Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Technologies of Civilization: Writing, Numbers, and Money


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For the last 5,000 years, civilization has been growing at an exponential rate. The keys to this growth are the technologies of civilization: writing, numbers, and money. These technologies allow the creation of complex societies and enhance human cognition. We will investigate the role of cognition in shaping history and the role of history in shaping cognition. The perspective of the course is global, with an emphasis on the Western tradition and its ancient Greek roots. We will focus on several moments of invention (the alphabet, the abacus, the coin, etc.), but we will put them in a wider context: How does a culture develop tools for processing information? In their class projects, students will develop and present in-depth study of some tools with which contemporary American civilization processes its own information.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Reviel Netz

Reviel Netz is professor of classics and, by courtesy, of philosophy and history. His research ranges from the study of ancient science, where he is considered a leading authority, to diverse fields such as environmental history and poetics. His academic books are The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History (1999); The Transformation of Mathematics in the Early Mediterranean: From Problems to Equations (2004); The Works of Archimedes, vol. I (2004); Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity (2004); The Archimedes Codex (with W. Noel, 2007, a popular account translated into more than 15 languages); Positions of Stress: Essays on Israeli Literature Between Sound and History (in Hebrew, with M. Arad, 2008); Ludic Proof: Greek Mathematics and the Alexandrian Aesthetic (2009); and the Archimedes Palimpsest (2011, with W. Noel et al.). Throughout his research, Professor Netz is engaged with questions such as: What makes things work? Why is mathematics persuasive? Why is poetry moving? The answer to such questions involves both cognition, as well as its historical setting—the combination investigated in this class.