Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being – George Lakoff & Rafael E. Núñez

I don’t know how frequently I have heard people give up on books, specifically difficult ones, because they were not getting anything from them. I think this is the wrong approach. I am reminded of the protagonsit of Sam Delany’s ‘In the valley of the nest of spiders’, who spends the span of the novel (which pretty much covers his whole life, reading and rereading Spinoza’s Ethics. From what I understand, that is the only damn way to read Spinoza. You try, try, try, and try again, and hopefully you walk away with a little more every time.

That was pretty much what was happening, in a slightly modified form, in my Master’s degree program, where my school took several students of completely opposing backgrounds and approached and exposed them to the same material until something stuck. I think it is something of a necessity when you are studying something as abstract as Semiotics. Despite my stupidity, even I came away from that program knowing something about semiotics, and more importantly for this review, cognitive modeling systems (an up-town word for the same thing, which was already an up-town word).

Lakoff and Núñez come right out of the gate and state their position clearly as possible in Where Mathematics Comes From. Mathematical platonism is a silly idea, and mathematics is our brains way metaphorizing the world around us to make sense of it. If you had to phrase it as ‘was mathematics created or discovered,’ this leans towards discovery. I am not sure to what extent I even have the tools to argue for or against what this book brings up, but it for the most part ideas that I largely agree with.

I read this whole damn book in 2012. I don’t recall where it stopped making sense to me. This time I had the good sense to get it down here for posterity (hello 2032 me). I stopped at around page 220. I am, all things considered, satisfied with my progress. The little I know of cognitive science comes from the wee bit of cognitive linguistics I had to study. But between the first reading and the second, I also read Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By, which I knew would ultimately help with this. On the docket sometime soon is Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh.

If you can’t tell, I like Lakoff. I have read some of his poli-sci books as well. He really does go out of his way to write clearly and legibly for his specific wheelhouse. The final caveat is important. This reading isn’t a Dan Brown page turner, but if you have the patience to get through it, you will be rewarded. The important distinction is that while many other academics write in a style that is largely obstruction of comprehansion, Lakoff seems not to.

(For those wondering while all this writing seems to avoid mentioning Núñez, well, just read a few of these damn books. Any book with Lakoff’s signiture on them seem to be written by the same hand, despite the fact that they all have (different) co-authors. I have no idea how Mr. Lakoff and company divide the work, but I have that reason for suspecting that Lakoff may be doing the lion’s share of the writing.)

So what do I think about the conclusions this book seems to draw? They make sense to me. However, I am now in an odd position of looking at my own opinion and having no idea which is the cart and which is the horse, let alone what position they are in. I came across Lakoff from my studies, and his opinions fit nicely into what I studied. My well may have been poisoned to agree with this.

Well, that’s a question for future me. I look forward to rereading this in another decade.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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