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  • Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination by Bruce Rosenstock
  • Amit Varshizky
Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination. By Bruce Rosenstock. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017. Pp. xxxiv + 270. Cloth $64.00. ISBN 978-0253029706.

Bruce Rosenstock's Transfinite Life offers a meticulous and thought-provoking description of Oskar Goldberg's philosophy, encompassing the breadth of Goldberg's various interests, which included Kabbalah, mathematics, biology, and also ghost photography. Rosenstock provides close readings of Goldberg's thought that reveal its scope and multifaceted makeup, as well as the ambivalent, though powerful, impact it had on his contemporaries—advocates and critics alike. Although much of Goldberg's intellectual life has been explored in the works of Manfred Voigts, Rosenstock's study nonetheless sheds new light on it, presenting Goldberg as a specifically Jewish philosopher and situating his work within the holistic and vitalist currents of early twentieth-century Europe.

Rosenstock shows how Goldberg's "Kabbalistic vitalism" (xv) was part of the widespread revolt against positivism, mechanism, and materialism in favor of a life-affirming biocentrism that was supposed to be an antidote to the prevailing sense of spiritual and ontological decay. Goldberg appears as a typical Weimar mandarin, who, like other German intellectuals of his time, attempted to overcome modern nihilism and the threat of a technocratic society by promoting a new Weltanschauung uniting reason and imagination, science and religion, biology and metaphysics.

Rosenstock identifies two major sources that nurtured Goldberg's philosophy: Hans Driesch's vitalist biology and Georg Cantor's mathematics of infinity. Rosenstock opens with a chapter devoted to each of these two thinkers, arguing that they provided Goldberg with the theoretical and empirical justification for his metaphysics and interpretation of the Kabbalistic and biblical world. Driesch's rejuvenation of Aristotelian entelechy in his famous experiments on the sea urchin embryo was taken by Goldberg as a proof of the Kabbalistic notion that "the whole is contained in any of its parts" (1), through which the problem of uniqueness-multiplicity is reconciled in a new, teleological, fashion. Similarly, Cantor's theory of infinite numbers was the mathematical validation of Goldberg's notion of "transcendental organisms," or [End Page 642] finite organic forms that are complexly structured manifolds unified by a particular numerical arrangement. The Hebrew God was thus articulated in a new Drieschean-Cantorian vein, namely as "generative principle that creates the endless number of transcendental organisms" (145), a prebiological principle taking the form of historical entities, namely different folk groups. Thus, biology becomes the immanent-finite site for God's transcendental infinity to be manifested, or in Goldberg's words: "the actualization of the contradiction, the finitization of the infinite" (55). In this way, transfinite life becomes finite, and transcendental energy becomes an empirical organic phenomenon.

Goldberg believed that a Jewish spiritual-ethnological revival would be carried out through the formative power of the vitalist imagination, which would lend the people of Israel the collective biological energy necessary in order to resume their connection with the divine. He therefore advocated linguistic, numerological, and anthropological inquiry into the world of the Pentateuch, its number system, structure, rituals, narratives and laws, which would set the conditions necessary to bring about a renewed entry of God into the world.

Even though Goldberg evoked a mythical-ethnic conception of Judentum, calling for an ethnic revival through biological-metaphysical rituality, his "experimental ethnology" (176) nonetheless possessed a universal message that was firmly directed against the growing use of political myths in the service of irrational collectivism and national-racial chauvinism. Rosenstock argues that in acknowledging the formative power of the imagination in shaping ethnic-organic identity, Goldberg sought to renew Jewish "ethical monotheism" (xxv), thereby preparing the ground for a "transcendental revolution" (143) that would transform all biological (and ethnic) multiplicities into a totally unified humanity, embodying the image of God. Here lies the messianic mission of God's chosen people; because unlike other folk groups, who, as divided parts of the "transcendental macro-organism" only embody the images of "part-gods" (127), the Jewish people are the site for the manifestation of the "prebiological" source of all transcendental organisms, and thus hold the key for the...


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