Authors Meet Critics: Massimo Mazzotti, “Reactionary Mathematics: A Genealogy of Purity”

Part of the Authors Meet Critics Series

Please join us in person on October 17, 2023 at 3:30pm for an Authors Meet Critics panel on the book Reactionary Mathematics: A Genealogy of Purity, by Massimo Mazzotti, Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of History and the Thomas M. Siebel Presidential Chair in the History of Science. Professor Mazzotti will be joined in conversation by Matthew L. Jones, the Smith Family Professor of History at Princeton University, and David Bates, Professor of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley. Thomas Laqueur, the Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley, will moderate.

The Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” book series features lively discussions about recently published books authored by social scientists at UC Berkeley. For each event, the author discusses the key arguments of their book with fellow scholars. These events are free and open to the public.

This event will be co-sponsored by the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, & Society and the UC Berkeley Department of History.


If you require an accommodation for effective communication (ASL interpreting/CART captioning, alternative media formats, etc.) or information about campus mobility access features in order to fully participate in this event, please contact Chuck Kapelke at with as much advance notice as possible and at least 7-10 days in advance of the event.

About the Book

A forgotten episode of mathematical resistance reveals the rise of modern mathematics and its cornerstone, mathematical purity, as political phenomena.

The nineteenth century opened with a major shift in European mathematics, and in the Kingdom of Naples, this occurred earlier than elsewhere. Between 1790 and 1830 its leading scientific institutions rejected as untrustworthy the “very modern mathematics” of French analysis and in its place consolidated, legitimated, and put to work a different mathematical culture. The Neapolitan mathematical resistance was a complete reorientation of mathematical practice. Over the unrestricted manipulation and application of algebraic algorithms, Neapolitan mathematicians called for a return to Greek-style geometry and the preeminence of pure mathematics.

For all their apparent backwardness, Massimo Mazzotti explains, they were arguing for what would become crucial features of modern mathematics: its voluntary restriction through a new kind of rigor and discipline, and the complete disconnection of mathematical truth from the empirical world—in other words, its purity. The Neapolitans, Mazzotti argues, were reacting to the widespread use of mathematical analysis in social and political arguments: theirs was a reactionary mathematics that aimed to technically refute the revolutionary mathematics of the Jacobins. During the Restoration, the expert groups in the service of the modern administrative state reaffirmed the role of pure mathematics as the foundation of a newly rigorous mathematics, which was now conceived as a neutral tool for modernization. What Mazzotti’s penetrating history shows us in vivid detail is that producing mathematical knowledge was equally about producing certain forms of social, political, and economic order.


Massimo MazzottiMassimo Mazzotti is a professor in the Department of History at UC Berkeley, where he holds the Thomas M. Siebel Presidential Chair in the History of Science. His research focuses on the history and sociology of mathematics and technology. He has recently co-edited Algorithmic Modernity: Mechanizing Thought and Action 1500-2000. Between 2013 and 2023, he served as director of the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, & Society (CSTMS).

Matthew L. JonesMatthew L. Jones is the Smith Family Professor of History at Princeton University. He focuses on the history of recent information technologies and intelligence as well as the history of science and technology in early modern Europe. Along with Chris Wiggins, he is the author of How Data Happened, a history of the science, politics, and power of data, statistics, and machine learning from the 1800s to the present (W. W. Norton, 2023). He has published two books previously, The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz and the Cultivation of Virtue and Reckoning with Matter: Calculating, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage (both with Chicago). He has received fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, and is currently a CIFAR fellow in the Future Flourishing project.


Dvid BatesDavid Bates is a Professor of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley. His work examines the history of legal and political ideas, and the relationship between technology, science, and the history of human cognition. His books include Enlightenment Aberrations: Error and Revolution in France, and States of War: Enlightenment Origins of the Political. He is currently completing a book, An Artificial History of Natural Intelligence, that probes the emergence of human thinking as an entanglement of machine technologies, somatic processes, media practices, and social/political organization.


Thomas LaqueurThomas Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley. His work has been focused on the history of popular religion and literacy; on the history of  the body— alive and dead; and on the history of death and memory. He writes regularly for the London Review of Books and the Threepenny Review, among other journals and is a founding editor of Representations. Laqueur is a member of both the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His most recent book is The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton 2016). He is working on a book called “The Dog’s Gaze in Western Art” to be published by Penguin next year.


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