On the uses and abuses of the history of mathematics

Mathematicians frequently present their own work in a diachronic fashion, e.g. by comparing their “modern” methods to those supposedly of the “Ancients,” or by situating their latest theories as an “abstract” counterpart to more “classical” ones. The construction of such contrasts entangle mathematical labour and cultural life writ large. Indeed, it involves on the part of mathematicians the shaping up of correspondences between their technical achievements and intellectual discussions taking place on a much broader stage, such as those surrounding the concept of modernity, its relation to an imagined ancient past, or the characterisation of scientific progress as an increase in abstraction. This talk will explore the creation and use of such mathematical diachronies, the focus being on the works of Felix Klein, Hieronymus Zeuthen, and Hermann Schubert.