Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination

By Bruce Rosenstock | Go to book overview

2 Georg Cantor and the
Mathematics of God

OSKAR GOLDBERG’S VITALIST philosophy draws its inspiration from both the early nineteenth-century Naturphilosophie of F. W. J. Schelling and Lorenz Oken and the neo-Naturphilosophie of Hans Driesch and other biologists and phenomenological psychologists of the early decades of the twentieth century. One of the features of Naturphilosophie throughout its history was its reliance on mathematics to provide a foundation for its dynamic conception of nature. At the conclusion of chapter 1, I discussed the University of Vienna zoologist Karl Camillo Schneider’s concept of “number” to supply a foundation for his theory of the mathematical structure of the infinite aether in which God is present as a force structure in pure potentiality. Schneider was by far the most speculative of the life scientists who were seeking a more holistic explanatory model for organic phenomena. Theoretical biologists like Ludwig von Bertalannfy, Alexander Gurwitsch, and Paul Weiss offered far less speculative explanatory models that made use of mathematics, especially topology, to account for cellular differentiation during embryological development. To their names, let me add that of another University of Vienna life scientist, Hans Przibram (1874–1944), who argued for a new “mathematical biology.” Przibram notes that “in the history of the biological sciences the Romantics, who seem more appealing to us, were much more prepared to travel mathematical paths than our contemporaries.”1 Goldberg’s neo-Naturphilosophie vitalism, we will find, is very much like its Romantic precursor in its turn to mathematics. The mathematical basis of Goldberg’s Kabbalistic Naturphilosophie is the subject of this chapter.

Goldberg’s first publication, Die fünf Bücher Mosis: Ein Zahlengebäudge (The Five Books of Moses: A Numerical Structure), is an exercise in mathematical Kabbalah: it offers an account of the numerical structure of the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, based on the traditional method of numerological hermeneutics called gematria.2 I explain the method of gematria later in the chapter, but first let me present Goldberg’s other source for his mathematical interpretation of the Pentateuch: the theory of infinity developed in the work of nineteenth-century mathematician Georg Cantor. In the Goldberg Nachlass at the German Literature Archive in Marbach there are dozens of notebooks from the time of writing of his first book on the number system of the Pentateuch. One of these notebooks

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