Nicolas Michel graduated in mathematics and philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, before obtaining a PhD in history of science at the Université Paris-Diderot in 2020. He currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at the university of Wuppertal. His research lies at the intersection of the philosophy of mathematics and the cultural history of knowledge. His work was recently published in journals such as Isis, the British Journal for History of Science, and Science in Context.
“Geometry as Symbolic Fiction: On Hermann Schubert’s Modernist Mathematics”
The very notion of “modernism” in the history of mathematics is often used to describe the rise of a new cultural image of this discipline at the turn of the twentieth century. According to this new image, numbers and geometrical figures were to be viewed as human creations, not built in reference to external entities (whether physical or ideal) as pre-modern(ist) mathematicians would have it, but rather made of signs and symbols, as all other human scriptures. There remains however much disagreement regarding the extent to which this transformation deserves such a loaded descriptor, one that suggests a participation of mathematics in transformations within the arts and culture more broadly. This paper contributes to this discussion by focusing on the case of Hermann Schubert (1848-1911), a schoolteacher who also led a successful career as a geometer and took part in joint scientific endeavours with the leading stars of ethnology and psycholinguistics in Imperial Germany (e.g., Adolf Bastian, Rudolf Virchow, or Heymann Steinthal). In particular, this paper will locate Schubert’s views of geometry against the backdrop of renewed understandings of the nature and origin of language. By focusing on an actor involved with transformative episodes in the history of the social and literary sciences, a new path towards understanding modernist mathematics and its attitude towards words and symbols is thus suggested.