Thursday, January 22, 2009

Metaphors and Mathematics 4


If mathematics is a game, then playing some game is doing mathematics, and in that case why isn't dancing mathematics too?
Ludwig Wittgenstein - Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics


Mathematics is often described metaphorically - the  forms that these metaphors take include the organic, mechanical, classical, and post-modern, among countless others. Within these metaphors, mathematics may be a tool, or set of tools, a tree, part of a tree, a vine, a game, or set of games, and mathematicians in turn may be machines, game-players, artists, inventors, or explorers.

Despite the many metaphors used to describe mathematics, in popular discourse mathematics is often reduced to one of its parts, being metonymically described as merely about numbers, formulas, or some other limited aspect. Metaphor is a more complete substitution of ideas than metonymy - allowing us to link concepts that do not appear to have any direct relationship. Perhaps, metaphoric language that elevates and expands our ideas about mathematics is used by enthusiasts to counter the more limited and diminishing metonymic descriptions that are often encountered.

Attempts to describe and elevate mathematics through metaphor seem to fall short, however. Our usual way of thinking about things is to inquire about their meaning - a meaning that is assumed to lie beneath or beyond mere appearances. Metaphor generally relies on making connections between concepts on this deeper level. The sheer formalism of mathematics frustrates this usual way of thinking, and leaves us grasping for a meaning that is constantly evasive. The sheer number and variety of the  many metaphors for mathematics suggests that no single convincing one has yet been found. It may be that the repeated attempts to find such a unifying metaphor represents an ongoing and forever failing attempt to grapple with the purely formal character of mathematics; and it may be that the formal nature of mathematics will always shake off any metaphor that attempts to tie it down.

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