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Experiencing Mathematics: What do we do, when we do mathematics?
Reuben Hersh, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM

2014; 291 pp; softcover
ISBN-10: 0-8218-9420-X
ISBN-13: 978-0-8218-9420-0
List Price: US$39
Member Price: US$31.20
Order Code: MBK/83
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The question "What am I doing?" haunts many creative people, researchers, and teachers. Mathematics, poetry, and philosophy can look from the outside sometimes as ballet en pointe, and at other times as the flight of the bumblebee. Reuben Hersh looks at mathematics from the inside; he collects his papers written over several decades, their edited versions, and new chapters in his book Experiencing Mathematics, which is practical, philosophical, and in some places as intensely personal as Swann's madeleine.

--Yuri Manin, Max Planck Institute, Bonn, Germany

What happens when mid-career a mathematician unexpectedly becomes philosophical? These lively and eloquent essays address the questions that arise from a crisis of reflectiveness: What is a mathematical proof and why does it come after, not before, mathematical revelation? Can mathematics be both real and a human artifact? Do mathematicians produce eternal truths, or are the judgments of the mathematical community quasi-empirical and historically framed? How can we be sure that an infinite series that seems to converge really does converge?

This collection of essays by Reuben Hersh makes an important contribution. His lively and eloquent essays bring the reality of mathematical research to the page. He argues that the search for foundations is misleading, and that philosophers should shift from focusing narrowly on the deductive structure of proof, to tracing the broader forms of quasi-empirical reasoning that star the history of mathematics, as well as examining the nature of mathematical communities and how and why their collective judgments evolve from one generation to the next. If these questions keep you up at night, then you should read this book. And if they don't, then you should read this book anyway, because afterwards, they will!

--Emily Grosholz, Department of Philosophy, Penn State, Pennsylvania, USA

Most mathematicians, when asked about the nature and meaning of mathematics, vacillate between the two unrealistic poles of Platonism and formalism. By looking carefully at what mathematicians really do when they are doing mathematics, Reuben Hersh offers an escape from this trap. This book of selected articles and essays provides an honest, coherent, and clearly understandable account of mathematicians' proof as it really is, and of the existence and reality of mathematical entities. It follows in the footsteps of Poincaré, Hadamard, and Polya. The pragmatism of John Dewey is a better fit for mathematical practice than the dominant "analytic philosophy". Dialogue, satire, and fantasy enliven the philosophical and methodological analysis.

Reuben Hersh has written extensively on mathematics, often from the point of view of a philosopher of science. His book with Philip Davis, The Mathematical Experience, won the National Book Award in science. Hersh is emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of New Mexico.


The book is of interest to everyone who wonders what math really is, whether they are students, teachers, mathematicians, philosophers, or otherwise.


"I view Hersh as a hero: not a perfect idol, but more a real-life hero who through stubborn hard work and prolific writing has made a difference in the types of conversations we are having now about ourselves and the ways we relate to the world. ... [A]s I dove into the book, I found myself fascinated by its riches, and surprised that [it] worked so well. ... I think most readers would agree that the sequencing of the articles actually worked ... many will enjoy getting a complete overview of Hersh's argument. ... I remain enthralled by Hersh's ideas and impressed by his persistent defense of his controversial but significant perspective. I believe the American Mathematical Society has done a service to the mathematical community by putting together this collection. ... Reuben Hersh's collection is full of provocative ideas, offering perspectives on our profession that may help us understand better ourselves and our craft and even to teach our students better. This volume will remain on my easy-to-reach shelf for a long time to come."

-- MAA Reviews

"... I found the author's arguments powerful and compelling, and conveyed with great clarity and concision. ... It is refreshing to occasionally step back and talk about mathematics rather than doing it, and this book provides solid rhetorical ammunition."

-- LMS Newsletter

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