Re: Benke on Math

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 20 Apr 1995 08:10:38 JST

Tibor Benke writes,

"Rather, we need to form a detailed and dynamic picture on the
social function of the mathematical enterprise, and the social
meaning of mathematics, mathematical thought, the semantic value
of the mathematical and the mathematicised (i.e. neutrality,
authoritativeness, right/wrong orientation), being endowed with
more mathematical learning or talent then someone else, etc. - in
short, an anthropology of mathematics on lines analogous to a
sociology of knowledge."

This would, indeed, be an interesting challenge. One place to begin
might be the existing, voluminous literature on the history of
mathematics and the history of mathematical sciences, from physics
to economics. The issue would be what, if any, new insight
anthropologists could offer. That this might come from a focus on the
social meaning(s) of mathematics is surely one productive dimension.
As one hypothesis, we might take up the idea that the explosion in
mathematical knowledge and the rise in prestige attached to it that
began around the Rennaisance is tied to the fact that math-equipped
scientists are successful magicians par excellence. They (1) command
abody of esoteric knowledge that (2) promises control over Reality
and (3) has a truly awesome track record of doing just that.

While there are, of course, internal divisions between "pure"
mathematicians, "applied" mathematicians whose models are
empirically tested, and scientists who construct the experiments,
they share a common approach to reality which begins by extracting
a phenomenon from the messy, workaday world to deal with it in
isolation. It is, perhaps, worth noting that matheticians are often
mystics. Like other mystics they share a special (innate? or trained?)
capacity to focus intently and clear their minds of distractions.
Which, returning to the original metaphor, is another attribute of
magic, i.e., the magician's need to concentrate her will on what she is
doing. It may also be worth noting that mathetical discoveries are
often described in terms that suggest "revelations" in dreams or

The question for those who wish to pursue this research is similar to
that confronted by scholars of vision quests, Zen monasteries, etc.
How far can we get without, in fact, exposing ourselves to the
disciplines involved?

John McCreery