Vilém Flusser’s philosophical work can be divided into two main periods: the first, sometimes referred to as “philosophy of language,” and the second one, known as “philosophy of communication” or “media philosophy.” In the latter, the word “calculus” gains a more accurate and precise meaning than in the first period, for reasons that will be described in the following.
In the first stage of Flusser’s thinking, his conception of mathematics contains the notion of calculus. In The History of the Devil (2014) this concept is rather negative in the chapter on wrath, and more positive in the chapter concerning pride, as well as in the section on music in the chapter “A Língua Cria Realidade” [Language Creates Reality] in Língua e Realidade [Language and Reality] (1963).
In the first case, his notion of mathematics, from the Renaissance to the present day, refers to the idea of law (that exists since classical antiquity) which has been interpreted as a mechanical regularity. This gave rise not only to modern science, but also to the technologies it spawned. The negative connotations of mathematics mentioned above relate to the blind faith in the truth of the “hard” sciences and also to the danger that the technologies brought forth by these sciences are so powerful they can annihilate all human life. As described in the two main works produced during Flusser’s first work phase, the positive side of mathematics derives from its similarity with music: “This aesthetic quality (why shouldn’t one say it?), this musical aspect of mathematics is, most likely, the real reason for the attraction it exerts on the intellect. And, vice versa, the mathematical quality of music at the level of prayer makes music the greatest contribution to the inflected languages in all the actual conversations that constitute reality.” (Língua e Realidade, 2010, p. 166; translated from the Portuguese)
As for his philosophy of communicology, the term “calculus” appears in the context of Flusser’s periodization, according to which traditional images refer to prehistory, texts to history, and technical images refer to post-history. If this sequence is understood as the progressive abstraction of the dimensions through which we experience reality, traditional images are two-dimensional (a dimension of our three-dimensional world experience is abstracted), writing is one-dimensional, and technical images are zero-dimensional. Geometrically, this “zero-dimensionality” corresponds to one point (just as two-dimensionality refers to the plane and one-dimensionality refers to the line), which can be understood as one of the elementary units that lead to the calculus (Latin; literally “small pebble,” as used on an abacus). This becomes the origin of “computerization” and of the encoded world we currently live in: “Therefore, calculating and computing are the fourth gesture of abstraction (the length of the line is abstracted), whereby humans transform themselves into players who calculate and compute concepts.” (O Universo das Imagens Técnicas, 2010, p. 17; translated from the Portuguese)* * Editorial note: This passage does not exist in the English edition.