I guess I’m on a philosophy film kick. The latest was the BBC’s Dangerous Knowledge, a documentary on mathematicians Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing — four geniuses whose neuroses drove them fatally mad. It’s debatable the extent to which their respective theories made them insane — the film obviously plays this up for dramatic purposes — but it’s an intriguing film and not overly technical.
One of the ironies here is that I learned of this film via some people with deep antipathy towards postmodernism, despite the fact that these four helped unravel the modern project and clear the conceptual space for postmodernism. For me, it’s impossible to ignore the links between these mathematicians at the turn of the century and the postmodern philosophers at the close of the century. The key is recognizing that the quests for certainty, universality, and totality that were under assault in science & politics — climaxing in the existential refutations that were World Wars I & II — were being assaulted in logic & mathematics via Cantor & Co.
This attack was potent because logic was presumed to be the one unshakable foundation, yet this too was starting to look like a “useful fiction” (Nietzsche). As Gregory Chaitin explains in the film: “The one place where you don’t expect there to be mysteries is in pure reason, because pure reason should be black and white; it should be really clear. But pure reason, the clearest thing there is, was revealing things that were unclear.”
And startlingly, some of these revelations are a good half-century or more removed from the “beginning” of the postmodern turn. We have, for example, the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal exclaiming in 1905 that “the nature of our epoch is multiplicity and indeterminancy…” and that “everything fell into parts, the parts again into more parts, and nothing allowed itself to be embraced by concepts anymore.” He termed it “das Gleitende,” or a slippage, a moving & sliding away — our foundations now resting on nothing more than shifting sand.1
The implications for philosophy were profound, but slow to be realized. According to Chaitin, we’re still loathe to fully absorb the implications of the work of men like Gödel. Thus it’s helpful to remember (pace D.A. Carson, John MacArthur, et al) that postmodernism is not a contemporary nihilistic hydra summoned to excuse relativism & immorality. Rather, postmodern thinkers have attempted to wrestle with some of these extraordinary discoveries spanning a wide variety of discourses and make sense of a rapidly changing world (intellectually, economically, socio-politically, etc) — especially in the smoldering aftermath of World War II.
1 Pull this together with what was happening politically — the decline in power & influence of Prussia and the German Empire — and you can see how the intellectual “falling to pieces” was not just an academic affair. The Germans already viewed everything as das Gleitende, and the humiliation of WWI was this agony writ large. Thus, it is no wonder that the people (including the intelligentsia) gravitated toward a charismatic leader who promised unification, purity, a reclamation of power & certainty… in short, Hitler promised a refutation of das Gleitende.