On Sunday, January 21, at 3 pm Eastern Time (US), Johns Hopkins Professor William Egginton will be our guest in a Casual Conversation. Professor Egginton is the Decker Professor in the Humanities, directior of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute, and chair of Modern Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Here is his page on the Hopkins website, with a link to his cv: https://krieger.jhu.edu/modern-languages-literatures/directory/william-egginton/ .
Professor Egginton will be speaking with us about his highly-praised new book, The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality (Pantheon 2023). Shirley, my wife-the-bookseller, informs me that the book was on all the 2023 best-of-the-year lists.
What connects these three great thinkers? Perhaps I should let Lorraine Daston tell us, from her January 12, 2024, review in TLS, “Chess Masters: The ethical vision that unites three famous figures from different disciplines”:
“What unites these three figures, in Egginton’s view, is their profound inquiry into the bounds of human reason, more specifically their insight that many of the paradoxes thrown up when reason is pushed to its limits and beyond can be traced back to our uppity habit of trying to imagine things from a God’s-eye point of view. Since we aren’t God, we end up tying ourselves into ever-so-rational knots. In Kant’s case we get the famous antinomies of mutually contradictory conclusions, both deduced from impeccable premisses, such as the double truth of free will and determinism; in Heisenberg’s physics the contradictions between the seamless continuities of time, space and causation posited by classical physics and the violations of all these unities in quantum mechanics; and in Borges’s fiction the vertigo-inducing thought experiments of a man who remembers everything, but is incapable of thought, and the tiny Aleph (1cm-2cm in diameter) in the cellar that contains the whole universe. “
Or John Banville’s review in the WSJ (10/06/2023):
“In an era defined by anxiety, it would seem only natural that we should hanker after the eternal verities, as a bulwark against the threats and confusions that daily beset us. However, William Egginton’s “The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality” is here to assure us that not only is uncertainty built into the deepest structures of reality, but that we should gladly accept this fact, and be content with the limitations of our capacity to understand and absorb the world. As the author says of his three seemingly unlikely bedfellows, they ‘shared an uncommon immunity to the temptation to think they knew God’s secret plan.’”
Ms. Daston is Director Emerita at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and a member of the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago. Mr. Banville is a novelist. Perhaps there is clue in their professions of the reach of Professor Egginton’s book.
There are limits to what we may be able to know, by reason or otherwise, and, also, especially, what we can understand about what we do know, but there is no limit to our curiosity. Perhaps it is my imagination, not grounded in pure reason, but it does seem to me that employing three individuals of diverse backgrounds and specialties to create a book of synthesis, is, at the very least, reminiscent of the book by Professor Douglas Hofstadter published 45 years ago: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Braid. But, then again, perhaps I am just creating my own reality.
As always, you are invited to create a place for conversation on Zoom with a distinguished scholar. And, to boot, a Baltimorean!
If you plan to attend, please email me at email@example.com .
See you soon!
P.S. As a subscriber to WSJ, I can send essays and news reports to others by email. Please let me know if you would like me to send you Banville’s review.