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This article is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

'Parabolas of love': Poetry and the Philosophy of Mathematics
Great Circles: The Transits of Mathematics and Poetry by Emily Rolfe Grosholz (Springer), €34
Andrew Wynn Owen

Great Circles is remarkable for its compound accomplishment, fusing knowledge of poetry, mathematics, and philosophy, and putting forward persuasive arguments about connections between poetry and mathematics. Some connections refer to shared foundational interests in ontology. Some refer to parts of the subject matter of poetry, and indeed of our general understanding of the world, that are subjects of mathematical investigation (e.g. the infinite, circles, fractals, particularly as they participate in cosmology). The book is also peppered with excerpts from Grosholz’s remarkable poetical works. These interludes movingly explore the kinds of feelings (wonder, perplexity, joy, etc.) that the ideas prompt. I will attempt some summary, then add a few thoughts.


Part I, ‘A Life in Mathematics and Poetry’, which includes Chapters 1–4 (‘The House of Childhood’, ‘Music and Hyperspace’, ‘Great Books’, ‘Home, Cambridge, Paris: A Family’), contains moving oscillation between subjective reminiscence and objective knowledge, a juxtaposition that will be of interest again in the book’s coda. There is discussion of the use of ambiguity in poetry; how ambiguity can give rise to mathematical discovery; how a sphere can be everted. A section on Ernst Cassirer leads to reflections on myth: ‘Cassirer concludes that philosophy’s task is not to eliminate myth but to understand it, locating it within the whole (rich, plural, unstable) system of culture’ (48). Cassirer believed in ‘the objectivity of the artistic imagination’ (45). His work is important for its emphasis on many-sided awareness, ‘Opposing the tendency to elevate a single kind of symbolic form and deny legitimacy to others’: ‘the ...


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