Nicolas Bourbaki

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Nicolas Bourbaki
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{{About|the group of mathematicians named Nicolas Bourbaki|the family of French officers named Bourbaki|Bourbaki family (disambiguation)|the computer scientist|Nikolaos Bourbakis }}{{pp-protected|small=yes}}{{Partisan sources|date=October 2018}}

| membership = Confidentialweblink}}| predecessor = | native_name = Association des collaborateurs de Nicolas Bourbaki| formerly = Groupe Bourbaki| image = Bourbaki congress1938.png| caption = Bourbaki congress at Dieulefit on 1938. From left, Simone Weil, Charles Pisot, André Weil, Jean Dieudonné (sitting), Claude Chabauty, Charles Ehresmann, and Jean Delsarte.}}Nicolas Bourbaki ({{IPA-fr|nikɔla buʁbaki}}) is the collective pseudonym of a group of (mainly French) mathematicians. Their aim is to reformulate mathematics on an extremely abstract and formal but self-contained basis in a series of books beginning in 1935. With the goal of grounding all of mathematics on set theory, the group strives for rigour and generality. Their work led to the discovery of several concepts and terminologies still used, and influenced modern branches of mathematics.While there is no one person named Nicolas Bourbaki, the Bourbaki group, officially known as the Association des collaborateurs de Nicolas Bourbaki (Association of Collaborators of Nicolas Bourbaki), has an office at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

The group

missing image!
- Weil.jpg -
André Weil, de facto early leader of the group
In 1934, young French mathematicians from various French universities felt the need to form a group to jointly produce textbooks that they could all use for teaching. André Weil organized the first meeting on 10 December 1934 in the basement of a Parisian grill room, while all participants were attending a conference in Paris.Accounts of the early days vary, but original documents have now come to light. The founding members were all connected to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and included Henri Cartan, Claude Chevalley, Jean Coulomb, Jean Delsarte, Jean Dieudonné, Charles Ehresmann, René de Possel, Szolem Mandelbrojt and André Weil. There was a preliminary meeting, towards the end of 1934.The minutes are in the Bourbaki archives — for a full description of the initial meeting consult Liliane Beaulieu in the Mathematical Intelligencer. Jean Leray and Paul Dubreil were present at the preliminary meeting but dropped out before the group actually formed. Other notable participants in later days were Hyman Bass, Laurent Schwartz, Jean-Pierre Serre, Alexander Grothendieck, Jean-Louis Koszul, Samuel Eilenberg, Serge Lang and Roger Godement.The original goal of the group had been to compile an improved mathematical analysis text; it was soon decided that a more comprehensive treatment of all of mathematics was necessary. There was no official status of membership, and at the time the group was quite secretive and also fond of supplying disinformation. Regular meetings were scheduled (totalling about 4 weeks a year), during which the group would discuss vigorously every proposed line of every book. Members had to resign by age 50, which allegedly resulted in a complete change of personnel by 1958.WEB,weblink Le Mouvement Bourbaki, Mainard, Robert, October 21, 2001,, October 29, 2018, However, historian Liliane Beaulieu was quoted as never having found written affirmation of this rule.JOURNAL, Aubin, David, 1997, The Withering Immortality of Nicolas Bourbaki: A Cultural Connector at the Confluence of Mathematics, Structuralism, and the Oulipo in France,weblink Science in Context, Cambridge University Press, 10, 2, 297–342, 10.1017/S0269889700002660, The atmosphere in the group can be illustrated by an anecdote told by Laurent Schwartz. Dieudonné regularly and spectacularly threatened to resign unless topics were treated in their logical order, and after a while others played on this for a joke. Godement's wife wanted to see Dieudonné announcing his resignation, and so on one occasion while she was there Schwartz deliberately brought up again the question of permuting the order in which measure theory and topological vector spaces were to be handled, to precipitate a guaranteed crisis.{{Citation needed|date=October 2018}}The name "Bourbaki" refers to a French general, Charles Denis Bourbaki;BOOK, The Apprenticeship of a Mathematician, Weil, André, Birkhäuser Verlag, 1992, 978-3764326500, 93–122, André Weil, it was adopted by the group as a reference to a student anecdote about a hoax mathematical lecture, and also possibly to a statue. It is said that Weil's wife Evelyne supplied Nicolas.WEB,weblink Bourbaki and Algebraic Topology, McCleary, John, December 10, 2004,,weblink" title="">weblink October 30, 2006, This is more or less confirmed by Robert Mainard.


The Bourbaki group released a few humorous hoaxes related to the fake life of Nicolas Bourbaki. For example, the group released a wedding announcement, relating the marriage of Betti Bourbaki (daughter of Nicolas) with a certain Hector Pétard (Hector Firecrackers in English). In November 1968, a mock obituary of Nicolas Bourbaki was released during one of the seminars, containing a few mathematical puns.WEB,weblink according to Groth. IV.22, 2018-10-24, The group is however still active as of 2018, organizing seminarsWEB,weblink Association des collaborateurs de Nicolas Bourbaki,, fr, 2018-10-29, and having released a book in 2016.

Books by Bourbaki

File:Bourbaki, Theorie des ensembles maitrier.jpg|thumb|First volume of Éléments de mathématiqueÉléments de mathématiqueBourbaki's main work is the Elements of Mathematics (Éléments de mathématique) series. This series aims to be a completely self-contained treatment of the core areas of modern mathematics. Assuming no special knowledge of mathematics, it takes up mathematics from the very beginning, proceeds axiomatically and gives complete proofs.The dates indicated below are for the first edition of the first chapter of each book. Most of the books were reedited several times (with significant changes between editions), and the books were released in several parts containing different chapters (e.g. Book II, Algebra, was released in five parts, the first in 1942 with chapters 1, 2, and 3, and the last in 1980 containing chapter 10).
  • BOOK, Livre I: Théorie des ensembles, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1939, French, Book I: Set theory, JOURNAL, Bagemihl, F., Frederick Bagemihl, Review: Théorie des ensembles (Chapter III), Bull. Amer. Math. Soc., 1958, 64, 6, 390–391,weblink 10.1090/s0002-9904-1958-10248-7,
  • BOOK, Livre II: Algèbre, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1942, French, Book II: Algebra, JOURNAL, Artin, E., Emil Artin, Review: Éléments de mathématique, by N. Bourbaki, Book II, Algebra, Chaps. I–VII, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc., 1953, 59, 5, 474–479,weblink 10.1090/s0002-9904-1953-09725-7, JOURNAL, Rosenberg, Alex, Alex F. T. W. Rosenberg, Review: Éléments de mathématiques by N. Bourbaki. Book II, Algèbre. Chapter VIII, Modules et anneaux semi-simples, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc., 1960, 66, 1, 16–19,weblink 10.1090/S0002-9904-1960-10371-0, JOURNAL, Kaplansky, Irving, Irving Kaplansky, Review: Formes sesquilinéairies et formes quadratiques by N. Bourbaki, Éléments de mathématique I, Livre II, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc., 1960, 66, 4, 266–267,weblink 10.1090/s0002-9904-1960-10461-2,
  • BOOK, Livre III: Topologie, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1940, French, Book III: Topology,
  • BOOK, Livre IV: Fonctions d'une variable réelle, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1949, French, Book IV: real analysis, Functions of one real variable,
  • BOOK, Livre V: Espaces vectoriels topologiques, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1953, French, Book V: Topological vector spaces,
  • BOOK, Livre VI: Intégration, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1952, French, Book VI: Integral, Integration, JOURNAL, Halmos, Paul, Paul Halmos, Review: Intégration (Chap. I-IV) by N. Bourbaki, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc., 1953, 59, 3, 249–255,weblink 10.1090/S0002-9904-1953-09698-7, JOURNAL, Munroe, M. E., Review: Intégration (Chapter V) by N. Bourbaki, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc., 1958, 64, 3, 105–106,weblink 10.1090/s0002-9904-1958-10176-7,
  • BOOK, Livre VII: Algèbre commutative, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1961, French, Book VII: Commutative algebra, JOURNAL, Nagata, M., Masayoshi Nagata, Éléments de mathématique. Algèbre commutative, by N. Bourbaki, Chapitres 8 et 9, Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. (N.S.), 1985, 12, 1, 175–177,weblink 10.1090/s0273-0979-1985-15338-8,
  • BOOK, Livre VIII: Groupes et algèbres de Lie, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1960, French, Book VIII: Lie groups and Lie algebra, algebras,
  • BOOK, Livre IX: Théories spectrales, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1967, French, Book IX: Spectral theory,
  • BOOK, Livre X: Variétés différentielles et analytiques, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 1967, French, Book X: Differentiable manifold, Differentiable and analytic manifolds,
  • BOOK, Livre XI: Topologie algébrique, Bourbaki, Nicolas, 2016, French, Book XI: Algebraic topology, WEB,weblink Topologie Algébrique, Chapitres 1 à 4, Bourbaki, Nicolas,, Springer, 2016-02-08,
The book Variétés différentielles et analytiques was a fascicule de résultats, that is, a summary of results, on the theory of manifolds, rather than a worked-out exposition. The (still incomplete) volume on spectral theory (Théories spectrales) from 1967 was for almost four decades the last new book to be added to the series. After that several new chapters to existing books as well as revised editions of existing chapters appeared until the publication of chapters 8 and 9 of Commutative Algebra in 1983. A long break in publishing activity followed, leading many to suspect the end of the publishing project. However, chapter 10 of Commutative Algebra appeared in 1998, and after another long break a completely re-written and expanded chapter 8 of Algèbre was published in 2012. More importantly, the first four chapters of a completely new book on algebraic topology were published in 2016. The new material from 2012 and 2014 address some references to forthcoming books in the book on Lie Groups and Algebras; there remain other such references (some very precise) to expected additional chapters of the book spectral theory.Besides the Éléments de mathématique series, lectures from the Séminaire Bourbaki also have been periodically published in monograph form since 1948.

Influence on mathematics in general

{{see also|Structuralism (philosophy of mathematics)}}Notations introduced by Bourbaki include the symbol varnothing for the empty set and a dangerous bend symbol ☡, and the terms injective, surjective, and bijective.{{citation needed|date=December 2011}}The emphasis on rigour may be seen as a reaction to the work of Henri Poincaré,Bourbaki came to terms with Poincaré only after a long struggle. When I joined the group in the fifties it was not the fashion to value Poincaré at all. He was old-fashioned. Pierre Cartier interviewed by Marjorie Senechall. JOURNAL, The Continuing Silence of Bourbaki, Mathematical Intelligencer, 1998, 19, 22–28, weblink who stressed the importance of free-flowing mathematical intuition, at a cost of completeness in presentation. The impact of Bourbaki's work initially was great on many active research mathematicians worldwide. For example:It provoked some hostility, too, mostly on the side of classical analysts; they approved of rigour but not of high abstraction. Around 1950, also, some parts of geometry were still not fully axiomatic — in less prominent developments, one way or another, these were brought into line with the new foundational standards, or quietly dropped. This led to a gulf with the way theoretical physics was practiced.JOURNAL, Stewart, Ian, Bye-Bye Bourbaki: Paradigm Shifts in Mathematics, The Mathematical Gazette, November 1995, 79, 496–498, The Mathematical Association, 10.2307/3618076, 486, 3618076, Bourbaki's direct influence has decreased over time. This is partly because certain concepts which are now important, such as the machinery of category theory, are not covered in the treatise. {{Citation needed|date=January 2014}} The completely uniform and essentially linear referential structure of the books became difficult to apply to areas closer to current research than the already mature ones treated in the published books, and thus publishing activity diminished significantly from the 1970s.JOURNAL, Borel, Armand, March 1998, Twenty-Five Years with Nicolas Bourbaki, (1949-1973),weblink Notices Amer. Math. Soc., 45, 3, 373–380, It also mattered that, while especially algebraic structures can be naturally defined in Bourbaki's terms, there are areas where the Bourbaki approach was less straightforward to apply.{{Citation needed|date=March 2009}}On the other hand, the approach and rigour advocated by Bourbaki have permeated the current mathematical practices to such extent that the task undertaken was completed.JOURNAL, Guedj, Denis, 1985, Nicholas Bourbaki, collective mathematician : An interview with Claude Chevalley, Math. Intelligencer, 7, 2, 18–22, 10.1007/BF03024169, This is particularly true for the less applied parts of mathematics.The Bourbaki seminar series founded in post-WWII Paris continues; it has been going on since 1948, and contains more than 1000 items. It is an important source of survey articles, with sketches (or sometimes improvements) of proofs. The topics range through all branches of mathematics, including sometimes theoretical physics. The idea is that the presentation should be on the level of specialists, but should be tailored to an audience which is not specialized in the particular field.

Appraisal of the Bourbaki perspective

The underlying drive, in Weil and Chevalley at least, was the perceived need for French mathematics to absorb the best ideas of the Göttingen school, particularly Hilbert and the modern algebra school of Noether, Artin and van der Waerden. It is fairly clear that the Bourbaki point of view, while encyclopedic, was never intended as neutral. Quite the opposite: it was more a question of trying to make a consistent whole out of some enthusiasms, for example for Hilbert's legacy, with emphasis on formalism and axiomatics. But always through a transforming process of reception and selection—their ability to sustain this collective, critical approach has been described as "something unusual".Hector C. Sabelli, Louis H. Kauffman, BIOS (2005), p. 423.The following is a list of some of the criticisms commonly made of the Bourbaki approach. Pierre Cartier, a Bourbaki member between 1955 and 1983, said that:WEB,weblink The Continuing Silence of Bourbaki,, 2018-10-29, In addition, algorithms are considered off-topic and almost completely omitted.WEB,weblink Bourbaki Nicolas,, 2018-10-29, Analysis is treated 'softly', without 'hard' estimates.{{Clarify|reason=|date=October 2018}}WEB,weblink Interview with Lennart Carleson, Carleson, Lennart, Lennart Carleson, August 2006,,weblink" title="">weblink 2007-09-28, Measure theory is developed from a functional analytic perspective. Taking the case of locally compact measure spaces as fundamental focuses the presentation on Radon measures and leads to an approach to measurable functions that is cumbersome, especially from the viewpoint of probability theory.WEB,weblink Stochastic Processes on the Basis of New Measure Theory, König, Heinz,,weblink" title="">weblink 2007-03-04, However, the last chapter of the book addresses limitations, especially for use in probability theory, of the restriction to locally compact spaces. Logic is treated minimally.WEB,weblink The Ignorance of Bourbaki, Mathias, Adrien, August 22, 1990,, See also Mashaal (2006), p.120, "Lack of interest in foundations".Furthermore, Bourbaki makes only limited use of pictures in their presentation. Pierre Cartier is quoted as later saying: "The Bourbaki were Puritans, and Puritans are strongly opposed to pictorial representations of truths of their faith." In general, Bourbaki has been criticized for reducing geometry as a whole to abstract algebra and soft analysis.WEB,weblink Pourquoi, pour qui enseigner les mathématiques ?, Gispert, Hélène, 2000,, French, Why, for whom, teach mathematics?, 2018-10-29, While several of Bourbaki's books have become standard references in their fields, some have felt that the austere presentation makes them unsuitable as textbooks.JOURNAL, Hewitt, Edwin, 1956, Review: Espaces vectoriels topologiques, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, 62, 5, 507–508, 10.1090/S0002-9904-1956-10042-6, weblink The books' influence may have been at its strongest when few other graduate-level texts in current pure mathematics were available, between 1950 and 1960weblink the longer term, the manifesto of Bourbaki has had a definite and deep influence. In secondary education the new math movement corresponded to teachers influenced by Bourbaki. In France the change was secured by the Lichnerowicz Commission.Mashaal (2006) Ch.10: New Math in the Classroom

Dieudonné as speaker for Bourbaki

{{More citations needed section|date=October 2018}}Public discussion of, and justification for, Bourbaki's thoughts has in general been through Jean Dieudonné (who initially was the 'scribe' of the group) writing under his own name. In a survey of le choix bourbachique written in 1977, he did not shy away from a hierarchical development of the 'important' mathematics of the time.He also wrote extensively under his own name: nine volumes on analysis, perhaps in belated fulfillment of the original project or pretext; and also on other topics mostly connected with algebraic geometry. While Dieudonné could reasonably speak on Bourbaki's encyclopedic tendency and tradition, it may be doubted—after innumerable frank tais-toi, Dieudonné! ("Hush, Dieudonné!") remarks at the meetings—whether all others agreed with him about mathematical writing and research.{{Citation needed|date=September 2018}} In particular Serre has often championed greater attention to problem-solving, within number theory especially, not an area treated in the main Bourbaki texts.Dieudonné stated the view that most workers in mathematics were doing ground-clearing work, in order that a future Riemann could find the way ahead intuitively open. He pointed to the way the axiomatic method can be used as a tool for problem-solving, for example by Alexander Grothendieck. Others found him too close to Grothendieck to be an unbiased observer. Comments in Pál Turán's 1970 speech on the award of a Fields Medal to Alan Baker about theory-building and problem-solving were a reply from the traditionalist camp at the next opportunity,JOURNAL, 2272765, Review of On the Work of ., Paul Turán; Effective Methods in the Theory of Numbers., Alan Baker, Alonzo, Church, 1 January 1972, 37, 3, 606–606, 10.2307/2272765, Grothendieck having received the previous Fields Medal in absentia in 1966.

See also





  • Luca Vercelloni, Filosofia delle strutture, La Nuova Italia, Firenze, 1989
  • Maurice Mashaal (2006). Bourbaki: A Secret Society of Mathematicians. American Mathematical Society. {{ISBN|0-8218-3967-5}}.
  • Amir Aczel (2007). The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed. High Stakes Publishing, London. {{ISBN|1-84344-034-2}}.

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