William Stewart, *21

Department of German

Mathematik ist immer Geist: The Persistence of Mathematical Humanism and Aesthetic
Rationality in Postwar Germany


This dissertation provides a cultural-historical account of the role played by mathematics within conversations about the human in Germany after the Second World War. It tracks how a broad mathematical consciousness sharpens and complicates notions like rationality, irrationality, quantifiability, and the infinite in ways decisive for a post-fascist Europe and a new understanding of the human being’s place in society. This is the story of a group of cultural producers—philosophical polymaths, architects, industrial designers, poets, and visual artists— who embraced the belief that the mathematician would function as “analog” to the future humanist. The protagonists of this narrative needed no convincing of the high stakes of this wager: inheritors of the Nazi catastrophe and the horrors of the Holocaust as much as witnesses to the birth of globalisms nuclear and neoliberal, these figures know all too well the barbarisms that await those subject to uncritical calculative regimes.
Rather than extolling the instrumentalization of quantification or numerically precise calculations, the dissertation’s case studies are concerned instead with the critically selfreflexive, rationally pluralist, and radically contingent character of mathematical thought. Over the course of three chapters that examine, respectively, the philosopher of technology Max Bense (1910–1990), the design pedagogy at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (1953–1968), and the visual artist Hanne Darboven (1941–2009), this project reveals the way that the disciplinary crises and epistemological paradoxes that define theoretical mathematics in the century preceding World War II serve as a source of inspiration for postwar cultural actors plotting a new course that would defend against future fascism while taking seriously the place of mathematically technical rationality within the lived world. For the subjects of this dissertation, a mathematical consciousness grounds a politics of intelligence in an environment defined by technology; a method of intuitive design intended to educate citizens about the systems of consumption in which they live; and an approach to art-making that is as self-reflexive as it is self-generative. This study analyzes the legacy of mathematical thought in a diverse, interdisciplinary  community of postwar humanists and considers how these cases might model productive yet critical positions within our own algorithmically saturated moment.



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