“Narrative does not make us see,” Barthes proclaimed in 1966. Narrative, in Barthes’s analysis, does not refer to anything outside itself, but operates exclusively in the sphere of language, generating sense—signifiers, not things being signified. I use Barthes’s position to shed some light on mathematical writing. I develop the hypothesis that mathematical writing, though it uses the form of narrative, is referring to something—namely, mathematical objects—and hence relies on truth conditions emanating from the things being referred to, which feeds back into how mathematicians use the narrative code. This investigation, on the one hand, extends the reach of narrative analysis by bringing it to bear as a window into mathematical practice; on the other hand, it brings out certain aspects of the tools of narrative analysis in new ways. One of the central findings is that for mathematical writing, the Barthesian terms often work out “under reversed signs.” For example, in narrative fiction, as Barthes says, everything is functional by definition. In mathematical writing, instead, functionality has to hold as a necessary condition, which has the effect that in the end everything is functional again. I further argue that the specific referential nature of mathematical narrating leaves certain markers on the text—markers such as explicit reference to the act of “seeing,” calls on the reader to get involved with the argument, and a multiplicity of grammatically differently marked voices—which I document in three articles that have become classics in game theory.


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pp. 327-354
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