“I like mathematics because it is not human and has nothing particular to do with this planet or with the whole accidental universe—because, like Spinoza’s God, it won’t love us in return” (Bertrand Russell). In a nutshell: we love mathematics but mathematics doesn’t love us. Let’s try that again: the loveless world of mathematics is tantalizing. Unlike human or physical reality, it provides us with certitudes of a conceptual order. In a world rife with dubious claims about humans and the universe, which more often than not inspire wrong-headed enthusiasm, mathematics provides some respite on account of being self-contained and dispassionately attained. For that reason mathematics can be quite satisfying. However, even Lord Russell has admitted that the ambiguities of mathematics have threatened to unhinge his mind, unlike those surrounding the very human concern of God’s existence.
My interest here is not with a philosophy of mathematics or to make dubious claims about Russell’s worldview based on anecdotal statements. Russell wedded his positivistic epistemology and humanitarian ideals in ways that would shame many of us who happen to find his analytic philosophy antiquated. No, the issue is how this impersonal view of mathematics attaches to philosophy and thinking in general. It could be that I’m addressing my generation, which is still in the throes of early 20th century philosophy known as logical positivism. True, it doesn’t have the same “pull” it once did but I believe it resonates somehow. Despite all our so-called postmodernism, which has supposedly cut the umbilical chord of foundational assurances, this anchor of impersonal, objective, empirical (or what have you) knowledge, believed to be the true model of knowing, continues to hold sway. It makes up so much of our common sense that questioning it is tantamount to questioning our grandma’s delicious recipes. (I sure do hope your grandma’s a good cook!)
We are victims of an ‘epistemic’ pathology, a fancy word of Greek origin that basically means knowledge. It has become the inner lining of our individual horizons, helping us cope with “reality” as we encounter it from age to age, screw ups notwithstanding. For that reason, as a cultural phenomenon, these horizons can take centuries to unlearn. And because common sense isn’t always and necessarily common nonsense, this is both a blessing and a curse. However, the idea that for knowledge to be knowledge knowledge must be pure, that is, emptied of all human concern and fragility, is, frankly, bankrupt, a pipe dream facilitated by the very human concern to escape the world of change for one that is fixed and stable.
None of this is news, of course. The diagnosis has been around for as long as the condition has. I’m divided on the issue myself, as is fit, I suppose, since I, too, suffer from the condition. There’s no point in quibbling about the right side of this particular debate when both sides are parasitic steeped in a pathology that often needs to be reeled in. Never mind, I say, the metaphysics of the various branches of knowledge, i.e., whether they are human or not, whether one qualifies as knowledge based on degrees of certainty or scales of probability that mute the personal. Bertrand Russell was probably at his most authentic when mathematical ambiguities threatened to unhinge his mind—a personal investment if ever there was one. Were it not for these ambiguities, would we push ourselves as hard if not to resolve them, then to understand them? This tendency to discriminate sharply between the objects we want to know and our knowledge of them is strange, if understandable. Somehow it throws our sense of inadequacy into sharp relief when we depersonalize objects in or apart from the world. We feel as if we guard their integrity by doing so. Russell arguably does when he transposes the attributes of Spinoza’s God to mathematics. “[L]ike Spinoza’s God, it [mathematics] won’t love us in return.” But the transposition is already present in the desire to discriminate them, to depersonalize them. The German philosopher Hegel had a point! (Not surprisingly, Russell’s affections for Hegel were—let us just say—not very high.) Perhaps the objects we love to know or not know also “love” us? That is, in our knowledge of their independence or indifference objects “known” are ipso facto personalized, whether they or we like it or not. I’m not sure I like it but I can’t, nor do I want or feel a need to, escape it. Maybe I just need to learn to love it?