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Thomas Browne and the Mystery of Number

January 27, 2023 @ 4:30 pm 6:30 pm

Gilman 479

Marked by the ‘mathematization’ of scientific knowledge, seventeenth-century European intellectual culture is also punctuated by profound skepticism about the stability, reliability, or calculability of numbers. Focusing on the natural philosopher and lay theologian Thomas Browne, who fluctuates puzzlingly between fascination and contempt for arithmology and numerology, this lecture will explore the seventeenth century’s deeply conflictive relationship to the ‘mystery of number,’ or what Browne calls the “mysticall way of Pythagoras, and the secret Magicke of numbers.” Ranging across Italian, French, and English mathematicians and natural philosophers, poets, theologians, and biblical chronologers of the period, this lecture examines the roots and circumstances of seventeenth-century doubts about the validity and trustworthiness of quantitative knowledge: the difficulty of fixing the date of Creation or of the Last Judgment, the absurdity of attaching mysterious typological meanings to the numerical landscape of the scriptures, the problem that numerical calculations are peculiarly prone to error, and the challenge of counting objects in the ever-changing physical landscape of the natural world. This is a lecture that lovers of mathematics or its history, as well as those who hate or fear mathematics, will enjoy equally.”

Jessica Lynn Wolfe