Université de Strasbourg

Fellows Seminar - Literature and mathematics in early modernity: Hamlet, Pascal, and the interrupted game

March 16, 2023
From 12:30 until 14:00
MISHA, Strasbourg

Image - Dorothe - Pixabay

By Shankar Raman, 2022 Fellow

This talk is divided into two main parts. It will begin by laying out my broader project: the often-surprising connections between mathematics and literature in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Long before science was a profession, early modern mathematical concepts evolved in contexts not narrowly scientific. Truly to understand their scope, we must relate them to other areas of cultural expression. Literature in particular addressed issues equally vital to the burgeoning sciences of quantification: calculability, contingency, and the rationality of belief in an uncertain world.

The second part of this talk offers a brief case study focused on the emergence of mathematical probability in the 17th century through Pascal and Fermat’s discussion of how to apportion stakes in a game that is interrupted before its conclusion. The interrupted game is a mathematical problem with an illustrious history and I suggest the distinctive turn that Pascal gives to its solution expresses a new epistemological attitude with regard to the future and its knowability, an attitude whose lineaments can be glimpsed not just in the sciences of the period but are in some measure sketched out in literary texts such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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