“Rationalizing the Inarticulate”

Sunday, 2-3:30pm

300 Wheeler

Moderator: Massimo Mazzotti


Justin Sledge (University of Memphis)

Sense Beyond Sense: John Dee, Angelic Language and the Early-Modern Crisis of Representation

Through the 15th century war over the ontology of representation was waged between nominalists and realists. Bruno, Ficino Mirandola and others resisted this nominalist tendency and maintained that there was an ontological connection between sign and signifier such that, by careful artifice, semiotics would be indistinguishable from theurgy. Paracelsus, for instance, held that plants and metals were literally signed by God and, if one learns to read this “liber naturae” it would be possible to restore physical and spiritual health. And we cannot forget that a great deal of humanist scholarship into Hebrew was the accidental result of attempting to recover that original “Adamic” language in order to repair this ontological-semotic breech. By the late 16th century the crisis of representation had come to a head and such realist positions were becoming a minority in academic circles – nominalism had more or less won the day.

A stunning exception is Dr. John Dee (1527-1609), court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth, writer of the preface to the first English edition of Euclid's Elements and coiner of the term “English Empire,” spent the better part of seven years with his medium Edward Kelly invoking angels, demons and other “spiritual creatures” attempting to secure an authentic Christianity, apocalyptic visions and the famed “language Adamicall” which would guarantee the relationship between being and representation.

It is the sessions beginning around March 1583 in which a series of “Enochian” languages emerge which, according to their angelic collaborators, would bridge the gap between “things and the words and symboles of them.” Yet, a paradox of the sessions was that the “adamical language” itself was largely asemic, with bizarre letters arranged in 49x49 grids, glossolalia like incantations and finally apocalyptic pronouncements urging repentance, wife-swapping and a coming Christian utopia in a purely synthetic language. It is this shockingly contemporary paradox – explicated, for instance, in Deleuze's Logic of Sense - where the ontology of sense is grounded in post-sense or even non-sense, that Dee's curious working with angels requires analysis as both a reaction to semiotic modernity and a strange exception to it.

Justin Sledge has active research interests in the philosophical relevance of the so-called western esoteric tradition (e.g., alchemy, sorcery, and various non-ration modes of knowing), radical political philosophy and recent developments in thinking "difference" as investigated by recent French thought.  He hopes to bridge these disparate lines of thought in a dissertation exploring the ontology of resistance.


Devon C. Wootten (University of Iowa)

Interpreting Pascal’s Pensées: Faut-il accorder tous les passages contraires?

‘Pour entendre le sens d’un auteur, il faut accorder tous les passages contraires.’ (B684, L257) The pensée above is remarkable because it gives a clear directive regarding the practice of interpretation. Indeed, one might say that B684 establishes an impossible standard against which one may judge whether an interpretation has been successful, for it is a rare piece of scholarship that manages to reconcile every contradictory passage in a text. The fact that it appears in Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (1670), is what makes it particularly fascinating. If any text could be said to resist precisely the sort of interpretive reconciliation called for in B684 it is Pascal’s Pensées, an unfinished apology riddled with gaps and silences. In effect, this pensée announces an irresolvable tension by seeming to call for an interpretive approach that is impossible to apply to the text in which it appears. This article attempts to reorient the way Blaise Pascal’s Pensées is read by arguing that the interpretive strategies that have been built up around the text are inapt to its complexity. Inasmuch as current interpretive approaches situate themselves within an Aristotelian system of logic that does not admit contradiction, they reduce the formal and semantic complexity of the Pensées and obscure what the text has to teach us regarding the nature of knowledge and existence. I conclude with an examination of the way in which Pensées anticipates these objections and offers an alternative method of engagement via the possibility of ethical irony.

Devon Wootten is a PhD candidate in the Cinema and Comparative Literature department at the University of Iowa. His dissertation, titled Crises of Subjectivity: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Lacan, explores the ways in which these three writers wrestle with the limits of knowledge and how their struggles might inform the process of literary criticism. His poems have been published in Fence, Aufgabe, and Colorado Review, among others. He lives and works in Missoula, MT.


Kathryn Hume (Stanford University)

Paralepsis, Procedure and Incomplete Reduction in Descartes’s Géométrie

The standard account of Cartesian rationalism and its relation to the first-person pronoun—implicit in the phrase "Cogito, ergo sum"—is that Descartes seeks to ground a well-ordered system of knowledge upon the foundation of a self-reflective act of consciousness. In this paper, analyzing Descartes’s 1637 Géométrie, I challenge this simplistic understanding by positing two distinct first-person pronouns, which I call the procedural je and the authorial je. The procedural je refers to the reader, directing her to engage actively with the text to reconstruct diagrams and to solve problems using the method of “analysis”. The authorial je, in contrast, addresses the reader directly (vous) and describes the work as a whole; it primarily celebrates the Géométrie’s deliberate omissions. Whereas classical (Euclidean) geometry respects the heterogeneity of geometric objects and limits generalization to that between instance and kind, Cartesian geometry views individual figures as patterns or machines for producing families of related problems, which entails a different act of generalization. The authorial je in turn claims that the few, simple templates in the work suffice to recover the vast array of classical geometric problems. But to make this logic work the reader must replicate the procedure to solve problems absent from the text. From this analysis I conclude that Cartesian rationalism is a technique for reducing one domain of knowledge to another (i.e. geometric problems to algebraic equations); because this reduction is actually impossible, Descartes replaces the explicit articulation of general claims with implicit replicability of a single procedure.

Kathryn Hume is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the intersection between math, philosophy and literature in 17th century France.