Theses Doctoral

Losing Touch: Rethinking Contingency as Common Tangency in Continental Thought

Carlson, Liane Francesca

This dissertation grows out of the collapse of traditional Christian justifications for evil in the wake of Enlightenment critiques of religion and the atrocities of the twentieth century. Skeptical of teleological narratives that sought to domesticate suffering as part of a necessary plan - whether God's plan, or some more secularized ideal of progress - a generation of Critical Theorists adopted the concept of contingency as their central tool for political critique. Defined as the realm of chance, change, and the unnecessary, contingency serves for most contemporary thinkers to remind us that even seemingly natural categories, such as sex, race, and religion could have been otherwise. Yet in using contingency to make sweeping statements about the nature of history, scholars often overlook how contingency is understood on the ground by those who feel their bodies and identities abruptly made unstable. This project seeks to reground contingency in the specificity of human experience by returning to a neglected Christian tradition that understood contingency as a state of finitude, defined in contrast to the necessary, impassive God. For such thinkers, contingency was experienced most acutely in the sense of touch as it renders the body vulnerable to the external world and the passions as they ambush the soul.
Accordingly, this work picks up at one of the last junctures before questions of history swept away the tactile, affective understanding of contingency: the end of the eighteenth century with the influence of Pietism on the Early German Romantics. This work draws this particular moment into conversation with the history of science, literature, and the anthropology of the senses, asking questions about the influence of shifting medical theories on the cultural understanding of touch; the historical ties between this version of contingency and theories of psychological pathology; and the relationship between literature and theology within this intellectual tradition.
To focus those conversations, each chapter centers on a different situation in which a given thinker experiences contingency through touch or the passions. The opening chapter looks at Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling's 1813 philosophical fable, Ages of the World, which locates contingency in the uncaused, unconditioned - and ultimately pathological - desire for companionship of an omnipotent will at the beginning of time. The chapter argues that Schelling's depiction of the contingency of desire offers a phenomenology of loneliness that grows out of a broader engagement with the problem of evil.
The second chapter turns to the argument of the poet Novalis (1772-1801) that we experience contingency as a form of wonder that connects us to a divine whole we can only asymptotically approach. This wonder, he thinks, is experienced most clearly through our physical contact with books that impress on us our inability to ever do more than touch upon fragments of knowledge, given the proliferation of texts in the wake of the printing press.
The third chapter reads together Eugène Minkowski's phenomenology of lived space for the mentally ill with Jean Améry's essay on torture during the Third Reich. This chapter pushes against the optimism and revelatory nature of contingency in Novalis by following cases where contingency is experienced as violation through unwanted touch.
The final chapter asks whether contingency is solely disruptive, or if it can be incorporated into lasting social structures, by exploring the work of Michel Serres (1930-present). It argues a model of contingency as "common tangency" underlies his environmentalism, leading him to urge the creation of a "natural contract" where humans combat global warming from recognition that they are in co-implicated contact with nature, much like lovers during sex.


  • thumnail for Carlson_columbia_0054D_12585.pdf Carlson_columbia_0054D_12585.pdf application/pdf 1.29 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Taylor, Mark C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 14, 2015