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The Natures of Numbers in and Around Roy Wagner

The Natures of Numbers in and Around Roy Wagner

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Published by: Olavo Souza on Sep 21, 2013
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Arch. Hist. Exact Sci. (2010) 64:485–523DOI 10.1007/s00407-010-0062-1
The natures of numbers in and aroundBombelli’s
Roy Wagner
Received: 1 September 2009 / Published online: 8 June 2010© Springer-Verlag 2010
The purpose of this article is to analyse the mathematical practicesleading to Rafael Bombelli’s
(1572). The context for the analysis is theItalian algebra practiced by abbacus masters and Renaissance mathematicians of thefourteenth to sixteenth centuries. We will focus here on the semiotic aspects of alge-braic practices and on the organisation of knowledge. Our purpose is to show howsymbols that stand for underdetermined meanings combine with shifting principles of organisation to change the character of algebra.
1 Introduction
1.1 Scope and methodologyIn the year 1572 Rafael Bombelli’s
came out in print. This book, whichcovers arithmetic, algebra and geometry, is best known for one major feat: the firstrecorded use of roots of negative numbers to find a real solution of a real problem.The purpose of this article is to understand the semiotic processes that enabled thisand other, less ‘heroic’ achievements laid out in Bombelli’s work.
Communicated by Niccolo Guicciardini.Part of the research for this article was conducted whilst visiting Boston University’s Center for thePhilosophy of Science, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the Edelstein Center forthe History, and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine.R. Wagner (
)TheEdelsteinCenterfortheHistoryandPhilosophyofScience,TechnologyandMedicine,TheHebrewUniversity in Jerusalem, Givat Ram, 91904 Jerusalem, Israele-mail: rwagner@mta.ac.il
486 R. Wagner
traditionspanningacrosstwocenturies,fromatimewhere“almostallproblemsthataredoneinthe abbacus way reduce to the rule of three”
to the Renaissance solution of the cubicand quartic equations, and from the abbacus masters, who taught elementary math-ematics to merchant children, through to humanist scholars. My purpose is to trackdown sign practices through vernacular Italian algebra to account for the emergenceof Bombelli’s almost-symbolic algebra.
OneoftheprincipalquestionconcerningabbacusandRenaissancealgebrarevolvesaround the notational changes that culminated in using letters to represent unknownsandparameters,andinadoptingthesuperscriptnumeralnotationforexponents.Thesechanges are recognised ashaving a crucial impact on mathematical development. But,as is argued inHøyrup(2009b), notation did not come in a flash of insight and did not technologically determine a superior mathematical practice. We are therefore leftwiththetaskofexplaininghowtheslowlyemergingalgebraicnotationwaseventuallyadopted and disseminated.Indeed,thehistoryofalgebraicnotationisallbutlinear.Clevernotationswereintro-ducedquiteearlythatdidnotcatchon(e.g.de’Mazzinghi1967latefourteenthcenturymanuscript and Chuquet’s 1484
Triparty en la science des nombres
), and there is noclear correlation between the abstractness of notation and mathematical achievements(e.g.thehighlyevolvedandjustasverboseworkof Cardano1545).Furthermore,somelater authors included algebra only as an independent marginal section of their trea-tises (e.g.Benedetto 1974) whereas some earlier authors subsumed their entire workunder its aegis (e.g.Dardi 2001). So even if we believe today that algebraic notationis a good tool for expressing, processing and organising mathematical knowledge, thechoice between the newer notations and the older rhetorical style was not obvious atthe time.The Algebra introduced in Italy was processed Arabic knowledge. Whilst the stan-dardclaimisthattheimmediatesourceoftheabbacisttraditionisLeonardoFibonacci,Høyrup(2007) has recently argued that it was imported into Italy from a Catalan– Provençal culture, of which we no longer have any manuscript remains. Either way,this does not explain how algebra took root and evolved in the Italian scene. Themost notable existing analyses of the emergence of abbacus and Renaissance algebraincludeHøyrup(2007,2009a) tracking down of the sources and intellectual moti-
toavoidconfusionwiththeabacusasinstrumentof calculation.
“quaxjtutteleragionj,cheperabbachosifanno,siriduconosottolaregholadelletrechoxe”(Paolo1964, 153). In only slightly anachronistic terms, this is the rule that says that if a given quantity yields a second,and in the same ratio an unknown quantity yields a third, then the unknown quantity equals the given timesthe third divided by the second. In more contemporary terms this is the rule that says that if 
is as
In this article I quote from fourteenth century authors Jacopo de Firenze, Maestro Dardi, Paolo dell’Abb-acoandAntonioMazzinghi,andfromfifteenthcenturyauthorsPierodellaFrancescaandMaestroBenedetto(Arrighi,themoderneditorofthelastfourauthors,erroneouslyattributedBenedetto’streatisetoPierMariaCalandri; the error was corrected in Van Egmond’s catalogue(1980)). The authoritative survey of abbacus algebraisstillthatof FranciandRigatelli(1985).AnotherprominentfigureinthisanalysiswillbeGirolamo Cardano, whose
Ars Magna
was the main text that Bombelli sought to clarify.
The natures of numbers 487
vations of abbacus masters;Rose(1975) attribution of mathematical development to the humanist culture;Heeffer(2008,2005) analysis of mathematical developments in terms of rhetorical organisation and of an epistemic shift towards model-basedreasoning related to economic practices;Cifoletti(1995) reconstruction of develop- ments in terms of imposing judicial rhetoric on mathematical texts; and in the fieldof didacticsRadford’s(2003,1997) attempt to connect epistemico-historical analysis with the phenomenology of contemporary classrooms.The analyses cited above shed much light on the emergence of algebra, but leave acrucial aspect of the problem unresearched. This missing aspect is the semiotic pro-cesses that reformed sign practices. When our way of doing mathematics changes, thechangeishardlyeverimmediateandabrupt.Itmostofteninvolvesmicro-levelchangesin the way we operate signs. Whether the cause of mathematical change is epistemicshift, new textual input, new cultural practices, economic activity or the internal logicof signs, change must be enabled and expressed by practical shifts in sign usage thatoccur inside texts. It is the fact that signs are never completely confined to any specificpractice or context—the fact that signs can always be copied or practiced outside thecontextthatissupposedtogovernthem—whichprovidessignswithamotility,which,I believe, is a necessary ‘energetic’ condition for mathematical change.
The analysis of Bombelli’s own practice is in an even poorer state. Bortolotti’s edi-torial work is careful and insightful, but at the same time entirely anachronistic, andunderstands Bombelli as a precursor of modern ring theory. Many accounts follow thewell-known development from Dal Ferro’s solution through Tartaglia, Cardano andFerraritoBombelli’sachievements(mostofteninanachronisticterms),butthepicturetheypaintisusuallythatofalinearprogressfollowedbyaleapoffaiththatisrequiredin order to endorse roots of negative numbers. Relating this leap of faith or develop-ment to its conditions of possibility, which trace back to abbacus algebra, is, however,something that is not dealt with in contemporary literature. The one exposition I knowof that takes a more detail-sensitive, non-anachronistic look at this development isLa Nave and Mazur(2002) (some other aspects of Bombelli’s algebraic practice are studied in the context of the immediately preceding evolution byRivolo and Simi1998; for a discussion of Bombelli’s geometric algebra seeGiusti 1992andWagner (forthcoming)).In this article, therefore, rather than trace concepts, I will follow sign manipula-tions. I will show that at the micro-level the emergence of Renaissance algebra isnot about rigid cognitive distinctions or a grand historical narrative. I will show thatRenaissancealgebradependsonaslowerosionofdistinctionsbetweenkindsofmath-ematicalsigns,ontheimportofsignpracticesfromeconomyintothearithmeticworld,andonanon-linearemergenceandrepressionofpracticesthatallowtranscribingsomesignsbyothersigns.Thisapproachshiftsthefocusfromlarge,vagueconceptualques-tions such as ‘how did algebra come to be’ to a tractable concern with following the
I do not include here a presentation of my philosophical framework; I have done this elsewhere(Wagner2009a,b,2010) and will return to it in future texts. Other approaches that can serve as philosophical back- groundtothisprojectrangefromthephenomenological/poststructuralnotionofwritinginHusserl’s
as reconstructed byDerrida(1989)all theway to Emily Grosholz’(2007)analyticunderstand- ing of mathematics’ productive ambiguities and ‘paper tools’.

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