Vacation, and McCloskey on Mathematics

I’ll be on vacation for the next few days, so I leave you to the tender ministrations of my co-bloggers, and this anecdote (from Deirdre McCloskey’s Secret Sins of Economics):

I have a brilliant and learned friend who is an intellectual historian of note. He and I were walking to lunch in Iowa City one day and I said offhandedly, assuming he would of course know this, that mathematics was one of the great achievements of Western culture. He was so astonished by the claim that he stopped short and argued with me there on the sidewalk by the Old Capitol Mall: “Surely math is like plumbing: useful, but hardly in touch with deeper things; hardly a cultural achievement!” I tried to persuade him that he felt this way only because he had no acquaintance with mathematics, but I don’t think I succeeded.

10 thoughts on “Vacation, and McCloskey on Mathematics

  1. What would historian know? Unlike just about every other field of endeavour I can think of, from English literature to particle physics, from theology to flower arranging, from economics to origami, history is the one field where there are no deep concepts.

    OK, so I’m trolling a bit, but I think there’s some truth to it.

  2. I actually agree with the historian. Firstly, mathematics is not a cultural achievement (western? do you think the chinese don’t believe in maths or something?), and even if it was, I don’t think it would compare to human rights, democracy, etc.

  3. What does your “brilliant and learned” friend consider to be deep? How does he define that word? And will his answers agree with that of another “brilliant and learned” person, otherwise picked at random?

  4. Of course mathematics is a cultural achievement. It fits the definition in the most basic way: it’s transmitted from generation to generation like art, music, legal systems and so on. It also fits in other ways such as the notion of high-brow culture.

  5. Traditional Australian Aboriginal society had no plumbing, yet developed one of the most sophisticated mythologies of any culture on earth, far more intricate than the theologies of ancient Greece or Rome. The visual art, music and language games of Aboriginal societies are also very sophisticated. I don’t think plumbing is a necessary condition for cultural achievement.

  6. Professor C. P. Snow, please call your office.

    For some folks, words on a page stop being “culture” the minute someone types out an “=” sign.

  7. Having spent a couple of days reading up on category theory I’ve decided the guy is partly right. There is at least one branch of mathematics that is nothing but fancy plumbing.

Comments are closed.