University of Cambridge > > Twentieth Century Think Tank > Making a name in mid-century mathematics: individuals, institutions and the open secret of Nicolas Bourbaki

Making a name in mid-century mathematics: individuals, institutions and the open secret of Nicolas Bourbaki

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In 1948, the American Mathematical Society received an application for membership from Nicolas Bourbaki, the pen name of a radical group of French mathematicians then rewriting the foundations of modern mathematics. While that application was quietly dismissed, a second application a year later and the correspondence it provoked together expose significant fault lines beneath the Americans’ efforts to lead an international discipline in the wake of World War II. This article draws on a wide range of archival sources to situate Bourbaki’s applications amidst the distinctive ways mathematicians established subjective identities in interaction with professional institutions in the mid-20th century. I show how Bourbaki’s advocates parodied the period’s norms of identification, exploiting newly important ambiguities and challenging newly reconfigured power structures in mathematicians’ postwar disciplinary practice. The group’s status as an open secret allowed its members to take special advantage of their new disciplinary circumstances while propounding an aggressively transgressive intellectual programme. I close by developing a tension – between individuals and institutions – made more or less explicit in Bourbaki’s applications and the responses to it, which sheds new light on recent understandings of subjectivity and embodiment in the history and sociology of modern science.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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