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Algebraic ArtMathematical Formalism and Victorian Culture$
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Andrea Henderson

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780198809982

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198809982.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Algebraic Art

Andrea Henderson

Oxford University Press

Victorian England witnessed a reconception of mathematics as a formal rather than a referential practice—as a means for describing relationships rather than quantities. The value of a mathematical claim lay not in its capacity to describe the world but its internal coherence. Victorian mathematics thus contributed to the development of liberal capitalism by justifying abstraction: liberals proclaimed that formal consistency was the foundation of a rational, equitable order, and marginalist economists insisted that value was not inherent but relational, and made economics a branch of mathematics. Marx, meanwhile, profited from the insights of mathematical formalism even as he resisted its mystification. In its privileging of formal relationships Victorian mathematics redefined all fields around it, even redefining Kantian formalism such that mathematics and art came to share the same virtues: they couldn’t claim to offer truths about the world itself but they insisted that they told a deeper, formal truth.

Keywords:   Marxism, Victorian liberalism, marginalist economics, structural objectivity, formalism, Kantian formalism, Victorian mathematics, abstraction, Victorian aesthetics

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