“Such prose clarifies and vivifies the objects of which it is talking and which it seeks to perceive and communicate, but at the same time such prose is talking about itself, communicates itself as an authentic state of mind…” wrote German philosopher and literary critic Max Bense, describing the essay (“Über den Essay und seine Prosa” [1947;
On the essay and its prose]). Having produced numerous essays on topics ranging from the sciences to art and literary criticism, Bense viewed the essay as an expression of the experimental method of thinking and writing—similar to the role of the essay during the 18th-century Enlightenment. What distinguishes his theoretical approach from those of his predecessors, however, is the clear notion that any successful essay creates a certain atmosphere that builds a relationship between the subject matter discussed and the author as well as the reader, an atmosphere which allows the reader to draw further insights. The goal of an essay therefore should be to sum up all possible configurations in which the subject matter can be perceived. Moreover, while the essay is written in prose, it can also become poetry. In each essay there are certain basic sentences, seeds, which are concurrently prosaic and poetic. An essay can therefore never be a theory in itself, it can only be the beginnings, the birth of a theory, if the interaction between the atmosphere created by the essay and the author or reader is productive and thus leads to critical insights on the subject matter.
It is especially in his capacity as a critic that Bense’s theoretical work has been so beneficial for literary theory and criticism as well as for philosophy. Even though he is one of the most quoted authors in German intellectual life, Bense’s voluminous work has not yet become the subject of a comprehensive monograph. Perhaps this is due to the exceptionally wide range of subject matter with which he dealt, making a successful compilation difficult. Even his studies at the Universities of Bonn, Cologne, and Basle ranged from mathematics and physics to philosophy. After World War II, during which he worked as a laboratory physicist, he combined these three fields as a professor of mathematical logic and the philosophy of technology. Striving for justice and equality, he first took up his professorship in Jena, but soon became disillusioned with developments in the east and moved to Stuttgart in 1949.
Bense’s major achievement for aesthetics and literary theory lies in the innovative connection of art and technology based on Hegel’s aesthetics and Wittgenstein’s speechtheories.
He introduced scientific methods to traditional aesthetics resulting in a “technological,” “material” aesthetics which could be applied to art works as well as scientific objects. This combination, formulated especially in the Aesthetica tetralogy (1954–60) and Theorie der Texte (1962; Textual theory), results in a fundamentally new approach to semiotics, which uses theories and sign systems that originate in mathematiccybernetic contexts for language and texts. A “text” can thus be anything that consists of linguistic material, such as advertisements, scientific research, and artistic compositions. Harshly attacked by his opponents, who thought of his entire semiotic approach as being “objectivistic,” “barbaric,” and “anarchic,” Bense nevertheless had a tremendous impact on Germany’s socalled “experimental” literature and literary theories of the 1950s and early 1960s, especially on the movement called “Konkrete Poesie” (concrete poetry), including important authors such as Helmut Heissenbüttel, Eugen Gomringer, and Franz Mon.
Besides all his scientific accomplishments, and despite numerous attacks by critics that he was “too scientific” to be a humanist, Bense was deeply concerned with the question of humanitarian tasks for individuals in modern society. This concern seems particularly lucid in his essays on literature: “If the objective of knowledge lies not only in the objectivity of facts but, as in our society, rather in the external habitable condition of the world, a new type of thinker needs to be developed: a thinker who exhausts the rich possibilities of human intelligence not only as researcher or scholar, but at the same time as critic and as writer. Maybe that thinker could adapt to tasks in our society, a society based on a frightening density of outward communications, and an equally frightening lack of inner communications” (Ein Geräusch in der Strasse: Descartes und die Folgen II [1960; Sound in the street: Descartes and the consequences II]). Bense himself embodied this type of thinker by writing essays on such contemporaries as Gertrude Stein, Francis Ponge, Walter Benjamin, Helmut Heissenbüttel, Alfred Andersch, Ferdinand Lyon, Ludwig Harig, Ernst Jandl, Friederike Mayröcker, and many more, who were all concerned with artistically experimental art forms, and who therefore had the potential to add to the “inner communications” of society. These intimate portraits share one of Bense’s most fundamental insights into literature, also advocated by members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Benjamin): “reality” is not a category that can be measured or described in scientific terms. It rather manifests itself in one singular act of reflection, while different literary realities coexist. The (literary) text for Bense becomes the object of different realities, one of which remains to be interpreted by the reader of that text—or by the writer of an essay.
Born 7 February 1910 in Strasbourg. Studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy at the University of Bonn, diploma in physics, 1932, and geology, 1933, Ph.D., 1937; Universities of Cologne, 1935–36, and Basle. Industrial physicist for two years. Married Elisabeth Bauer (died, 1939), 1938: one son. Served in the German Air Force, 1939.
Editor of a science series, Munich, 1940. Married Maria Bauer (died, 1979), 1944: three daughters. Professor of philosophy, mathematical logic, and the theory of science, University of Jena, 1946–49; professor of the philosophy of technology and the theory of science, Technische Hochschule, Stuttgart, from 1949. Traveled extensively in North America, from 1969. Married Elisabeth Walter, 1988: one daughter. Died in Stuttgart, 29 April 1990.
Essays and Related Prose
Aufstand des Geistes: Eine Verteidigung der Erkenntis, 1935
Vom Wesen deutscher Denker; oder, Zwischen Kritik und Imperativ, 1938
Geist der Mathematik: Abschnitte aus der Philosophie der Arithmetik und Geometrie, 1939
Das Leben der Mathematiker: Bilder aus der Geistesgeschichte der Mathematik, 1944
Umgang mit Philosophen, 1947
Technische Existenz, 1949
Ptolemäer und Mauretanier; oder, Die theologische Emigration der deutschen Literatur, 1950
Plakatwelt: Vier Essays, 1952
Descartes und die Folgen: Ein aktueller Traktat, 1955
Rationalismus und Sensibilität: Präsentationen, 1956
Ein Geräusch in der Strasse: Descartes und die Folgen II, 1960
Ungehorsam der Ideen: Abschliessender Traktat über Intelligenz und technische Welt, 1965
Artistik und Engagement: Präsentation ästhetischer Objekte, 1970
Die Realität der Literatur: Autoren und ihre Texte, 1971
Das Universum der Zeichen: Essays über die Expansionen der Semiotik, 1983
Other writings: poetry, and books on philosophy, aesthetics (including the Aesthetica tetralogy, 1954–60), semiotics, mathematics, and existentialism.
Walter, Elisabeth, Bibliographie der veröffentlichten Schriften von Max Bense, Baden- Baden: Agis, 1994
Rohner, Ludwig, Deutsche Essays: Prosa aus zwei Jahrhunderten, vol. 1, Berlin and Neuwied: Luchterhand 1968:54–69
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