Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity

Jim Holt writes:

The authors of Naming Infinity see the controversy surrounding Georg Cantor’s theory of infinity as a matter of French rationalism versus Russian mysticism. And it was the mystics, they claim, who better served the cause of mathematical progress. Loren Graham, an American historian of science, and Jean-Michel Kantor, a French mathematician, argue that the intellectual milieu of the French mathematicians was dominated by Descartes, for whom clarity and distinctness were warrants of truth, and by Auguste Comte, who insisted that science should be purged of metaphysical speculation. Cantor’s theory seemed to offend against both. The Russians, by contrast, warmed to it. In fact, the founding figures of the most influential school of 20th-century Russian mathematics were members of a heretical religious sect called the Name Worshippers, who believed that by repetitiously chanting God’s name they could achieve fusion with the divine.

(LRB 27 August 2009)