Posted in Mathematics and Culture

Mathematics and Culture: Introduction

During the last couple of years, there has been considerably increasing interest in something called “mathematics and/in culture” or even “mathematical culture” in the history and philosophy of  mathematics. Notions of “culture” have already been applied in the history of the sciences on in mathematics education research for some time, but they are relatively new in the history of mathematics. Yet, they are extremely interesting as I see them offering a two-fold promise:

On the one hand, focus on mathematics and/in culture allows for the further study of mathematics (of the past as well as the present) as a human activity conditioned and shaped by the culture it which it is produced and influencing that culture in return. For too long, mathematics has been conceived of as belonging to a segregated world — to an Ivory Tower, as it were, perhaps restricted by its contexts, but offering little in terms of influence on broader culture. However, recent developments in research have allowed us to remedy that situation and study similarities and influences between different aspects of culture such as mathematics, literature, art, and science. This not least when they were embedded in a single historical actor, such as Lewis Carroll.

Thomas Archer Hirst
Thomas Archer Hirst (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the other hand, the notion of cultures within mathematics provides us with a tool box for analysing historical developments in mathematics that are not so easily captured under other schemes of analysis such as standard periodizations, paradigms, research programmes, styles, or even practices. Thus, we can speak of co-existing cultures, of national cultures, of different epistemic cultures and so on — even in mathematics. And we can even begin to approach complex historical actors and events trying out cultural notions such as “Victorian mathematics” for Lewis Carroll or Thomas Archer Hirst.

Recently, a number of academic conferences and workshops have been devoted to such discussions. They are important not only for scholarly analysis of the history and philosophy of mathematics, but also for the present. Cultural approaches — so it seems — offer a way of making mathematics accessible for a broader audience by connecting it with a scaffolding of existing cultural knowledge of literature, history, art, social and scientific thought and so on. Therefore, it is also of relevance to e.g. upper secondary education where promoting mathematics in trans-disciplinary modules with other aspects of Western culture is emerging as a new challenge.

I see great potential for future elaboration and collaboration along such lines and wish to explore it on this blog and in lectures and events in Aarhus directed at a broad audience which includes research mathematicians, historians of science, historians of art and literature, teachers in upper secondary school and the interested public.


Professor (m.s.o.) ved Institut for Naturfagenes Didaktik, Københavns Universitet.

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