Assistant Professor of History, Columbia University; zzt. The American Academy in Berlin
An often unacknowledged aspect of American intellectual thought at midcentury has been the influence of axiomatic thinking. This talk will chronicle how in the postwar period axiomatic analysis moved from mathematics into the social sciences and in the process redefined the meaning of theoretical knowledge. Axiomatics fostered a belief that theories do not emerge from first principles and that analytic coherence precedes empirical verification. It emphasized structural analysis and propagated the ideal of an economy of thought. Most fundamentally, it helped define what a social scientific theory is. As Steingart will show, by the 1970s the association between axiomatics and theoretical knowledge was so strong that it was also evident in the work of architects and designers.
Alma Steingart, an assistant professor in the Department of History at Columbia University, researches the interplay between American politics and mathematical rationalities. Professor Steingart’s current project on Accountable Democracy examines how mathematical thought and computing technologies have impacted electoral politics in the United States in the twentieth century. Her first book, Axiomatics: Mathematical Thought and High Modernism, is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press (January 2023). Before joining Columbia University, Steingart was a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows and a predoctoral fellow of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. She earned her PhD in 2013 in the Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Steingart’s work has appeared in Social Studies of Science, Grey Room, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her work is supported by a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.