Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

The glass bead game

Posted by alifinmath on April 17, 2009

This is a provisional outline for a post I will flesh out in the fullness of time. I read Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” over thirty years ago and it has been one of my favorite books. I’ve noticed that it’s been also a favorite of quite a few mathematicians who recognise that the fictional ultra-aesthetic game corresponds in some fashion to mathematics, which is also aesthetic and driven in some sense by a romantic, aesthetic, and spiritual involvement with the abstract. Or to put it in a way that might make many mathematicians squirm with embarrassment, inchoate spiritual hankerings find an outlet in mathematics — mathematicians tacitly subscribe to the philosophy that the warp and woof of the cosmos is inherently mathematical, that the deity is fundamentally a mathematician. In this sense mathematics evokes a dedication and fervor that, say, chemistry or geography do not. But I get ahead of myself and the feelings I’ve described above are but a minor and often unconscious part of the outlook of a working mathematician.

I’ve noticed the expression, “glass bead game,” being employed in a couple of places. One was where someone writing about Hegel called the Hegelian structure of knowledge an elaborate glass bead game. Another was where a mathematician writing a high-level expository survey of the math behind the solution of Fermat’s Last Theorem also described Andrew Wiles’ work as a glass bead game. This fictional game is a symbolic intellectual game that unites different areas of human intellectual endeavor — music, philosophy, philology, astronomy, math — into an aesthetic unity. As such it provides a metaphor for much of what occurs in philosophy and math, as both philosophers and mathematicians — in different ways of course — attempt to unite different disciplines, different insights in overarching conceptual syntheses. Indeed, much of theoretical phyics can also be seen as an attempt at such conceptual synthesis. At the back of this is an inchoate demand for spiritual unity in man himself as he insists that knowledge must be one if he as man is to be one. If music and astronomy remain vastly different areas then man hiumself must be fragmented.

Hesse was an icon of the counterculture in the 1960s and books like “Siddhartha” were more or less required reading. “Steppenwolf” and “Narcissus and Goldmund” were also widely read. But “The Glass Bead Game” never achieved the same popularity — it is a more demanding book and considerably more pregnant with philosophical insight. This was the book that won Hesse the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946.

I’ll probably come back and clean this post up a bit, maybe flesh it out some more. At the moment I’m listening to Bach and feel sufficiently inspired to quickly put down what has been on my mind for quite some time about Hesse.


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