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Narratives in Greek mathematics?

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At first glance, both ancient Greek and modern mathematics appear to be narrative-free. Nonetheless, there has been recent debate about the relative merits of looking for narratives in modern mathematics (see Senechal 2006). Two aspects of this discussion lend themselves to my project:

(1) How do narratives about Greek mathematics relate to mathematical practices? One finds such narratives in introductory letters, anecdotes, and ancient commentaries. Research on modern mathematics suggests that such stories do contribute in certain ways to the practices that they are about (Traweek 1999, Corfield forthcoming). They situate the core texts within their social, dogmatic, historical, ideological, etc., contexts.

(2) Aesthetics of narrative and aesthetics of proof: second, a closer look at the mathematical texts themselves reveals that they follow principles of structure and aesthetics that one also finds in literary narratives (suspense, surprise, sequential organization, closure; see Doxiadis 2005). Notions of ‘beauty’ and ‘elegance’ come up. Especially rewarding will be a closer look at how Greek mathematical aesthetics relates to literary aesthetics of the time (compare Netz forthcoming). Perhaps one could understand (mathematical) proofs and solutions of problems as specialized stories.

Works cited

  • Corfield, M. forthcoming. ‘Narrative and the Rationality of Mathematical Practice.’ In: B. Mazur and A. Doxiadis, eds. Mathematics and Narrative. Athens. Forthcoming in 2008.
  • Doxiadis, A. 2005. ‘The Mathematical Logic of Narrative.’ In: Miranesi, M. ed. Mathematics and Culture in Europe. Mathematics in Art, Technology, Cinema and Theatre. Milano, 167–177.
  • Netz, R. forthcoming. ‘Greek Mathematics and the Hellenistic Aesthetics.’ in M.A. Harder, G. Regtuit, and E. Wakker, eds. Science and Nature in Hellenistic Poetry. Leiden. Forthcoming in 2008.
  • Senechal, M. 2006. ‘Mathematics and Narrative at Mykonos.’ Mathematical Intelligencer 28.2: 24–33.
  • Traweek, Sh. 1999. ‘Pilgrim’s Progress. Male Tales Told During a Life in Physics.’ In: Biagioli, M. ed. The Science Studies Reader. New York, 525–542.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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