Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2009

Department 1



The plotline of the standard story told about the development of intellectual history at the end of the 19th/turn of the 20th century follows the move from absolutism to perspectivalism. The narrative takes us, on the one hand, from the scientism of late Enlightenment writers like Voltaire, Mill, D’Alebert, and Comte and the historical determinism of Hegel, all of which were based upon a universal picture of rationality, to, on the other hand, the relativistic physics of Einstein, the perspectival art of Picasso, and the individualism of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard leading to the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger to and on through the deconstructivist work of Derrida in which universal proclamations were deemed meaningless. In their place, was relative dependent upon subjective, political, and social factors, influences, and interpretations. Like all sketches, of course, the story is more complicated than that.

There is another trend in the intellectual air of the early 20th century that gets left out of this oversimplified picture, one that threads a middle path between absolutism and perspectivalism, a path that considers both frame-dependent or covariant truths and frame-independent or invariant truths and examines the relations between them. Indeed, the notions of covariance and invariance play important roles in the development of the fields of mathematics, physics, philosophy, and psychology in the decades after the turn of the 20th century.

The migration of the concepts of invariance and covariance illustrates not only the interconnectedness of the working communities of intellectuals, but also displays ways in which the personal, social, and political overlaps between groups of disciplinary thinkers are essential conduits for the conceptual cross-fertilization that aids in the health of our modern fields of study. [excerpt]