On humanities papers and mathematical naivety.

I just finished reading What does a mathematical proof prove?, a (supposedly) classic in philosophy of math by Imre Lakatos and it confirmed what I feared was happening: I can no longer bear any humanities paper.

Everything[0] you read typically has a 10x multiplier on words, and usually boils down to one/two interesting perspectives on the topic, a lot of ill-motivated arbitrary assumptions/opinions and zingers to other colleagues or thesis. Authors seem more worried about convincing you of their competence and authoritativeness than to actually expose their ideas in an honest, concise manner. Eventually they sound artificial and shady.

Let’s address this immediately: I’m not saying humanities are BS, and I’m not saying people writing about it (humans?) are impostors. Most importantly, I’m not saying those reads are uninteresting or devoid of meaning and novel ideas. Quite the opposite! Lakatos work is very interesting, but it’s nicely summarized in its Wikipedia page. Reading the paper, which is not even the complete work, turns out to be just a very inefficient way to learn about his ideas.

Call me an hopeless mathematician, but the inherent honesty of the mathematical (but I could probably say ‘scientifical’ as well) prose is very distinctive, and I’m especially compassing non-technical expositions here. The remark on non-technicality is mandatory because proper (peer-reviewed) mathematical papers obviously feature strict formality. Yet this formality, which I’d rather call naivety, is vastly present also in less technical writings. Even in somewhat ‘biased’ expositions, I’ve never found authors boasting about their great understanding of the topic instead of actually bringing the ideas to the reader.

This attitude is very probably a side-effect of the mathematical mindset itself. After all, proofs[1] are just a way to explain facts to people, thus we could call them an incredible honest and naïve form of communication[2].


[0] Usual ‘false generality’ warning here: read as ‘>90% of’.

[1] Or better, what Lakatos would call pre-formal proofs.

[2] Actually, the most honest possible: every mathematical fact is inherently true, while usually philosophy is true up to interpretation.

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