Asking the Impossible: The Hunger for the Unknowable in 20th-Century US & European Thought
Nov 11, 2021 | 1:00 PM ET
35th Annual Lecture of the GHI Washington (Virtual) | Speaker: Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (University of Wisconsin); Comment: Michael Hochgeschwender (Ludwig Maximilians Universität München)
Why is there something rather than nothing? Do human beings have free will? Do human beings have a soul? What is the good life? Does God exist? If so, how was God created? Over the course of the nineteenth century, these sorts of ultimate questions fell out of favor thanks to positivism, materialism, and naturalism’s success at limiting intellectual inquiry to questions that can be answered, and answers that can be verified by science. But no sooner had sweeping questions about the “meaning of life” and “man’s place in the cosmos” been ruled inadmissible by modern thinkers that many of them came to feel their allure. This GHI annual talk examines how, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, an increasing number of American and European intellectuals, who once felt committed to making an inscrutable universe legible to moderns, found themselves drawn to ponder the unknowable. It will explore their efforts to redeem the intellectual credibility of asking unanswerable questions, and will consider whether they are inescapable for living the examined life.