Do You Know What Bertrand Russell Said About Mathematics?

by Firdous Ahmad Mala

“Mathematics takes us into the region of absolute necessity, to which not only the actual word, but every possible word, must conform.”

A 1950 photograph showing an open-air classroom in the harvested rice fields to help students stay warm.

Known for his mathematics, logic, philosophy and honoured for his contributions in the field of literature, Bertrand Russell is famous as one of those who have had a prominent influence on several subjects of study and have discussed the intricacies that otherwise would have been hard to even catch sight of or get wind of. Although he is known for being a philosopher, yet, he was unlike a lot of them. He considered and maintained that logic is not a part of philosophy.

“Logic, it must be admitted, is technical in the same way as mathematics is, but logic, I maintain, is not part of philosophy,” Russell famously wrote. “Philosophy proper deals with matters of interest to the general educated public, and loses much of its value if only a few professionals can understand what is said.”

British Nobel Laureate and polymath, Bertrand Russell wrote in the Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.”

In what follows, an attempt is made at a brief analysis of this infamous quote of his.

At the very outset, we are made to acknowledge the importance of being earnest. We are driven to believe in the premise of having the right approach. To Russell, mathematics must be “rightly viewed”. Viewing mathematics rightly means getting the essence of it. It means that one must appreciate and understand mathematics rather than get lost in its symbolism and calculations. One must appreciate the ideas woven in the language of mathematics rather than merely looking for computations and algorithms.

In the words of the Field Medalist, William Thurston, “Mathematics is not about numbers, equations, computations, or algorithms: it is about understanding.”

One of the twentieth century’s most prominent logicians, Bertrand Arthur William Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British polymath and an academic who worked in philosophy, mathematics, and logic. He was given Nobel Prize in 1950 in Literature for his varied and significant writings championing humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.

The next thing Russell mentions is the fact that mathematics possesses both truth and beauty. To Russell, mathematics possesses truth and that is not an astonishing claim. However, mathematics possesses beauty and not everyone can see or appreciate that beauty.

It is pertinent to mention that truth, beauty and goodness have been the sought of the philosophers. In the words of Albert Einstein written long back in 1930 in his essay, What I believe: “The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth.”

It is not strange that the virtues of truth and beauty have been discussed by Russell as mathematics cannot and must not be considered completely irrelevant to philosophy. Interestingly, something similar was opined by Einstein: “The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain, children, all our lives.”

This 1951 photograph by Howard Sochurek shows a night class of adult education in progress and a peasant showing the basic arithmetic.

Moving on, we find that Russell draws a liking between the beauty mathematics possesses and the beauty of a sculpture. He calls this beauty “cold” and “austere”. However, he kind of chooses and prefers a sculpture to a painting or a piece of music. Russell makes a mention of paintings and music. But, he seems to be not impressed by them. He seems to be unmoved and not tempted by their attraction and calls that attraction “trappings”.

Sculptures have been known for their durability, longevity and their beauty. A sculpture is more like the real in comparison to a painting that provides just a two-dimensional view. Though one might argue that paintings are no less beautiful than sculptures, the fact, however, remains that, to Russell, paintings and music are somewhat less beautiful and somewhat derogatory compared to sculptures.

Firdous Ahmad Mala (Assistant Professor)

Towards the end, we observe one important thing. We are made to note Russell’s claim that art is capable of a certain perfection. He believes that mathematics is capable of perfection too. Russell is not very different from John Locke’s assertion about mathematics. To Locke, “Mathematics is a way to settle in the mind a habit of reasoning.”

In the words of Russell, “Mathematics takes us into the region of absolute necessity, to which not only the actual word, but every possible word, must conform.”

To sum it up, we are able to read between the lines and see how Russell was capable of weaving together his acumen, his knowledge of literature and different arts and coming up with beautifully interwoven subtle observations that are probably not cups of coffee for everyone.

(The author is an Assistant Professor at the Government Degree College, Sopore. He teaches mathematics. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Kashmir Life.)


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