Alice Christensen, *18

Department of German

Touching Temperature: Questions of Measurement and Feeling 1870-1930 (2018)


The dissertation uncovers a set of questions about temperature, as quality and quantity, as feeling and measurement, in German thought between 1870 and 1930. The history of this idea includes debates central to academic philosophy in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but belongs not only narrowly to philosophy or to physical theory. Instead, the dissertation shows the interconnection of concerns both scholarly and worldly, as these emerged from a diverse network of media, techniques, instruments, and bodies. The texts that intervened in the question of temperature—scientific reports, philosophical treatises and debates, literary works, and popular ephemera—expose a set of questions concerning the distinction between quantity and quality, the relationship between Erkenntnis and experience, and what it meant to dwell in a world of carefully regulated temperature. In the years around 1900, temperature traversed a vast cultural field, acting as both Zusammenhang and point of contention. Chapter One of this dissertation examines the texts and other documents of an obsession with temperature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In Chapter Two, I take seriously a claim by the philosopher Hermann Cohen, that the concept of degree—a particularly important concept for him—originated with our sensory apprehension of temperature. In that long history, a continual entwinement of quality and what we now call temperature is found; these two strands met explicitly in the thought of the eighteenth century philosopher Christian Wolff. The conclusions that Wolff reached, with both Scholastic philosophy and Fahrenheit’s thermometers at hand, were felt in the late nineteenth century, in the debate over the measurability of sensation—which was, in many ways, an argument about the meaning of the term quality. This is the subject of Chapter Three, in which we examine nineteenth-century research into the temperature sense and the philosophical debate in which this research came to play a leading role. The terrain of the term quality had changed quite a bit since Wolff’s pronouncement that “gradus sunt quantitates qualitatum.” While philosophers and psychologists continued to invoke various definitions of the term, quality no longer appeared to be a useful category in the study of the physical world. Temperature, with its long association with quality, and the vexed and ambiguous assocation of both with the senses, became a site of productive tension. In Chapter Four, texts by Robert Musil, Robert Walser, and Franz Kafka are shown to address the situation of dwelling in modernity; in literary experiments, the relationship between writing and the structures of experience is explored using concepts and figures of indoor heating. The dissertation closes with a brief afterword on the notion of temperature as medium, milieu, Zusammenhang.

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