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Visionary Calculations: Inventing the Mathematical Economy in Nineteenth-Century America


This dissertation argues that nineteenth-century Americans built the preconditions needed for a mathematical economy to emerge in the early twentieth century. When Americans debated what kinds of mathematics should be used in business, and how, and by who, they also debated how to understand economic life. Antebellum Americans defined mathematics by its masculine utility, and its apparent ability to bring economic order and agency to a democratic economy. The central appeal of this understanding of mathematics lay in its apparent ability to bridge the intuitive reasoning of an independent citizen with objective rules of commercial engagement, ones that “market society” seemed to otherwise lack. This vision of mathematical reasoning left a key question unanswered: who decided what mathematics to use in economic life? In response, new experts emerged, a “numerate elite” of mathematically educated men who consolidated a particular vision of economic expertise. Numerate elites professed to hold states and corporations accountable to objective rules, then used their own expert reasoning to create new economic realities. As they became skeptical of the public’s ability to understand their reasoning, they began to privatize their methods, models, and knowledge. Ultimately, the invention of specific mathematical business practices created new economic systems and established the necessity of mathematical expertise in managing these systems. At the end of the century, emergent “economists” insisted that individuals were constantly calculating, meaning their behavior could be modeled. By erasing a century of debate, economists alienated the mathematical economy from its historical foundations. The mathematical economy thus universalized a historically specific form of mathematical-commercial expertise, one formed by contests over political ideology, economic culture, business practices, and social difference, particularly gender.
Thesis (Ph. D.)--Brown University, 2018

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Knecht, Rachel, "Visionary Calculations: Inventing the Mathematical Economy in Nineteenth-Century America" (2018). History Theses and Dissertations. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.