Tag Archives: Fred Inglis

Anthropology of Mathematics

This essay was long when originally published; now, on November 30, 2019, I have made it longer, in an attempt to clarify some points.

The essay begins with two brief quotations, from Collingwood and Pirsig respectively, about what it takes to know people. The Pirsig quote is from Lila, which is somewhat interesting as a novel, but naive about metaphysics; it might have benefited from an understanding of Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics. A recent article by Ray Monk in Prospect seems to justify my interest in Collingwood; eventually I have a look at the article. Ideas that come up along the way include the following.

  1. For C. S. Lewis, the reality of moral truth shows there is something beyond the scope of natural science.

  2. I say the same for mathematical truth.

  3. Truths we learn as children are open to question. In their educational childhoods, mathematicians have often learned wrongly the techniques of induction and recursion.

  4. The philosophical thesis of physicalism is of doubtful value.

  5. Mathematicians and philosophers who ape them use “iff” needlessly.

  6. One pair who do this seem also to misunderstand induction and recursion.

  7. Their work is nonetheless admirable, like the famous expression of universal equality by the slave-driving Thomas Jefferson.

  8. Mathematical truth is discovered and confirmed by thought.

  9. Truth is a product of every kind of science; it is not an object of natural science.

  10. The distinction between thinking and feeling is a theme of Collingwood.

  11. In particular, thought is self-critical: it judges whether itself is going well.

  12. Students of mathematics must learn their right to judge what is correct, along with their responsibility to reach agreement with others about what is correct. I say this.

  13. Students of English must learn not only to judge their own work, but even that they can judge it. Pirsig says this.

  14. For Monk, Collingwood’s demise has meant Ryle’s rise: unfortunately so since, for one thing, Ryle has no interest in the past.

  15. In a metaphor developed by Matthew Arnold, Collingwood and Pirsig are two of my touchstones.

  16. Thoreau is another. He affects indifference to the past, but his real views are more subtle.

  17. According to Monk, Collingwood could have been a professional violinist; Ryle had “no ear for tunes.”

  18. For Collingwood, Victoria’s memorial to Albert was hideous; for Pirsig, Victorian America was the same.

  19. Again according to Monk, some persons might mistake Collingwood for Wittgenstein.

  20. My method of gathering together ideas, as outlined above, resembles Pirsig’s method, described in Lila, of collecting ideas on index cards.

  21. Our problems are not vague, but precise.

When Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, which opinion polls had said he would lose, I wrote a post here called “How To Learn about People.” I thought for example that just calling people up and asking whom they would vote for was not a great way to learn about them, even if all you wanted to know was whom they would vote for. Why should people tell you the truth?

Saturn eclipse mosaic from Cassini

With other questions about people, even just understanding what it means to be the truth is a challenge. If you wanted to understand people whose occupation (like mine) was mathematics, you would need to learn what it meant to prove a theorem, that is, prove it true. Mere observation would not be enough; and on this point I cite two authors whom I often take up in this blog.

  • In the words of R. G. Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy (1916, page 42), quoted in An Autobiography (1940, page 93) as well as in the earlier post here, “The mind, regarded in this external way, really ceases to be a mind at all.”

  • In the words of English teacher and anthropologist Verne Dusenberry, quoted by Robert Pirsig in Lila (1991, page 35), “The trouble with the objective approach is that you don’t learn much that way.”

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On Causation

Causation seems commonly to be understood as a physical concept, like being a fossil. The paleontologist seeks the one right answer to the question of when a particular dinosaur bone became part of the fossil record; likewise readers of international news seem to think there is one right answer to the question of whether Donald Trump or Ali Khamenei caused the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on January 8, 2020.

There is not one right answer. If you are Trump, you caused 176 civilian deaths by attacking the Iranians and provoking their response. If you are Mitch McConnell, you caused the deaths by inhibiting the removal of Trump from office. If you are Khamenei, you did it by meeting Trump’s fire with fire.

Being a cause does not mean you deserve condemnation or praise: that is another matter.

Causation is relative. This is an observation by R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940). Continue reading



First published May 17, 2018, this essay concerns Eugene Wigner’s 1960 article “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” I wrote a lot, which I now propose to summarize by section. (The meditations also continue in the next article.)

  • Some things are miraculous. Among Wigner’s examples are
    • that mathematics is possible at all, and
    • that “regularities” in the physical world can be discovered, as by Galileo and Newton.

    For Wigner, we should be grateful for the undeserved gift of a mathematial formulation of the laws of physics. This makes no sense theologically—and here I agree with the character Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. Wigner’s idea that our mathematical reasoning power has been brought to perfection makes no sense to me either.

  • Everything is miraculous. Here I agree with Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy. A miracle cannot be the breaking of a natural law, since such a thing cannot be broken. A great artist like Beethoven follows no rules in the first place, or makes them up as he goes along; and he is like God in this way.
  • Natural law. That it cannot be broken is part of the very concept of natural law. Quantum phenomena and the theory of relativity have not in fact been brought under a single law; for Wigner, it may not be possible.
  • Mystery. Not only can we not define miracles, but (as we should have observed in the first place) we cannot even say when they happen. If like Wigner we call something miraculous, this means it cleanses our own doors of perception, in the sense of William Blake.
  • Definitions. In his treatment of miracle in Religion and Philosophy, Collingwood shows the futility of trying to define a term when you are not sure how to use it. He makes this futility explicit in The Principles of Art. If we are going to think about the use of mathematics in natural science, this means we ought to be mathematician, natural scientist, and philosopher; and not just “natural scientist,” but physicist and biologist, since if mathematics is effective in physics, it would seem to be ineffective in biology.
  • Being a philosopher. We are all philosophers, in the sense that Maugham describes in the story “Appearance and Reality,” if only we think. All thought is for the sake of action. This does not mean that thought occurs separately from an action and is to be judged by the action. We may value “pure” thought, such as doing mathematics or making music or living the contemplative life of a monk. This however moves me to a give a thought to the disaster of contemporary politics.
  • Philosophizing about science. For present purposes, compart­ment­al­ization of knowledge is a problem. So is the dominance of analytic philosophy, for suggesting (as one cited person seems to think) that big problems can be broken into little ones and solved independently. In mathematics, students should learn their right to question somebody else’s solutions to problems. In philosophy, the problems themselves will be our own. Philosophy as such cannot decide what the problems of physics or biology are, though it may help to understand the “absolute presuppositions” that underlie the problems. Philosophers quâ metaphysicians cannot determine once for all what the general structure of the universe is. This does not mean they should do “experimental philosophy,” taking opinion polls about supposedly philosophical questions. What matters is not what people say, but what they mean and are trying to mean. As Collingwood observes, metaphysics is an historical science.

For more on the last points, see a more recent article, “Re-enactment.” (This Preface added June 3, 2018.)

I am writing from the Math Village, and here I happen to have read that Abraham Lincoln kept no known diary as such, but noted his thoughts on loose slips of paper. Admired because he “could simply sit down and write another of his eloquent public letters,”

Lincoln demurred. “I had it nearly all in there,” he said, pointing to an open desk drawer. “It was in disconnected thoughts, which I had jotted down from time to time on separate scraps of paper.” This was how he worked, the president explained. It was on such scraps of paper, accumulating over the years into a diaristic density, that Lincoln saved and assembled what he described to the visitor as his “best thoughts on the subject.”

Thus Ronald C. White, “Notes to Self,” Harper’s, February 2018. My own notes to self are normally in bound notebooks, and perhaps later in blog articles such as the present one, which is inspired by the 1960 article called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” by Eugene Wigner.
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The Tradition of Western Philosophy

Note added October 16, 2018: Here I compare two projects of re-examining the philosophical tradition of the title. The projects are those of

  • R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Philosophical Method (Oxford, 1933);
  • Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan at St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, beginning in 1937.

I review

  • how I ended up as a student at St John’s;
  • how Collingwood has been read (or not read) by myself and others, notably Simon Blackburn;
  • how Collingwood’s Essay is based on the hypothesis of the “overlap of classes.”

I say that Collingwood writes well. This is corroborated, in a sense, in the Introduction to the 2005 edition of the Essay by James Connelly and Giuseppina D’Oro. These editors say of Collingwood’s critics M. C. D’Arcy and C. J. Ducasse,

both agreed that Collingwood’s language was imprecise, sometimes vague, and insufficiently analytical. This criticism was later echoed by A. J. Ayer in his Philosophy in the Twentieth Century where he remarked that ‘An Essay on Philosophical Method is a contribution to belles-lettres rather than philosophy. The style is uniformly elegant, the matter mostly obscure.’

At the end I quote three elegant paragraphs from Collingwood, which begin:

Assumption for assumption, which are we to prefer? That in sixty generations of continuous thought philosophers have been exerting themselves wholly in vain, and have waited for the first word of good sense until we came on the scene? Or that this labour has been on the whole profitable, and its history the history of an effort neither contemptible nor unrewarded?

We prefer the second assumption; and in this we may seem to follow Daniel McCarthy in “Modernism & Conservatism” (The American Conservative, September 25, 2012), an essay recently promoted on Twitter (which is why I return now to this post). The freedom embraced by modernism may drive one to conservatism, as it did T. S. Eliot. McCarthy quotes Donald Livingston:

The true philosopher recognizes that philosophical reflection consistently purged of the authority of the pre-reflective leads to total skepticism. In this moment of despair, hubristic reason … becomes impotent and utterly silent. It is only then that the philosopher can recognize, for the first time, the authority of that radiant world of pre-reflective common life in which he has his being and which had always been a guide prior to the philosophic act.

McCarthy comments on this,

Once reason has disestablished everything, including its own authority, what remains? The ground beneath your feet, the social order of which you are a part—things predicated not on any theory but on their immediacy. This is the profound conservatism to be realized from modernism.

Perhaps one may find this conservatism in some students and faculty at St John’s College; it is not inevitable, and Collingwood hasn’t got it, for all his admiration for Eliot.

A recent theme of this blog has been juxtapositions, especially of paintings, as in the articles “Pairing of paintings” and “More pairings” (both from July, 2013).

In this article I juxtapose two texts, from the 1930s. Both of them decry current intellectual troubles. Both find a solution in a return to the intellectual tradition. Continue reading