Mathematics in Britain

From the music critic of The Times, writing in 1952 (issue of 2 May 1952, page 8, column 6, review of The Background of Music, by H. Lowery, published in 1952 by Hutchinson):

At Redbrick [University] they treat mathematics as an instrument of technology; at Cambridge they regard it as an ally of physics and an approach to philosophy; at Oxford they think of it as an art in itself having affinities with counterpoint and dancing.”

Quoted (incorrectly) by Ida Winifred Busbridge, in a 1974 history of mathematics at Oxford University, here. (Note that Busbridge writes “music” instead of “counterpoint”.)
Oxford University was a strong supporter of Catholicism in Elizabeth I’s time (eg, it was home to Thomas Campion), while Cambridge and the Fens, due to their proximity to the Netherlands, was the centre for an extreme Protestant sect, called the Family of Love, or the Familists.    Elizabeth I’s religious policy often sought to find a middle ground between these two extremes.   These religious differences persisted, so that Oxford was again, in the mid 19th-century, a centre of Catholic, and, within the Anglican Church, Anglo-Catholic (“High Church”) ideas.   The Redbrick Universities (Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Victoria University of Manchester, etc), mostly founded in the North and Midlands of England in the late 19th century or early 20th century, were the result of money-raising campaigns by local business people and civic worthies, who were often of a Nonconformist or Jewish religious background.   The name Redbrick arose from novels written by a professor of Spanish at the University of Liverpool, Edgar Peers, about a fictional northern university modeled on Liverpool.

I don’t think the distinct differences between Nonconformist, Protestant and Catholic world views could be better expressed than those here between the philosophies of mathematics of Redbrick, Cambridge and Oxford:   Nonconformism as pragmatic utilitarianism; Protestantism as serious reflection on life’s higher ends; and Catholicism as enjoyment of life and its pleasures!

0 Responses to “Mathematics in Britain”

Comments are currently closed.