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The Pure and the Applied: Bourbakism Comes to Mathematical Economics

  • E. Roy Weintraub (a1) and Philip Mirowski (a2)
Abstract
The Argument

In the minds of many, the Bourbakist trend in mathematics was characterized by pursuit of rigor to the detriment of concern for applications or didactic concessions to the nonmathematician, which would seem to render the concept of a Bourbakist incursion into a field of applied mathematices an oxymoron. We argue that such a conjuncture did in fact happen in postwar mathematical economics, and describe the career of Gérard Debreu to illustrate how it happened. Using the work of Leo Corry on the fate of the Bourbakist program in mathematics, we demonstrate that many of the same problems of the search for a formal structure with which to ground mathematical practice also happened in the case of Debreu. We view this case study as an alternative exemplar to conventional discussions concerning the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics in science.

The Argument

In the minds of many, the Bourbakist trend in mathematics was characterized by pursuit of rigor to the detriment of concern for applications or didactic concessions to the nonmathematician, which would seem to render the concept of a Bourbakist incursion into a field of applied mathematices an oxymoron. We argue that such a conjuncture did in fact happen in postwar mathematical economics, and describe the career of Gérard Debreu to illustrate how it happened. Using the work of Leo Corry on the fate of the Bourbakist program in mathematics, we demonstrate that many of the same problems of the search for a formal structure with which to ground mathematical practice also happened in the case of Debreu. We view this case study as an alternative exemplar to conventional discussions concerning the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics in science.

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Philip Mirowski . 1991. “The How, the When and the Why of Mathematical Expression in the History of Economics.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 5: 148–58.

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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
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