The Liverpool Tate have an exhibition currently running that discusses the dialectic between politics and art - the situationists, Bertolt Brecht and earlier the patronage of the court.

Mathematics, (sometimes) considered as art, has it ever taken a political form?

If not, can one consider it an art in its full measure?

There is of course Badiou who interweaves radical politics with mathematics as an ontology; but this is not mathematics per se - but mathematics that has reached the condition of philosophy.

  • Well, mathematical models can be political, right? Climate change models, for example. But pure math ... let's see. Surely there was a huge dispute between the British and the Europeans regarding Newton versus Leibniz's priority in inventing calculus. But that's a priority dispute ... not about the math itself. Then of course there are the math pedagogy wars. New math, New new math, Common Core. But a dispute over pure math itself? Can't think of an example. Hitler considered relativity to be "Jewish physics." That's a sort-of example, but it's still not pure math.
    – user4894
    Jun 24 '14 at 3:40
  • @user4894 1) Here's your (attempted) example: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Bieberbach#Politics 2) The Newton/Leibniz thing also caused the English mathematicians (right?) to stick to an unfortunate notation for a long time, I think.
    – user3164
    Jun 24 '14 at 5:14
  • It might be better to say that there can be mathematical models of political systems instead of calling those mathematical models political, because if, some other system (e.g. biological) can be modeled using the same math, than this is the same mathematical model, only with different names.
    – Danijel
    Jun 24 '14 at 5:22
  • @Watson Excellent link. I believe that is directly on point to OP. "German mathematics."
    – user4894
    Jun 24 '14 at 5:23
  • How about single objective optimization vs. pareto optimization vs. feasible domain? Or that a concave function over a convex domain obtains its maximum at an extreme point of the boundary? Or the bang-bang principle and that stochastic strategies in games allow to control and smooth out the bang-bang behavior? (I think there are many more examples of this sort, just querying what sort of answer you are interested in here.) Jun 24 '14 at 8:23

There are a few areas where "meta-mathematics" can take on political overtones:

  1. Political word problems. See Radical Math as an example of an organization that promotes this sort of thing. (Personally, I'm skeptical that this is a good idea.)
  2. Acceptance into the Mathematics profession. See this paper for one take. Women such as Sophie Germain are a rarity in math history, and she was only able to have success by bucking societal expectations for women. (I think understanding this history and changing the gender-imbalance situation that persists is a noble endeavor.)
  3. How to do math "correctly." Not political in the sense of government politics, but political in the sense of it being a person-to-person issue more than a did-I-do-my-addition-properly issue. This comes up more often in statistics where the "right answer" is harder to verify. One example is the debate between Bayesian and non-Bayesian approaches to statistics.

There are, of course, the "social sciences," which try to make use of mathematical models in a similar way to how physics did. Since the social sciences are themselves political, mathematics can be politicized in this way as well.


Lately there have been a lot of hot debates on how much mathematics should be taught in high schools and in which way (especially in the West). In this way, mathematics plays a role of a subject that gets people thinking about how the education system in a given country should be laid out, which in turn is very tangential to politics. There are a lot of amazing papers on the subject, see the results of this Google search.

  • Theres an old Asimov story about the ubiquity of personal computing devices that the possibility of doing arithmetic oneself is forgotten, and when it is rediscovered people are startled & incredulous... Jun 24 '14 at 19:38
  • @MoziburUllah most of the first three pages of the Google search are all papers about the issue across the whole world. Do you expect me to give direct links to all of them in the body of the answer?
    – user132181
    Jun 24 '14 at 20:00
  • 1
    @MoziburUllah en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Feeling_of_Power Jun 24 '14 at 20:04
  • 1
    @user132181: no; what have I said that leads you to say that? Jun 24 '14 at 20:15
  • 1
    a tangential reply to my question perhaps deserved a tangential comment :) Jun 26 '14 at 7:38

Some mathematical subjects like climate change models can become political, because its conclusions are uncomfortable. In such cases however, it's not really the fault of the scientists that their conclusions have political implications.

In cases where the scientists might actively seek to draw political conclusions from their results, a two stage process might be more appropriate. Let's say we agree that parts of philosophy are intentionally political. Some of the conclusions of mulit-objective optimization, control theory, stochastic processes or game theory might be political in their last consequents, but it seems more appropriate to only draw philosophical conclusions from such mathematical theories. One can then try to identify existing philosophical positions which agree or disagree with the purported mathematical conclusion. There will often already be existing critiques of the corresponding positions, which allow to better judge their relevance, and who could be potential allies in the political arena.


a likely place to look would be when religious mores of varying sorts had uber-sway either in general or in local areas where stuff was happening. such a time would be fertile for hiring/patronage to be skewed for/against certain folks

specific places to look might include:

ptolemy/copernicus sun/earth switching time

saccheri/gauss geometry time

jewish math/physics people in germany early 20th century

cantor/actual infinite stuff late 19th century

constructivism thought

and of course the idiocy in here in the US re: climate change (modeling) and evolution (half-life/age diffeqs)

oh and jenny mccarthy stupidity getting to immunological diffeq model systems

  • I don't get it. What does 'diffeq' mean? Differential equation? What has half-life to do with evolution? Please clarify your answer and use capitals and interpunction.
    – user3164
    Jun 26 '14 at 18:28

At a purely structural level, I believe mathematics can have subtle political implications. For instance, statistics is concerned with patterns in the aggregate. Structurally, this has resonance with utilitarian philosophies ("the greatest good for the greatest number") and for big government approaches to problem solving.

On the other hand, one of the tenets of chaos theory is the large impact of small individual changes. Structurally, this has resonance with existential philosophies (the power of the individual) and with libertarian political impulses.

Going further back, we can draw a connection between the idealism of classical geometry and the corresponding idealism of a political system like Plato's Republic.

Of course, these correspondences are not exact or inevitable, but they do show that even mathematics is not entirely politically or philosophically neutral. And of course, we can further note that the world of mathematics --in terms of what gets attention, and what doesn't --is also inevitably political (as is every other area of human group endeavor).

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