René Descartes on the History of Mathematics

René Descartes wrote the following in a letter responding to having read John Pell's Idea of Mathematics:


I distinguish between the History and the Science of Mathematics. By the History I mean all that has already been discovered and contained in books; by Science, the skill of resolving all questions and thence of investigating on ones own whatever may be discovered in that Science by human ingenuity. Whoever possesses this faculty has little need of other assistance and can properly be called self-sufficient. ... now it is very desirable that this mathematical history, now scattered in many volumes and still incomplete, should be collected in one book, and so eliminate the need to seek or purchase many books. Since authors transcribe many things from one author, anything extant could be found in any moderately equipped library. Diligence in collecting all things is not so important as the judgement to reject the superfluous and the ability to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. ... If such a book were available it would be easy for anyone to learn all mathematical history, and much of the science also.


JOC/EFR November 2014

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