Literature of the Enlightenment; French-German cultural exchange; cross-pollination of literature and science; history of the imagination
Project: “Une symétrie passagère”: Exploring the Interstices of Mathematics, Literature, and Philosophy in the European Enlightenment
This research project analyzes the role of symmetry in eighteenth-century thought, focusing on the works of Denis Diderot and Christoph Martin Wieland. The concept of symmetry, being at once aesthetic, philosophical and mathematical, provides a fascinating lens with which to explore the interconnectedness of these various modes of thought.
Symmetry, as defined by the mathematician Hermann Weyl, is the “invariance of a configuration of elements under a group of automorphic transformation.” Although Weyl develops this now classic definition of symmetry in the early twentieth century, he traces its roots back to the Enlightenment. He argues that the modern understanding of symmetry can be drawn from Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz’s definition of similarity. Leibniz’s thought has a profound influence on both Diderot and Wieland. Thus, my research asks to what extent the intellectual legacy of Leibniz’s ideas on symmetry is manifest in the European Enlightenment, particularly in the works of these two authors. Leibniz does not relegate his discussion of symmetry to his mathematical works. On the contrary, for Leibniz, the mathematical is philosophical and the philosophical is mathematical. In “Lettre sur les aveugles, à l’usage de ceux qui voient” (1749), Diderot continues this tradition, interweaving geometric figures into the body of his literary text. However, Diderot employs the concept of symmetry with a contradictory goal: it no longer constitutes a Leibnizian proof of “le meilleur des mondes possibles.” For him, as well as for Wieland, nature’s symmetries, far from affirming a particular worldview, offer a convenient medium for exploring various modes of philosophical thought.
The primary goal of this research is to offer new insights into the Enlightenment’s project to unify human knowledge. However, this research will not only improve our understanding of the eighteenth century, it will also help to develop new theoretical frameworks for interdisciplinary studies. Diderot and Wieland are both perspectival thinkers. Their philosophical approach, which values the tension between various modes of thought as a source of productive ambiguity, deserves careful consideration as scholarship and education in the humanities place increased importance on interdisciplinarity.
- “Daphne’s Desires: Polyperspectivity and Female Happiness in Wieland’s Agathon, La Roche’s Fräulein von Sternheim and Lessing’s Emilia Galotti“. In: Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies Vol. 42.2 (April 2011).
- “‘da doch einmal der Verstand der Held darinn ist’: Narrating Heroes in Goethe’s Novelle”. In: Die Macht des Erzählens. Ed. Winfried Eckel and Anja Müller-Wood. Remscheid: Gardez! (forthcoming)
- with Ruediger Müller: “‘Arbeiten, als sei nichts geschehen’: Ideologies of Work in Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns“. In: German as a foreign language. Ed. Martina Moeller. Issue 3 (2013).