What In the World Will People Think?! Research Time, 04/02/2018

When I was reading through that book of essays on Gilles Deleuze’s influences, one name struck me for an odd reason – it was totally unfamiliar to me.

Who are some of these guys?
Josef-Maria Hoëne-Wronski. Who the hell was this guy? He got a brief mention in a small corner of Difference and Repetition, Deleuze’s most dense book. But I’ve never come across him in all my research into the corners of Napoleonic-period German philosophy.

Here was his major project, in a few paragraphs.

It’s the 1780s. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason drops, and blows a lot of the intellectual scene in Germany away. It broke with long-established ways of thinking about human nature and thought, but did so by explicitly engaging with its major problems and solving them.

Naturally, Kant's solutions set up an entirely new set of problems. Wronski was a major figure in Polish mathematics and physics, so he had the knowledge base to approach many of the problems Kant’s work posed for the foundational principles of physics.

Kant’s first revolutionary book described how the structures of the mind – frameworks as simple and built into our experience as space, time, number, causality – conditioned experience. Human reason alone – as in logical reasoning – had no power to reach any foundational principle for why the frameworks of our mind were as they were.

Now, Kant would ultimately centre those principles in ethics and morality – practical reason. Wronski would move in a totally different direction – physics, particularly calculus.
• • •
Quick jump out of this to talk history. At the undergraduate level, the history of Western philosophy is usually taught as though there are clear boundaries in its development – classical, medieval, modern, critical, contemporary. 

Steve and I disagree on a lot of substantial ontological and
epistemological issues and debates. But we always have very
fruitful – or at least very entertaining – engagements and
All too often, those boundaries settle into researchers’ thinking as they progress as a scholar and specialize. That’s why philosophical work that shows the continuity through all these breaks – the little differences and influences across what we think are distinct periods – is the most valuable history of philosophy to me.

I’m indebted to my SERRC colleague Steve Fuller for having written books that taught me so much about those continuities that our oversimplifying undergrad curriculum paints over and erases. Of all the mentors, teachers, and elders I’ve had over the years, he’s taught me the most about this.
• • •
The choice made sense to Wronski. He was a physicist who came from the German-Polish professional world, where you learned Leibniz’s calculus alongside his complex and imaginative ontologies. So intensely creative, ontologically fertile metaphysics was an ordinary part of mathematical thinking for him.

In most of our undergraduate educations in philosophy, we learn that no one thought this way after reading Kant’s Critiques. That was the long-term effect, but just because it’s happened by now, doesn’t mean that it never took a long time anyway.

Wronski may have thought little of bringing Leibniz’s multivector hybrid approaches to physics, mathematics, and ontology. But the presumption got him into trouble, costing him a job at the Marseille Observatory.

It turns out that it isn’t always acceptable to develop a complexly hybrid ontology of the origins of the universe when you’re supposed to be mapping star movements. At least not outside your lunch breaks anyway.

Who are these guys, Kemo Sabe? Another inadvisable direction.
Wronski eventually became most famous in the intellectual circles of his day as a bit of a crank. As people were abandoning the approaches of Leibniz, he was carrying them forward. As it became less acceptable to motivate philosophical and scientific work using religious and theological principles, he was discussing how mystical visions helped inspire his metaphysical work.

The first major product of this exploration was his Introduction to the Philosophy of Mathematics and Algorithmic Science. It was a massive synthesis of Leibnizian ontologies of calculus with Pythagorean numerological mysticism, all tuned to the problems of post-Kantian philosophy.

His correspondences and friendships with major figures in European mathematics like Joseph-Louis Lagrange meant that this first book was reviewed in high-rolling circles. This quickly turned into a problem for Wronski, since IPMAS was universally panned, including in the review by Lagrange.

Eventually, Wronski’s own faith in the universality of algebra and calculus ended up just as limited as the Pythagorean faith in flat-planed geometry. After ambitious mathematical papers were likewise panned, he spent the last 30 years of his life in poverty. Still grinding away at epochally-ambitious philosophy and mathematics. But fruitlessly.

Wronski’s work turned out to be a dead end. So associating him with Deleuze becomes incredibly dangerous. The insults Wronski received on his way out of intellectual prominence – mystic spewing madness and nonsense – sound very similar to the insults academician analytic philosophers spew at post-structuralist thinkers like Deleuze.

So an essay talking about the influence of such a reviled figure as Wronski on Deleuze – who is widely reviled as a charlatan in many university circles – has to be careful not to associate them too much. Lest you justify the haters.

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