Mathematics for the Million Essay - Critical Essays

Lancelot Hogben


Hogben’s declared purpose in Mathematics for the Million is to make the mysteries of mathematics accessible to any bright, educated person. He carefully defines the technical terms that he uses and employs vivid language; for example, series “choke off,” rather than “converging.” Hogben did not create the book for a specific age group, but adolescents might be particularly interested in looking at mathematics in a way other than the standard approach taught in most schools.

In the face of an almost universal treatment of mathematics as a system of pure reason, Hogben presents it as an activity, simply an element in the social life of human beings. This approach has two consequences for the book. One is that rather than construct a system arguing logically from fundamental premises, Hogben tells his story historically. In his view, mathematics is primarily something that people do, and he wishes to inform the reader of the ways in which people have done it, from the simplest forms used by primitive people to the complexities of modern mathematics.

The second consequence is that mathematics is always presented as a practical concern of actual human beings living and working in the world. (Hogben is sharply critical of the ivory tower approach of Plato and his followers.) In keeping with this approach, Hogben describes mathematics as a language of size, shape, and order. In this view, the most fundamental aspect of mathematics...

(The entire section is 560 words.)