Unreal Nature

November 11, 2016

Vernacular Mathematics

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 2:21 pm

… The power of numbers is an open power, and a power of opening.

This is from In Defence of Quantity: Living by Numbers by Steven Connor (2016):

… one way to characterize the outlook I want to try to encourage is as an anti-numerology. By numerology, I mean the exercise of number-magic. Numerology is not so much the belief that number governs everything as it is the belief in the non-mathematical powes of certain numbers — lucky numbers,magic numbers, ‘numbers of power,’ the Number of the Beast and so on. It is very hard for anybody interested in number to keep their head clear of the number-magic of numerology.

[line break added] The usefulness of prime numbers in encryption, a topic that has become important for us recently, can encourage magical attitudes towards these numbers, and, indeed, mathematicians themselves are oddly prone to a kind of obsessiveness about certain kinds of number. But numerology can tell us nothing about numbers, even if it can tell us plenty about the power of number over us, a power that we ourselves give it, in the duality that characterizes much magical thinking.

… The power of numbers is an open power, and a power of opening. If this is not a book that will unveil the secret power of certain numbers, then neither is it any kind of contribution to mathematical theory or the philosophy of mathematics. I do however think there is a great deal to interest us in the ways in which people think and write about these topics, especially if they themselves are involved in them, because such thinking is part of the rich mulligatawny of ideas that we have of mathematics, even, we might say, the fantasy that we have about mathematics.

[line break added] And, heaven knows, mathematics is saturated and supercharged with fantasy, not least because it is supposed to be the area of mental life in which fantasy is reduced to its absolute minimum; there is no more self-indulgent idea than the idea of ‘rigor’ and no more imperious fantasy than the fantasy of escape from fantasy.

In Where Mathematics Comes From (2001) George Lakoff and Rafael Nuñez have sought to inaugurate ‘the cognitive science of mathematics,’ arguing that ‘Mathematics is deep, fundamental, and essential to the human experience’ and that, though ‘crying out to be understood,’ it has not been made sense of in cognitive terms. I want with this book to make a similar move with regard to the cultures of number, opening and extending the understanding of the rich, tough, subtle imagination of quantity, extent and magnitude that runs through human life.

[line break added] I am interested in getting more people more interested in the ordinary ways in which number is lived, which is to say the affective, psychological, oneiric, economic, sexual, ludic and sexual life of number, for which open series we might allow the composite expression, the ‘cultural life of number.’ Where Lakoff and Nuñez are interested in where mathematics cognitively comes from, my concern is with vernacular mathematics — how we do things with numbers and how they do things with us.

-Julie

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