Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Germanic Languages and Literatures

First Advisor

Campe, Rudiger


This dissertation presents five studies on the problem of formalization. Every body of knowledge—whether it be scientific, philosophical, literary, practical, or personal—has its own conventions by which that knowledge is generated, arranged, reworked, presented, and defended. But formalization is rarely without its blind spots or glitches. Sometimes, a body of knowledge seeks to mask its techniques of formalization to cover up its own contingency or lack of ultimate answers. In this process, rhetoric plays an elusive dual role. Rhetoric sometimes contributes to formalization, while sometimes undermining it. Studying the rhetoric of a body of knowledge thus serves as an access point to its problems of formalization.The case studies in this dissertation approach the problem of formalization from different angles and in different fields. Chapters one and two examine the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Edmund Husserl, two philosophers who exposed the problem of formalization in philosophy and science, and grappled with its implications for lived experience. For Nietzsche, philosophical dialectical reasoning is merely one rhetorical technique among many. By rhetorically performing dialectical reasoning in the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche lays bare how the ascetic ideal that animates dialectics runs into an aporia: When its negatory power turns back against itself, the negation must fail either because it cannot negate itself, or because it persists in performing a successful self-negation. Uncovering aporias in formalized systems of knowledge is not only a central impetus to Nietzsche’s thought, but also paves the way to an ethical life. Only without the guardrails of pre-formalized imperatives can the freely philosophizing spirit devise an ethics that is truly its own and deserving of the name. Chapter two turns to Edmund Husserl’s theory of the lifeworld. In The Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl develops the lifeworld to elucidate how human experience became untethered from scientific thought. For Husserl, science after Galileo took on an attitude that treats the world as a vast technical structure that can be precisely measured, understood, and formalized in a calculus that proceeds from general principles to theorems. Human experience, however, proceeds from the particular to the general. The modus operandi of human experience—and the lifeworld—is thus thoroughly inductive. This inductive operativity is an intentional, historical practice. Always anticipating that the incomplete experience of the moment will be expanded, completed, or corrected by future experience, human subjectivity is both inherently historical and scientific. Chapters three and four discuss Franz Kafka and Jacques Lacan, two (broadly) literary authors who push the problem of formalizing the intersubjective relationship to its breaking point and puts its implosion to creative use. Kafka’s Letter to the Father defines a deceptive logical calculus that does the opposite of what it purports to do. Modeling this logical structure with the method of gödel numbering, this chapter traces how this logic deliberately defeats itself. In purporting to justify himself, Kafka weaves reproaches into the letter to tempt his father to justify himself. In laying this trap, Kafka tries to trick his father into adopting the rhetorical register of guilt in which Kafka is stuck. The letter is thus an attempt by Kafka to re-formalize their relationship. The attempt itself—and its failure—propels and sustains Kafka’s writing. Chapter four dives into Jacques Lacan’s early attempts to formalize psychoanalysis into a science. In his early seminars, Lacan lays out how theories of intersubjectivity run into an infinite regress if they only conceptualize small “others” who attempt to divine what each of them thinks. To break this infinite regress, Lacan theorizes a symbolic order of play that always already structures intersubjective relations. This formalization, however, is by no means a predictable, predetermined process. Signifiers without a signified disrupt the symbolic chain and impel it into unforeseen directions. In the absence of a signified, the speaking subject produces signifiers to fill the void. As all of them fail to take the position of the signified (none of them can be taken literally), the speaking continues. Chapter five presents a piece of legal history that traces the genesis of qualified immunity doctrine in the United States. While the doctrine’s initial purpose was to preserve judicial flexibility in cases where private individuals sued government officials, qualified immunity soon took a path of formalizing itself into a rigid standard that effectively shields almost all illegal conduct by government officers. Qualified immunity thus tells a story of how problematic formalization can become in the law—and how dangerous it can be to ignore.