Opinion 35: Mathematicians Should Pay Attention to History and Philosophy of Math (In Particular to Leo Corry's Fascinating Work)

By Doron Zeilberger

Written: March 5, 1999

For us, doing math is like living. But sometimes it is a good idea to sit back, reflect, and ask about the meaning of life and truth. Most of us are too busy living (i.e. doing math), and don't take time out. It is also true, that in the past, many philosophical and historical works were too dry and technical, and too obsessed with foundations.

I just finished reading Leo Corry's fascinating article The Origins of Eternal Truth in Modern Mathematics: Hilbert to Bourbaki and Beyond (also available from his homepage). This should be required reading to all mathematicians. Among other interesting points, it points out Nicolas Bourbaki's most serious `abuse of notation', this one unintentional(?). They used the word structure both in a narrow technical sense and in a philosophical, value-laden, way, and used this ambiguity to pretend that there was a `solid' a-priori justification for their math-outlook.

I now also see David Hilbert in a new light, and he became more three-dimensional (in fact infinite-dimensional).

So, take time out, to read History and Philosophy of Math, in particular Leo Corry's intriguing work.

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