The Transition from the Infinite to the Finite: Religion and German Literature, 1700-1770

April 20, 2016

John Smith

John Smith

On April 20, 2016, the ICGS hosted John H. Smith (European Languages and Studies, UC Irvine) for a special seminar entitled “The Transition from the Infinite to the Finite: Religion and German Literature, 1700-1770.”  Smith pre-circulated a paper on the role of eighteenth-century religious poetry in transforming concepts of the finite and the infinite, opening the seminar by contextualizing this transformation within the scientific and mathematic developments of the time period.  Leibniz and Newton’s almost contemporaneous discoveries of calculus in 1675 raised significant philosophical questions about the concepts of the infinite, continuity, and infinitesimal that served as calculating tools for this new science.  Referring to Thomas Kuhn’s “structure of scientific revolution,” Smith argued that over the course of the eighteenth century, the concept of the infinite was transformed from a shocking anomaly into a normal science, and that much of this work of normalization was carried out by religious literature – and specifically by religious poetry.

Therefore, a central tenant of his argument is that this transformation did not occur through a process of secularization, but through normalization, in which religious and secular worldviews intertwined.  Smith maintained that religious poetry played a significant role in making the infinite experienceable and manageable within the finite world.  In the religious poetry of the eighteenth century, the infinite entered the finite world as the subject of playful manipulation and the source of sublime pleasure.  Smith offered examples of religious poetry from Andreas Gryphius, Albrecht Haller, Barthold Heinrich Brockes, and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock to demonstrate this process of normalization.  After his presentation, seminar participants discussed Smith’s paper as well as a set of readings, including selections of religious poetry and excerpts from Hans Blumenberg’s Die Legitimität der Neuzeit and David Wellbery’s The Specular Moment. (Leigh York)