For the last couple of years I've been running across references to, and colleagues talking about, philosopher Alain Badiou. I've been reluctant to pick up his work, however, owing largely to the fact that, as people tell me, a good deal of it's in dialogue with mathematical set theory. Don't get me wrong--I'm not frightened off by math. In fact, I'm just one course shy of a math minor at my undergraduate institution. But I figured it would be imprudent of me to read Badiou without first brushing up at least on set theory, which I don't think I've actually studied directly since the 7th or 8th grade.
So I've been reading here and there for the last couple of weeks various articles on mathematics, ranging from material on set theory to biographies of it's "inventor," Georg Cantor. I've even been dabbling a bit in topology, for whatever that's worth. A couple of things occurred to me in the course of reading these materials. First, boy am I rusty! I haven't taken a math class in well more than a decade, and though I used to be fairly fluent in at least some the discipline's many languages, these days I wouldn't know an integral if it hit me in the face. Second, I discovered just how much I miss math and why, way back when, I decided to give it up.
I left math because, truth be told, I got bored with it. I always was reasonably good at it, and indeed I enjoyed its many challenges. I especially liked integral calculus, which I learned at the knee of one of the best teachers I've ever had, Don Lester Lyons (a.k.a., D.L.2). But I got bored in the end largely because I never saw math as much more than the manipulation of symbols for the sake of solving pre-set problems. Granted, my teachers always stressed math's "real world" applications, but I was left wanting something more.
I never knew what, exactly, until I began revisiting math on my own just these past few weeks. Because I'm so out of the loop mathematically, most of what I've been reading has consisted of material that talks about the intellectual history of various branches of mathematics, rather than articles that get too in-depth into, well, the mathematics of it all. And this, I discovered, is exactly what I'd been missing--qualitative writings that situate math's historical and philosophical development.
The funny thing is, I realize now that this type of material had been right in front of my face all along. I recall when I was in 12th grade being intrigued by the work of a student who, preceding me by a few years, had written a term paper on the number zero. "Zero has history?" I pondered. A few years later, when I was in college slogging through differential equations and applied linear algebra, I remember wishing I had the time to enroll in a course on the history of math, which my friend and roommate, who was not a math whiz, was taking at the time. The trouble was, history of math wouldn't count toward my math minor, since the department I was studying in considered it, I suppose, not a "real" math class. I've also been somewhat taken of late by the TV show Numbers, which features a young mathematics professor who uses his skills to solve crimes for the F.B.I. Okay--I don't love the show, but what I do like is the way in which it helps to situate mathematical problems in concrete scenarios. (I have no idea how accurate the math is on the show, so if any mathematicians are reading, feel free to chime in.)
All that to say, I genuinely miss math as a humanist scholar and welcome the opportunity, at long last, to re-engage it. Indeed, I realize in looking back that it was the discipline of math that first instilled in me a willingness to "go" and work with quite abstract ideas, problems, and sets of principles. Math, I'm convinced, laid the groundwork for my love of philosophy, and now, through philosophy, I'm hoping to revisit that long-neglected ground.