note that traditional “enchanted” worldviews continued to thrive within modernity, and varieties of specifically modern “re-enchantments” arose as well, consistent with the rational, secular, and consumerist currents of the modern world. Critics also observe that the paradigm was too one-sided in its stress on rationalization as the guiding principle of modernity. The paradigm’s binary opposition between reason and the irrational, or the dialectical transformation of the former into the latter, have been largely replaced by an emphasis on the complementary nature of reason and the imagination. (Indeed, contrary to Weber’s assertion, the imagination itself is now perceived as a “mysterious, incalculable force” within modernity, appealing to the secular and the religious alike.) The new paradigm highlights the intertwined nature of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, reason and the imagination, disenchantment and enchantment. Modernity is characterized less by outright disenchantment than by “disenchanted enchantment.”