The economist Paul Samuelson acknowledged that he was a disciple of Edwin Bidwell Wilson (1879–1964), an American polymath who was a protégé of Josiah Willard Gibbs. Wilson’s influence on the development of sciences in America has been relatively neglected, as he mostly acted behind the scenes of academia at the organizational and pedagogical fronts. At the basis of his activism were original ideas about the foundations of mathematics and science. This essay reconstructs Wilson’s career and foun…

Read moreThe economist Paul Samuelson acknowledged that he was a disciple of Edwin Bidwell Wilson (1879–1964), an American polymath who was a protégé of Josiah Willard Gibbs. Wilson’s influence on the development of sciences in America has been relatively neglected, as he mostly acted behind the scenes of academia at the organizational and pedagogical fronts. At the basis of his activism were original ideas about the foundations of mathematics and science. This essay reconstructs Wilson’s career and foundational discussions, which evolved as he reacted to David Hilbert’s mathematics, Bertrand Russell’s logic, Henri Poincaré’s conventionalism, Karl Pearson’s statistics, Charles Sanders Peirce’s inference theory, and Lawrence Henderson’s work in social sciences. In brief, after having started his professional life as a mathematician at Yale University (1902–1907), Wilson marginalized himself from mathematics and joined other academic communities and fields, working in mathematical physics at MIT (1907–1922) and in statistics, social science, and economics at Harvard University (1922–retirement). He defined mathematics as a language, meaning by this that mathematics and science were reciprocally indispensable, with the former providing structure and the latter meaning. In an American exceptionalist spirit, Wilson also meant to suggest that homegrown mathematical and scientific traditions should prevail over European ones.