Breaking New Ground

Burt Hopkins' best-selling book provides new context on philosophy and history of mathematics

Story by: Mike Thee
Published: 2012-04-20

When Burt Hopkins was looking to publish his recent book, one university press told him it wouldn't sell unless he chopped about a fourth of the text. "The wisdom now is that you don't publish big books," says Hopkins, professor and chair of philosophy. "Most are 300 pages or under."

Yet Hopkins didn't see cutting all that content as an option, and he eventually found a publisher that was willing to print the book in its full, 600-page glory. As it turns out, the book has done pretty well. So well, in fact, that it made YBP Library Services' 2011 list of best sellers in mathematics, coming in at number 17.  

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Professor Hopkins, right, confers with Professor Algis Mickūnas of Ohio University during an international conference this March at Mykolas Romeris University in Lithuania.

Published by Indiana University Press, The Origin of the Logic of Symbolic Mathematics: Edmund Husserl and Jacob Klein was 10 years in the making. Hopkins explains its fundamental premise by first harking back to Plato and Aristotle, who disputed over the true nature of numbers and mathematical forms. Twentieth-century philosophers Husserl and Klein came along and each in his own way argued that the logic of modern symbolic mathematics is informed by its historical origin. What Hopkins' book provides, in a nutshell, is an account of the historical transformation of the most basic concepts of mathematics.  

As further proof that teaching and scholarship are inextricably linked at Seattle University, Hopkins says the project grew out of his experience teaching courses in the Core Curriculum, which he also directed from 1998 to 2005. He also credits the opportunity to do research as Pigott-McCone Chair as well as his liberal arts education as being essential to writing the book. "To do this kind of research, you need to approach it from many disciplines. A liberal arts education teaches you to examine presuppositions, and most valuable of all, to learn how to learn."

Hopkins has been on quite a roll of late. In addition to his best-selling book on mathematics, he also won the 2011 Ballard Book Prize in Phenomenology for his other recent book, Philosophy of Husserl. He is already contemplating his next scholarly endeavor. With a nod toward Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, he plans to further explore "how the presuppositions (of our modern-day understanding of mathematics) emerged and the limit on what these concepts can disclose about the essence of a human being."


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