Kepler's Allegory of Containment, the Making of Modern Astronomy, and the Semiotics of Mathematical Thought

By Paxson, James J. | Intertexts, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Kepler's Allegory of Containment, the Making of Modern Astronomy, and the Semiotics of Mathematical Thought


Paxson, James J., Intertexts


That the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is an allegorist comes as no surprise to anyone who has encountered his cryptic Somnium, a text largely finished by 1610, added to for some twenty years, and published posthumously in 1634 by Kepler's son Ludwig. A clever book which speculates about the astronomical perspective of dwellers on the moon, the Somnium seu Astronomia Lunari, as it was fully titled, summed up Kepler's lifelong interests in dream lore, symbolism, demonology, the mystical value of geometry, and medieval literature. A resolute believer, along with Galileo or Newton or Boyle, that the physical cosmos was the script of God, Kepler was steeped as well in classical literature even in his adult, professional life. When he arrived in the city of Graz in 1594 to teach arithmetic to the adolescent sons of the well-to-do at the Protestant Stiftsschule, he also taught rhetoric and the poetry of Vergil because his mathematical lectures were unpopular and undersubscribed (Caspar 56-57); likew ise, his letters seem peppered with intense, often overwrought mythographic metaphors. (1) As Graz school authorities in charge of Kepler's teaching assignments claimed and as Kepler biographer Max Caspar quotes, "mathematics is not everyone's meat" (56). But Kepler also had tropes, figures, and myth in his very bones.

My object in this essay is to place Kepler within the genealogy of the great European allegorists, the genealogy containing Martianus Capella, Bernardus Silvestris, Dante, and Chaucer. A consummate practitioner of literary allegory, the great astronomer crafted one of the most compelling otherworldly journeys in literature. But his allegory, I believe, captures far more than the hermeneutically encrypted laws of the new physics or the heliocentric astronomy. Kepler's Somnium encapsulates or incorporates topoi from a number of his theoretical writings, proffering what can be thought of as a narratology or "allegory of containment," an imagined geometry both figural and literal, textual and thematic. At the same time, it conducts a parable of cognitive or meta-discursive self-reflection. That is, the Somnium yields itself up best, first, when studied through contemporary narratological technique--with special focus on the narratological master trope of embedding or framing--and second, once it is understood as an allegory not only about speculations concerning space and heavenly bodies but also about the very psychic or cognitive mechanisms by which the mathematical or scientific investigator could be said to produce mathematics and science. The narrative structure of the Somnium is self-reflexive, furnishing a relentless "narrative of narrative" (Williams 24). With all of allegory's attendant tropes and figural mechanisms, the text reflects upon mathematical cognition itself; a cognition formalized eventually by the American semiotician C. S. Peirce and his twentieth-century successor, Brian Rotman--both of whom, I will argue, are prefigured in Kepler's many-leaved allegory of science and narrative.

My highlighting of Kepler's "allegory of containment" will thus bypass his major contributions (the Astronomia nova or the Harmonice mundi) and focus on some minor texts, such as the Somnium--perhaps the last of the cosmic allegories of the Latin Middle Ages--as well as the early Mysterium cosmographicum (1596) and Nova stereometria (1615). Whereas the Mysterium tends to be disparaged in the positivist sketches of philosophy or history of science because of its earliness and its unabashed abstract Platonism, (2) the Nova stereometria or Stereometria Doliorum Vinariorum ("The Measurement of Wine Casks") receives praise for its role in the advancement of seventeenth-century mathematics. Yet both brief texts thematize an allegory of geometry, a process that finds reciprocal representation in the geometry of allegory presented in Kepler's sensuous and concrete narrative of the Somnium.

Kepler's Somnium has often been thought of as the first work of modern science fiction. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Kepler's Allegory of Containment, the Making of Modern Astronomy, and the Semiotics of Mathematical Thought
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.