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"Abraham, Planter of Mathematics"

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Author Topic: "Abraham, Planter of Mathematics"  (Read 462 times)
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« on: October 14, 2008, 10:15:42 pm »

Bacon thus positioned himself not only as a Father of Modern Science, but also a Father of the History of Science.

Following Bacon's suggestion, I will examine the "small memorials" of the history of mathematics—and particularly the mathematical art of astrology—in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My conclusion, however, will not bear out Bacon's claims. Despite his frustration, Bacon was only one of many early modern scholars appraising the role of mathematics within history. And he devoted less energy than others to mapping its origins and tracing its transmissions between communities. In fact, Bacon's 1605 proposal for a history of mathematics was already out-of-date. Discussions [End Page 88] of the history of mathematics had been rife on the continent and in England throughout the previous century.3

The evidence that Renaissance scholars inherited was sprawling and inconclusive. Several genealogies for mathematics could be found within classical Greek, Latin, and patristic references. One lineage claimed mathematics began in ancient Assyria, where the priestly caste, the Chaldeans, practiced a form of mathematics that seemed a corrupt admixture of philosophy, medicine, and religion, and relied heavily on observation of the heavens. Other scholars traced the origins to Egypt, claiming that the field developed to survey lands frequently flooded by the Nile. The real problem for ancient, late antique, and medieval scholars had not been the origins of mathematics, but what exactly mathematics were. For some, the term strictly referred to the quadrivium: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. But for others, mathematics' origins amongst the Egyptians or Chaldeans inextricably linked it to forms of astrological divination, augury, and necromancy that were unsavory to both Latin and Christian traditions. Mathematici were included alongside ghastly lists of Magi, Brahmins, Aruspices, Genethliaci, and other diabolic practitioners of idolatrous magic. These might or might not be distinguished from mathematici such as Pythagoras and Euclid, who were considered philosophers, or from useful practitioners such as Archimedes. The term itself was a source of unending confusion. A mathematician in Aristotle's time, as later generations acknowledged, did geometry and arithmetic; but, by late antiquity, Augustine and Jerome could complain that nativity-readers were vulgarly called mathematici. This confusion and distrust spread in turn to later historical understandings of [End Page 89] mathematics, and justifies considering the Renaissance histories of magic, mathematics, astrology, and astronomy, as deeply interwoven.4
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