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.
From Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics onward, tragedy has loomed large in the genealogy of literary theory. But this prominence is in many regards paradoxical. The original object of that theory, the Attic tragedies performed at the Dionysian festivals in 5th- century bce Athens, are, notwithstanding their ubiquitous representation on the modern stage, only a small fraction of the tragedies produced in Athens, and are themselves torn from their context of performance. The Poetics and the plays that served as its objects of analysis would long vanish from the purview of European culture. Yet, when they returned in the Renaissance as cultural monuments to be appropriated and repeated, it was in a context largely incommensurable with their existence in Ancient Greece. While the early moderns created their own poetics (and politics) of tragedy and enlisted their image of the Ancients in the invention of exquisitely modern literary and artistic forms (not least, opera), it was in the crucible of German Idealism and Romanticism, arguably the matrix of modern literary theory, that certain Ancient Greek tragedies were transmuted into models of “the tragic,” an idea that played a formative part in the emergence of philosophical modernity, accompanying a battle of the giants between dialectical (Hegelian) and antidialectical (Nietzschean) currents that continues to shape our theoretical present. The gap between a philosophy of the tragic and the poetics and history of tragedy as a dramatic genre is the site of much rich and provocative debate, in which the definition of literary theory itself is frequently at stake. Tragedy is in this sense usefully defined as a genre in conflict. It is also a genre of conflict, in the sense that ethical conflicts, historical transitions, and political revolutions have all come to define its literary forms, something that is particularly evident in the place of both tragedy and the tragic in the dramas of decolonization.
Deconstruction is one of the most significant and controversial intellectual movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. Beginning with the French writer Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), and subsequently adopted by many others, the reading strategy known as deconstruction works to dislocate or destabilize the structures and assumptions that shape human history. Deconstruction calls into question the fundamental concepts and hierarchies of Western philosophy, demonstrates how notions of “writing” and “text” are generalizable beyond human language and thought, and foregrounds the undecidable or incalculable aspects of reading and being. Through extremely attentive readings of philosophical and psychoanalytic texts, Derrida’s work brings to light the various centrisms and oppositions upon which they are based (centrisms such as logocentrism; anthropocentrism; and phallocentrism; and oppositions such as nature and culture; life and death; presence and absence; speech and writing; human beings and other animals). Alongside having a strong engagement with contemporary issues in society and politics, Derrida was consistently concerned with the literary effects at work in both literary and nonliterary texts, recognizing that meaning and context can neither be absolutely closed off nor fixed by author or reader. Contrary to common misapprehensions about deconstruction, the recognition of the irreducible literariness of all writing is not to suggest that texts are “meaningless,” and nor is Derrida’s generalized notion of writing meant to privilege language over the real world. Its sustained attention to literature and the effects of reading and writing perhaps account for why deconstruction has been, and is still, most eminent within the field of literary studies. Indeed, much of the prominent deconstructive work after Derrida—including, for example, that of Hélène Cixous, Paul de Man, and J. Hillis Miller—is explicitly and primarily concerned with reading literature. That said, deconstruction cannot be reduced to merely a mode of literary criticism, and it remains influential in numerous other fields, including cultural studies, the environmental humanities, feminism, film studies, history, the life sciences, philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and religious studies, to name a few.
Thomas H. Ford and Joe Hughes
Rhetoric was—or is, and the uncertainty here is to the point—an unstable but hegemonic assemblage of categories, practices, doctrines, and institutions that endured from classical antiquity through to modernity. Rhetoric underwent radical transformations over this period of nearly three thousand years, entering into complex relationships with its discursive and educational others, including literature, philosophy, theology, and science. Rhetoric has variously been the pragmatic art of verbal action; the teachable (and so saleable) skill of persuasive speaking; an elite training in literary forms and genres inherited from ancient Rome and Greece; a set of protocols governing textual production and reception; the antiquarian collection of ornate and artificial modes of phraseology; a transcendent spirit of linguistic articulation and creation; and a branch of instruction in professional communication. This article presents five scenes—sometimes more tightly focused, sometimes more diffuse—drawn from the long history of rhetoric: a moment of rhetoric’s inception, in Syracuse in 466 bce; of its Christianization, in Milan, 387; of linguistic productivity, in Cambridge, 1511; of rhetorical transcendence, in Basel in 1872; and of social composition, in Minneapolis, 1968. In each of these moments, rhetoric’s conceptual, discursive, and institutional relations with literature were transfigured. They were scenes in which rhetoric was retied, so to speak, into a series of new knots with literature and philosophy. Other scenes and other itineraries would no doubt generate different stories—other knottings of rhetoric and its others.
Literary criticism has long wavered in its attitude toward intention, sometimes considering it inaccessible and undesirable, and at other times, the source and arbiter of meaning. Much of this debate hinges on whether intention is understood as a mental event in the mind of a human or not. While some influential scholars of literature have tended to approach intention with the view that intention is a mental state, philosophers of action have long held that intention is a description of action that occurs in the world. This latter view promises to reinvigorate intention as a useful concept in literary study as scholars continue to expand the notion of text, beyond its purely verbal component, to text understood as the literary artifact comprising, and shaped by, human and nonhuman agency alike.
David Vichnar and Louis Armand
Etymologically and conceptually linked with sense perception (as opposed to, in the Platonic tradition, noēsis or intellection) in ancient, medieval, and early-modern thought, aisthēsis formed part of theorizing not only questions surrounding beauty and art, but also perception, epistemology, and even ontology (in, for instance, the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas). During the Enlightenment and its project of subdivision and categorization of the “humanities,” aisthēsis became subsumed, in the work of Alexander Baumgarten, by “aesthetics,” the study of beauty in the narrower sense. However, by the beginning of the 20th century and the Marxist/Freudian/Saussurean revolution in humanist inquiry and the “avant-garde” revolution in the arts, aisthēsis resumed its place and function as a central node in a vast network of concerns: for the Marxists, the history of aisthēsis follows the pattern of social development of progressive mastery over nature by humankind, described as a process of rationalization (the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory); in psychoanalysis and phenomenology, artistic activity is regarded as the “sublimated” expression of socially objectionable energies, taking place in a world conceived of as indefinite and open multiplicity (John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, et al.); in poststructuralist theory, the image not simply “acquires” a politico-aesthetic function by way of an act of judgement, but rather accedes in its very technological condition to a political imaginary, to an aesthetics as such (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, et al.). In the second half of the 20th century, with the progressive technologization of society, aisthēsis formed the backbone of media studies, which examines how technological innovation overthrows a settled political and aesthetic order, with special attention paid to the effects of electronic media and the hypertext: non-linearity, repetitiveness, discontinuity, intuition (e.g., Marshall McLuhan and Jay David Bolter). At the dawn of the 21st century, in the aesthetico-mimetic doubling of the mediasphere, from teletext and satellite TV to the World Wide Web and GPS, a critical, ecological mode of thinking aisthēsis assumes the ideal function of an “avant-gardism” in affecting the structure of how things come to mean, how meaning is virtualized, and how the virtual is lived.
What does scandal designate? Is it a narrative of moral outrage, a titillating spectacle of shame, or a violation that simultaneously unsettles and consolidates norms and traditions? Scandal as a phenomenon, event, and analytical category has been the focus of debates and representations in works by Kant, Heidegger, Rousseau, Sade, and Mme de Sévigné, as well as in The Arabian Nights. These engagements with scandal in philosophy, literature, and media constitute a genealogy if not a tradition that emphasizes the relations between scandal and the body, gender, story-telling, visuality, marginality, and power. From the body of Aphrodite that frames scandal in the Greek mythological context to the body of Egyptian activist and nude blogger Alyaa Elmahdi, adulterous affairs and fantasies of debauchery particularly have been used as instruments to critique the rich and powerful but also to oppress women and sexual minorities. What becomes of scandal in the age of the Internet, apps, and social media? The article examines whether the digital is bringing about the demise of scandal as an affective scene that generates outrage and condemnation but also as a model of telling and representing tied to antiquated reportage genres, gossip scenes, and fictional models.
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.
Though the two fields have rarely been put in conversation, African philosophy and African fiction share a set of foundational concerns. These include the relation of the individual to the community; the significance of culture to unseating exclusively Western universalisms; and the tension between “lived” and a priori claims to truth against a background of political and epistemological decolonization. In addition to this substantive thematic core, both fields have also been shaped by an acute and even anguished degree of self-definitional questioning. What is “African” about African philosophy, or about the African novel? And inversely, what is fundamental to philosophy or the novel as such? Orality has served in both fields as a means of gauging the relative knowledge value afforded experience, on the one hand, and ideas’ formal contestation, on the other. While strong advocates of orality as a distinguishing feature of African intellectual production have extolled its collective dimensions, critics have been wary of its potential for cultural reductiveness and essentialism. Textuality, some argue, is an epistemological orientation that exceeds the literal practice of writing, and need not be viewed as a historical development at odds with African knowledge traditions. A number of influential African philosophers have homed in on the related problem of individualism in an effort to differentiate philosophical from social-scientific claims. This makes African philosophy an ideal interlocutor for African novel studies, which has sought in its own right to reconcile the form’s historical premium on the individual with African social contexts. While countless African novels from the mid-20th century to the early 21st century represent the challenge of negotiating between collective and individual as well as oral and textual elements, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s masterwork Kintu is an exemplary study in how the subgenre of the “philosophical novel” can narrativize the interaction of different African knowledge paradigms. In its staging of an oral, embodied system of knowledge alongside a textualized, meta-epistemological one, it invites the reader’s mutual evaluation of each vis-à-vis the other.