Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Department of Mathematics
18.995 Cultural History of Mathematics
Dr. Slava Gerovitch
Is mathematics a purely intellectual exercise isolated from social influences? Does the development of mathematics follow its inner logic, or is it subject to the pressures and biases of the time? Do mathematicians think differently if they live in different cultures? This discussion-based seminar will address these questions while exploring patterns of mathematical practice in different historical contexts: Greek antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, the Romantic era, Victorian culture, and the tumultuous twentieth century. The students in the class will read and discuss short articles by professional historians. The readings link mathematical innovations with contemporary developments in politics, literature, philosophy, and theology. This seminar presents an opportunity to gain deep cultural understanding of some basic mathematical concepts and methods of reasoning.
Each week’s readings must be read prior to recitation section. Active participation in the discussions is expected.
Weekly Reading Response
A short reading response (1 page; roughly 300 words) must be submitted via the Stellar class site by 9 am every Monday. PDF format is preferred, but PS, DOC, and TXT are also allowed. A few tentative questions will be provided to stimulate your thoughts, but you are encouraged to raise your own questions.Strategies for writing a good reading response:
Your reading response will be made accessible online to other students in the class after the deadline. It may be part of discussion in class. Reading responses will be graded as Check+ / Check / Check–All the responses must be submitted to complete the course.
Final grades will be based on:
Participation in discussions (40%)
Weekly writing or Final paper (40%)
All required readings are available on the Stellar class site. The recommended readings are on reserve at MIT libraries. The main recommended textbook:
Ronald Calinger, A Contextual History of Mathematics to Euler (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999).
Primary sources (original writings by mathematicians) are not required, but if you wish to consult them, a collection of primary sources is also put on reserve:
Ronald Calinger, ed., Classics of Mathematics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994).
Topics and readings
09/14 (1) Introduction
09/21 (2) Greek Mathematics and the Idea of Proof
G.E.R. Lloyd, “The Conception and Practice of Proof,” chapter 3 in Demystifying Mentalities (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 73-97, 105-111, 120-122.
Calinger, A Contextual History of Mathematics, chapters 3, 4, 8.
Raviel Netz, The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
09/28 (3) Medieval Mathematics: Theology and Commerce
Mark Thakkar, "Mathematics in Fourteenth-Century Theology," in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics, eds. Eleanor Robson and Jacqueline Stedall (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 619-638.
Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 200-220.
Calinger, A Contextual History of Mathematics, chapter 12.
10/5 (4) Early Modern Mathematics as a Voyage of Exploration
Amir R. Alexander, "Exploration Mathematics: The Rhetoric of Discovery and the Rise of Infinitesimal Methods," Configurations, vol. 9, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 1-36.
Calinger, A Contextual History of Mathematics, chapter 14.
10/13 Tues (5) Mathematics as Cultivation of Virtue in the Scientific Revolution
Matthew L. Jones, "Descartes’s Geometry as Spiritual Exercise," Critical Inquiry, vol. 27, no. 4 (Summer 2001): 40-71.
Calinger, A Contextual History of Mathematics, chapter 15.
Matthew L. Jones, The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
10/19 (6) The Scientific Revolution: The Mathematization of Nature?
Steven Shapin, "Certainty and Civility: Mathematics and Boyle’s Experimental Conversation," chapter 7 in A Social History of Truth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 310-354 (skim pp. 338-348).
Calinger, A Contextual History of Mathematics, chapters 16 and 17.
10/26 (7) Mathematics as Rational Calculation in the Enlightenment
Lorraine Daston, "Enlightenment Calculations," Critical Inquiry 21 (Autumn 1994): 182-202.
Lorraine Daston, "Fitting Numbers to the World: The Case of Probability Theory," in History and Philosophy of Modern Mathematics, eds. William Aspray and Philip Kitcher (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp. 221-237.
Lorraine Daston, Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).
11/02 (8) Romantic Mathematics: Beauty, Rigor, and the Genius
Amir R. Alexander, "Tragic Mathematics: Romantic Narratives and the Refounding of Mathematics in the Early Nineteenth Century," Isis 97 (2006): 714-726.
Judith V. Grabiner, “Who Gave You the Epsilon? Cauchy and the Origins of Rigorous Calculus,” The American Mathematical Monthly 90 (1983): 185-194.
Judith Grabiner, The Origins of Cauchy’s Rigorous Calculus (New York: Dover, 2005).
11/09 (9) Oral and Written Cultures in Nineteenth-Century Mathematics
Andrew Warwick, "A Mathematical World on Paper: Written Examinations in Early 19th Century Cambridge," Studies in the History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, vol. 29, no. 3 (1998): 295-319.
David E. Rowe, "Making Mathematics in an Oral Culture: Göttingen in the Era of Klein and Hilbert," Science in Context 17 (2004): 85-129.
David E. Rowe, “Klein, Hilbert, and the Göttingen Mathematical Tradition,” Osiris, 2nd series, 5 (1989): 186-213.
Andrew Warwick, Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
11/16 (10) Mathematics and the Arts: The Rise of Modernism
Jeremy Gray, "Modernism in Mathematics," in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics, eds. Eleanor Robson and Jacqueline Stedall (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 663-683.
Jeremy J. Gray, Plato’s Ghost: The Modernist Transformation of Mathematics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Leo Corry, "How Useful is the Term ‘Modernism’ for Understanding the History of Early Twentieth-Century Mathematics?" in Modernism in the Sciences, ca. 1900-1940, eds. Moritz Epple and Falk Mueller (Berlin, Akademie, forthcoming).
Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983).
Joan L. Richards, Mathematical Visions: The Pursuit of Geometry in Victorian England (Boston: Academic Press, 1988).
11/23 (11) Mathematics and Theology: Views of the Infinite
Joseph W. Dauben, "Georg Cantor and Pope Leo XIII: Mathematics, Theology, and the Infinite," Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 38, no. 1. (1977): 85-108.
Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor, "A Comparison of Two Cultural Approaches to Mathematics: France and Russia, 1890-1930," Isis 97 (2006): 56-74.
Joseph W. Dauben, Georg Cantor: His Mathematics and Philosophy of the Infinite (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).
Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor, Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009).
11/30 (12) Mathematics and Philosophy: Bourbaki and Structuralism
David Aubin, "The Withering Immortality of Nicolas Bourbaki: A Cultural Connection at the Confluence of Mathematics, Structuralism, and the Oulipo in France," Science in Context, vol. 10, no. 2 (1997): 297-342.
Leo Corry, "Nicolas Bourbaki: Theory of Structures," chapter 7 in Modern Algebra and the Rise of Mathematical Structures (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1996).
Liliane Beaulieu, “Bourbaki’s Art of Memory,” Osiris, 2nd series, 14 (1999): 219-251.
12/07 (13) Doing Mathematics on/with/by a Computer
Donald MacKenzie, "Slaying the Kraken: The Sociohistory of a Mathematical Proof," Social Studies of Science 29, no. 1 (February 1990): 7-60.
Donald MacKenzie, Mechanizing Proof: Computing, Risk, and Trust (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).