Mathematical Intuition According To Robert Musil

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Ulrich, the central protagonist of the multi-thousand page multi-volume novel Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften The Man Without Qualities (German: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften; 1930–1943) is an unfinished modernist novel in three volumes and various drafts, by the Austrian writer Robert Musil. Musil worked on the novel for more than twenty years. He started in 1921 and spent the rest of his life writing it. When he died in 1942, the novel was not completed. On Entitled Opinions you can listen to a brilliant disuccsion about the novel between Robbert Harrison and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. by Robert Musil, has all qualities; in particular, he is a mathematician.

In “A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation” we read about Ulrich’s inner thoughts as he remembers his recent conversation with Clarisse:

Unfortunately, nothing is so hard to achieve as a literary representation of a man thinking. When someone asked a great scientist how he managed to come up with so much that was new, he replied: ‘‘Because I never stop thinking about it.” And it is surely safe to say that unexpected insights turn up for no other reason than that they are expected. They are in no small part a success of character, emotional stability, unflagging ambition, and unremitting work. What a bore such constancy must be. Looking at it another way, the solution of an intellectual problem comes about not very differently from a dog with a stick in his mouth trying to get through a narrow door; he will turn his head left and right until the stick slips through. We do much the same thing, but with the difference that we don’t make indiscriminate attempts but already know from experience approximately how it’s done. And if a clever fellow naturally has far more skill and experience with these twistings and turnings than a dim one, the slipping-through takes the clever fellow just as much by surprise; it is suddenly there, and one perceptibly feels slightly disconcerted because one’s ideas seem to have come of their own accord instead of waiting for their creator. This disconcerted feeling is nowadays called intuition by many people who would formerly, believing that it must be regarded as something suprapersonal, have called it inspiration; but it is only something impersonal, namely the affinity and coherence of the things themselves, meeting inside a head. The better the head, the less evident its presence in this process. As long as the process of thinking is in motion it is a quite wretched state, as if all the brain’s convolutions were suffering from colic; and when it is finished it no longer has the form of the thinking process as one experiences it but already that of what has been thought, which is regrettably impersonal, for the thought then faces outward and is dressed for communication to the world. When a man is in the process of thinking, there is no way to catch the moment between the personal and the impersonal, and this is manifestly why thinking is such an embarrassment for writers that they gladly avoid it.

But the man without qualities was now thinking.