Saturday, January 21, 2017

Is Mathematics Literature?

Pythagoras seems to have believed that numbers were gods and mathematics a means towards knowing them. This much is clear from both Plato and Aristotle's writings. If literature is understood as a means by which we seek and reflect upon the fundamental truths of the universe by mirroring those truths in words, then shouldn't mathematics likewise be considered literature?

By "literature" I do not mean the common English so often used in phrases such as "scientific literature" which simply describes scientific writing as opposed to belles lettres. I wonder quite seriously whether mathematics is not a more orderly literary art? Literary snobs enjoy the notion that they, contrary to hoi polloi can enjoy great works of literature, yet most would perhaps bristle at the suggestion that books like Wacław Sierpiński's Set Theory and Topology should ever be recommended as proper literature in the humanist tradition.

The humanities suffer from a large number of adherents who have cultivated a rather unenviable sophistry whereby their ignorance of the hard sciences can be justified on account of their love of higher things. That many scientists themselves can be accused of similar vices in the opposite direction goes without saying. Mathematics is the one hard science which shares a fundamental likeness to the humanities. Bertrand Russell put it well in his Mathematics and Metaphysicians:

"...mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true."

Spoken like a true humanist we might say. Of course to apply Russell's description of mathematics to literature may be to extend its irony beyond its intended target or, it may instill the fear that while ironic when applied to mathematics and indicative of humility on the part of mathematicians who apply this extreme variant of the Socratic dictum to one another, the phrase becomes a menacing judgement hanging quite seriously over literature - particularly what passes for literature these days.

For prior to pronouncing his Socratic judgement upon mathematics, Russell writes of "hypotheses" and "deductions", both of which imply logic. Literature certainly has a logic to it, albeit more akin to the method we sometimes spy in madness. Literature, rather than hypotheses and deductions will more likely contain the great ego of the esteemed writer who simply must share with us their peculiar optic on life as well as the attendant emotions that likewise accompany such observations.

Already I reveal how intimately familiar I am with literature by the mere act of idolizing mathematicians in this way. Clearly  I cannot come close to conceiving how Grigori Perelman could ever find mathematics traumatizing and withdraw from it with the morbid emotions with which Hemingway withdrew from life itself. Literature, an old friend, has from time to time seen me swear it off. Mathematics, a distant and unexpected lover, remains eternally interesting on account of never actually meeting my gaze.

Note: Photograph courtesy

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