Theses Doctoral

The Unknown Future: Premonitions between Prophecy and Pathology, 1750 to 1850

Kurianowicz, Tomasz

My dissertation The Unknown Future examines the notion of Ahnung or Ahndung (in English: premonition) in German literature, philosophy, anthropology, and the sciences around 1800. Focusing on the heated debates among philosophers, writers and intellectuals as to whether humans can attain knowledge about the future, I trace the notion of Ahnung as it traverses various discourses. In doing so, I draw on Stephen Greenblatt’s idea of a new historicism and expand studies written by Stefan Andriopoulos, Joseph Vogl, Eva Horn, Michael Gamper and other scholars, explicitly referring to and expanding the literary theory concerning “poetologies of knowledge.“ Specifically I show how after 1750 religious models of prophecy were no longer easily accepted. At the same time, new statistical and mathematical models of prognosis were rising -- even as doubts remained about their ability to fully grasp the progression of time. Within these conflicts between traditional religious models and the new exact sciences, the concept of ‘premonition’ seemed to offer various thinkers and writers evidence for a prognostic capability of the soul that challenged rational, mathematical and statistical models of probability as the sole means for predicting the future. The hope was that premonitions could provide a supersensory knowledge based on fleeting, opaque glimpses into the progression of time.

In chapter 1, I examine how philosophers discussed the phenomenon of premonitions and juxtapose Johann Gottfried Herder’s supportive perspective on premonitions in his essay On Knowing, Sensing, Wishing, Hoping, and Believing (1797) with Immanuel Kant’s dismissive claims in his study Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798). In chapter 2, I discuss major anthropologies and their representation of premonitions, specifically Karl Philipp Moritz’s Journal for the Experience and Knowledge of the Soul (1783-1793). Moritz not only presents interesting case studies of prognostic premonitory experiences, but also discusses them in a poetological context and defends them as valid prophetic narratives. My third chapter turns to a set of critical questions. If literary, poetic, and more generally narrative modes of expression are key instruments for articulating the prophetic power of premonitions – as Herder, Moritz and von Arnim argue – how are premonitions depicted in literature? Attending to three exemplary texts by Ludwig Tieck (The Story of Mr. William Lovell), Heinrich von Kleist (The Earthquake in Chili), and E.T.A. Hoffmann (The Sandman), the final chapter demonstrates how premonitions in literary texts question dominant mathematical and rational perspectives on the world. At the end of my dissertation, I briefly discuss the history of weather-based literary tropes between 1750 and 1850 and show why the limited ability to foresee the weather propelled discourses on supersensory knowledge, namely: premonitions. In the end, my dissertation shows how premonitions became a predominant literary technique for critically exploring the unknown progression of time and for questioning the objectifying impulses of a scientific world-view.

This dissertation was advised by Prof. Dr. Stefan Andriopoulos and Prof. Dr. Oliver Simons.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Anriopoulos, Stefan
Simons, Oliver
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 14, 2020