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Maddening mathematics: the kinship of the rational and the irrational in the writing of Robert Musil

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Abstract:

Mathematics plays a central thematic role in both the novella Young Törless (1906) and the incomplete novel A Man Without Qualities (1930–2) by Robert Musil. First published in a period in which logicians sought to eliminate contradictions in the foundations of the discipline, these texts employ mathematical introspection in the attempt to resolve metaphysical riddles. This endeavour to use mathematics as a language for solving philosophical puzzles ultimately fails in both works. At the same time, the texts suggest that an overzealous exploration of rational mathematics ironically leads to a flirtation with irrational thought and, if not checked, mental illness. This paper examines how the thematization of mathematics problematizes a binary, discrete distinction between the rational and irrational.

Keywords: IRRATIONAL; MATHEMATICS; MENTAL ILLNESS; MUSIL; RATIONAL; ROBERT; SANITY

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/jrs.2007.070306

Publication date: December 1, 2007

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