- Chapter One: Why Mathematics?
- Princeton University Press
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C H A P T E R O N E Why Mathematics? MATHEMATICS under the Nazi regime in Germany? This seems at ﬁrst glance a matter of no real interest. What could the abstract language of science have to say to the ideology that oppressed Germany and pillaged Europe for twelve long years? At most, perhaps, unseemly (or seemly) anecdotes about who behaved badly (or well) might be offered. While such biographical material, when properly evaluated to sift out gossip and rumor, is of interest—history is made by human beings, and their actions affect others and signify attitudes—there is much more to mathematics and how it was affected under Nazi rule. Indeed, there are several areas of interaction between promulgated Nazi attitudes and the life and work of mathematicians. Thus this book is an attempt at a particular investigation of the relationships between so-called pure (natural) science and the extra-scientiﬁc culture. That there should be strong cultural connections between the technological applications of pure science (including herein the social applications of biological theory) and various aspects of the Industrial Revolution is obvious. Social Darwinism, and similar inﬂuences of science on social thought and action, have been frequently studied. It is not at all clear at the outset, however, that theoretical science and the contemporary cultural ambience have much to do with one another. Belief in this nonconnection is strengthened by the image of science proceeding in vacuo, so to speak, according to its own stringent rules of logic: the scientiﬁc method. In the past thirty years, however, this naive assumption of the autonomy of scientiﬁc development has begun to be critically examined.1 A general investigation of this topic is impossible, even if the conclusion were indeed the total divorce of theoretical science from other aspects of culture. Hence the proposal to study one particular microcosm: the relationship between mathematics and the intensity of the Nazi Weltanschauung (or “worldview ”) in Germany. Although 1939 is a convenient dividing line in the history of Hitler’s Reich, nonetheless the prewar Nazi period must also be viewed as a culmination; the Germany of those years was prepared during the Weimar Republic , and both the cultural and scientiﬁc problems that will concern us have their origins at the turn of the century. World War I symbolized the conclusion of an era whose end had already come. Similarly, World War II was a continuation of what had gone before, and a terminal date of 1939 is even more artiﬁcial and will not be adhered to. 1 One of the earliest examples is Paul Forman, “Weimar Culture, Causality, and Quantum Theory , 1918–1927,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 3 (1971): 1–16; and by the same author, “Scientiﬁc Internationalism and the Weimar Physicists: The Ideology and Its Manipulation in Germany after World War I,” Isis 64 (1973): 150–180. 2 C H A P T E R O N E The concentration on mathematics may perhaps need some justiﬁcation. At ﬁrst glance, a straw man has been set up—after all, what could be more culture -free than mathematics, with its strict logic, its axiomatic procedures, and its guarantee that a true theorem is forever true. Disputes might arise about the validity of a theorem in certain situations: whether all the hypotheses had been explicitly stated; whether in fact the logical chain purporting to lead to a certain conclusion did in fact do so; and similar technical matters; but the notion of mathematical truth is often taken as synonymous with eternal truth. Nor is this only a contemporary notion, as the well-known apocryphal incident involving Euler and Diderot at the court of Catherine the Great, or the Platonic attitude toward mathematics, indicate.2 Furthermore, there is the “unreasonable effectiveness ” of mathematics in its application to the physical and social scientiﬁc world. Even so-called applied mathematics, concerning which Carl Runge3 remarked that it was merely pure mathematics applied to astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and the like, proceeds by abstracting what is hypothesized as essential in a problem, solving a corresponding mathematical problem, and reinterpreting the mathematical results in an “applied” fashion.4 Mathematics also has a notion of strict causality: if A, then B. It is true that the standards of rigor, the logical criteria used to determine whether or not a proof is valid, that is, to determine whether or not B truly follows from A, have changed over time...

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