(Roughly) Daily

“Mathematics has not a foot to stand on which is not purely metaphysical”*…

Battle of Maida 1806, part of the the invasion and occupation of Naples by Napoleon’s French Empire (source)

Lest we forget…

A forgotten episode in French-occupied Naples in the years around 1800—just after the French Revolution—illustrates why it makes sense to see mathematics and politics as entangled. The protagonists of this story were gravely concerned about how mainstream mathematical methods were transforming their world—somewhat akin to our current-day concerns about how digital algorithms are transforming ours. But a key difference was their straightforward moral and political reading of those mathematical methods. By contrast, in our own era we seem to think that mathematics offers entirely neutral tools for ordering and reordering the world—we have, in other words, forgotten something that was obvious to them.

In this essay, I’ll use the case of revolutionary Naples to argue that the rise of a new and allegedly neutral mathematics—characterized by rigor and voluntary restriction—was a mathematical response to pressing political problems. Specifically, it was a response to the question of how to stabilize social order after the turbulence of the French Revolution. Mathematics, I argue, provided the logical infrastructure for the return to order. This episode, then, shows how and why mathematical concepts and methods are anything but timeless or neutral; they define what “reason” is, and what it is not, and thus the concrete possibilities of political action. The technical and political are two sides of the same coin—and changes in notions like mathematical rigor, provability, and necessity simultaneously constitute changes in our political imagination…

Massimo Mazzotti with an adaptation from his new book, Reactionary Mathematics: A Genealogy of Purity: “Foundational Anxieties, Modern Mathematics, and the Political Imagination,” @maxmazzotti in @LAReviewofBooks.

* Thomas De Quincey


As we count on it, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Regiomontanus (or Johannes Müller von Königsberg, as he was christened); he was born on this date in 1436. A mathematician, astrologer, and astronomer of the German Renaissance, he and his work were instrumental in the development of Copernican heliocentrism during his lifetime and in the decades following his death.


%d bloggers like this: