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Book Review: Masters of Theory and its relevance to the history of economic thought


One of the most important texts to be published in 2003 that is of relevance to the sub-discipline of the history of economic thought was written not by an historian of that sub-discipline, but by an historian of mathematical science. Andrew Warwick’s Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics has nonetheless been largely overlooked by historians of economic thought, and, for this reason, a lengthy critical review of this work is warranted. Warwick has written what many mathematical purists would incorrectly dismiss as a ‘contradiction in terms’, namely, a cultural history of mathematics. He demonstrates that the cultural processes that governed the way in which Cantabrigian undergraduates sitting for the Mathematical Tripos initially came to grips with their subject matter had some bearing on the mathematical product that eventually appeared on the published page. The mathematical theorems, lemmas, proofs and applications were, in other words, not spun out of the aether by unadulterated minds sitting in clean Euclidean space, but were indirectly the product of the way in which the raw undergraduates were originally transformed into practising mathematicians, or, more usually, journeyman scholars or professionals with a mathematical bent. Such a cultural interpretation of an intellectual product is now pretty much standard in the history of physics, biology and economics, but it still provides a little frisson when applied.



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