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.”
Tekhne, or techne, is derived from the Greek term technê, meaning art, craft, technique, or skill, and plays an important role in Ancient Greek philosophy (in, for instance, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle) where it is most often opposed to epistêmê, meaning knowledge. The legacy of the various Greek philosophical negotiations with, and distinctions between, technê and epistêmê leave a lasting mark on European thought and knowledge from the medieval period through to the early modern period and into modern philosophy from Emmanuel Kant onwards up to and including 20th-century phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger) and its subsequent legacy, particularly in French philosophy. So, for instance, in Plato’s Protagoras, the myth of Epimetheus and Prometheus describes the latter’s theft of the technê of fire as a result of the former’s forgetfulness with regard to the bestowal of attributes to human beings. Here technê emerges as skill or technique but also as a more general founding moment of humankind’s technical and technological capacities. In The Republic Plato opposes the knowledge of reality and truth (of ideal forms) to the representational status of dramatic poetry (as a technê poietike or productive technique) and by extension to arts and literature in general. In this context the latter have a degraded status in relation to knowledge or truth, and this sets the stage for attempts that will be made by later philosophy to distance itself from aesthetic form or literary discourse. In Aristotle technê emerges within the distinction between art as productive technique and theoretical knowledge on the one hand (theoria) and action on the other (praxis). Aristotle’s distinctions have an influential afterlife in the medieval period and into the early modern, in particular in Emmanuel Kant’s definition of art as a skill or capacity for the production of things. The legacy of this long negotiation of Greek technê as art, productive technique, technical skill, or technology finds its way into 20th-century German phenomenology; in Edmund Husserl’s account of the rise of the scientific worldview and instrumental rationality in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1938) and in Martin Heidegger’s discourse on technological modernity, art, and the philosophical-poetic saying of being as it is developed from the 1930s onwards. The legacy of German phenomenological thinking relating to tekhne, understood as a fundamental dimension of both artistic and technological production, has a particularly strong afterlife in post–World War II French structuralism, poststructuralism, and contemporary philosophy. The influence of Husserl’s understanding of technicity can be traced directly in various ways into the work of, for instance, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Similarly, both Husserlian and Heideggerian discourse on tekhne find their way in the thinking of technology, ecotechnicity, and technics of contemporary philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy’s discourse on the technicity of art yields an affirmation of the irreducible plurality of aesthetic techniques and, in particular, a reorientation of possible ways of understanding the place of literature in the age of digital information technology.
Jennifer A. McMahon
Literary beauty was once understood as intertwining sensations and ideas, and thus as providing subjective and objective reasons for literary appreciation. However, as theory and philosophy developed, the inevitable claims and counterclaims led to the view that subjective experience was not a reliable guide to literary merit. Literary theory then replaced aesthetics as did philosophy’s focus on literary truth. Along with the demise of the relevance of sensations, literary form also took a back seat. This suggested to some that either literature communicated truth like any other literal form of communication or it was a mere diversion: a springboard to harmless reverie or daydreaming. Neither response satisfactorily captured what was distinctive about literature: the love readers can have for literary texts and the edification or insight claimed of works within each culture’s respective catalogue of classics. However, a concept of literary beauty has again become viable due to developments in theories of pleasure and imagination. If the defining aspect of literature is the imaginative engagement it occasions, and if this imagining is constrained by plausibility and endorsed as effective relative to our goals, ideals, and interests, then literature is not reduced to either mere fact or wish fulfillment. An account of literary beauty is available which defines literature accordingly and explains how subjective and objective reasons for appreciation intertwine to evoke pleasure and insight.
What language is adequate to describe the coming into being of the new South Africa? What literary forms does newness take? What promises does the new “postapartheid fiction” deliver (or fail to deliver)? For many observers, the May 10, 1994, inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected president of South Africa captured the optimism of the political settlement that ended apartheid. Writers finally seemed able to suspend the imperatives of a literary culture oriented primarily toward political struggle. Yet while regime change informs “postapartheid fiction” in the literal sense of the term, literary and political periodization do not wholly coincide. The divisive legacies of racism are not easily dismissed. This understanding informs a category of writing often called “transitional literature” that emerges in tandem with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, 1996–1998) as the site where the new nation comes into being. Often autobiographical or confessional in tone, it remains bound up with the country’s racist past. Transitional literature thus points toward the ambivalent nature of the “post” in “postapartheid fiction,” which scholars argue functions here much like it does in the term “postcolonial.” Both prioritize the continued unfolding of a long historical sequence rather than a punctual transition that abrogates the reckoning with the past. “Post-transitional literature,” in turn, includes fiction dating from roughly the second decade after the beginning of the political transition. A layered engagement with earlier writing and with the immediate past preserves the porous negotiation of temporality already at work in transitional literature. However, black writers in particular have stressed that the continuities between the apartheid regime and its democratic successor pertain less to the intertwining of temporalities than to political economy—given the nature of inequality in South Africa where class remains tightly bound up with race. Postapartheid fiction is not merely the preserve of continuity, however. In South Africa, the preoccupation with race has given way to other vectors of subjectivity involving gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, youth culture, and autochthony or foreignness, as well as their intersections. New concerns focused on gay and lesbian subjectivities, HIV/AIDS, or on the possibilities of conflict and conviviality opened up by the desegregated and increasingly cosmopolitan character of urban spaces, have accompanied a changing literary market. Newness proliferates through the devices of creative nonfiction, eco-fiction, and genre fiction. Crime fiction has become more popular. Partly serving as the index of social disorder in South Africa and partly as the arena where this disorder is worked through in fictional form, crime fiction tacitly offers the prospect of redress—however remote. Speculative fiction similarly pits utopian aspirations against dystopian skepticism, in dialogue with Afrofuturism elsewhere on the continent. Intra-African lines of influence, and indeed of migration, announce new pathways for literary expression in English. Afrikaans literature has similarly come to assimilate transnational and diasporic motifs. Using the idea of “postapartheid fiction” to convey the exceptionalism—rather than distinctiveness—of contemporary South African writing may thus have run its course. This is itself a telling marker of how far South African literature has come since the fall of the apartheid regime.