Tuesday 20 October 2015

mathmagicland or word-problem

Could the oral tradition of story-telling and the development of maths be related expressions of one and the same human need? Stories of course can be formulaic and numbers can be characters in an archetypal tale themselves, but I wonder if the divergence and convergence is something more fundamental.

There are rich mnemonic and coded traditions that are substrates that pass from anecdote, to generational lore, to a body of literature that engineer the structure of a story, and of course mathematical remains a very rarefied thing until couched in a real application (however unpalatable, two passengers on trains travelling in opposite directions...)—and even the discovery of a new idea in complex, higher level arithmetic has a narrative that reads like an author’s arc, not to mention the conventions of poetry. Literacy is a strange thing indeed. Wittgenstein, whom said nothing that I can pretend to comprehend, remained hot and bothered about the imprecision of language but was forever equally enthralled how the lexicon of maths—uncovered by the same frail organ—proved itself independent and reliable again and again. One cannot force the rigour of logic on creative writing but I wonder if reporting (and the themes of the oldest stories circulated that are re-told in contemporary ways) might have not become more and more elaborate with the sophistication of counting, substitution, extension, geometry and probability. Those articles that are perennially dusted off, citing statistics to scare seem to reinforce, negatively, the connection, taking advance of the functional illiterate and the break between figures and what they say. What do you think? Does a bit of lore, no matter what the format and presentation, have the same underlying progression as something quantifiable, a roll-call, a marshaling, a parcelling-out or a likelihood?