Wednesday, March 07, 2007
  Thoughts on Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought
Tasić, Vladimir. Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 189 pages.

For a book that references the Sokal affair on the first page, this is a pretty illuminating look at "postmodernism". Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought attempts to establish parallels between postmodern thought and the foundational controversies that occurred in mathematics around a century ago. It goes about this primarily by drawing connections between postmodern concepts and the ideas that came about due to the clash of formalism and intuitionism in the mathematical community, and by suggesting historical lines of intellectual influence between the players on both sides. The latter method is at times surprising but often sort of sketchy. This doesn't particularly bother me, as the historical and conceptual lens offered by the book is productive in some ways, regardless of how pronounced the actual influences between actors were.
The subject matter made the book somewhat difficult for me. The thought of Husserl, Heidegger and those influenced by them is of a style rather orthogonal to mine, which is one of the reasons I was interested in this book to begin with. It's good to come at dense subjects by way of ones that you are more familiar with. Unfortunately for me, the book is more interested in using Heidegger and Husserl to get at more postmodern types in a genealogical manner than it is in shedding light on them in particular. Consequently, some passages left me straining to follow the train of thought.
Nevertheless, I found some aspects of Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought problematic for their own reasons. It’s obviously and admittedly oversimplified. I didn't find the first few chapters particularly illuminating, and the introduction to Saussure is very unwieldy. It's not entirely clear on first reading whether the author uses Wittgenstein to get at postmodern types or whether he strangely considers Wittgenstein a postmodern philosopher.
Despite the author's warnings that he won't criticize his subjects for being derivative of romantics or mathematical theorists in ways that he can't conclusively prove, this seems to be exactly what he does in the end. The final section seems to condemn postmodern types for not being aware of the roots to which the author has hypothetically attributed to them. This isn't a very convincing criticism to me.
Regardless of his criticisms, at a certain level the author seems to share some assumptions with his subjects. A sort of Platonism is rampant among math people, which actually makes it easier for them to digest the strange sorts of hypothetical entities that seem to permeate postmodern thought. I would prefer a more thorough scientific naturalism but that's probably asking too much given the subject. Still, there's a superfluous argument against AI that's ridiculous.
Don't think that I wouldn't recommend the book. In many cases criticism is more interesting to write than praise. This book didn't inspire any great revelations on my part, but once it got started it was definitely interesting. This was a little bit deeper than the stuff I've been reading lately and it took me a while to get through, but it's inspired me to get serious about the parts of continental philosophy that I've never really understood.
 
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