Science in Context

Article

The Withering Immortality of Nicolas Bourbaki: A Cultural Connector at the Confluence of Mathematics, Structuralism, and the Oulipo in France

David Aubina1

a1 Centre de Recherche en Histoire des Science et des Techniques (CHRST) Cité des Sciences et de l' Industrie, Paris

The Argument

The group of mathematicians known as Bourbaki persuasively proclaimed the isolation of its field of research — pure mathematics — from society and science. It may therefore seem paradoxical that links with larger French cultural movements, especially structuralism and potential literature, are easy to establish. Rather than arguing that the latter were a consequence of the former, which they were not, I show that all of these cultural movements, including the Bourbakist endeavor, emerged together, each strengthening the public appeal of the others through constant, albeit often superficial, interaction. This codependency is partly responsible for their success and moreover accounts for their simultaneous fall from favor, which, however, can clearly be seen as also stemming from different internal problems. To understand this dynamics, I argue that Bourbaki's role can best be captured by using the notion of cultural connector, which I introduce here.