The logic of the nation: Nationalism, formal logic, and interwar Poland


  • David E. Dunning Princeton University, Department of History, Princeton, New Jersey



mathematical logic, Polish logic, Jan Łukasiewicz, Warsaw School of Logic, Polish notation, reverse Polish notation, olympic internationalism, nationalism, interwar science


Between the World Wars, a robust research community emerged in the nascent discipline of mathematical logic in Warsaw. Logic in Warsaw grew out of overlapping imperial legacies, launched mainly by Polish-speaking scholars who had trained in Habsburg universities and had come during the First World War to the University of Warsaw, an institution controlled until recently by Russia and reconstructed as Polish under the auspices of German occupation. The intellectuals who formed the Warsaw School of Logic embraced a patriotic Polish identity. Competitive nationalist attitudes were common among interwar scientists – a stance historians have called “Olympic internationalism,” in which nationalism and internationalism interacted as complementary rather than conflicting impulses.

One of the School’s leaders, Jan Łukasiewicz, developed a system of notation that he promoted as a universal tool for logical research and communication. A number of his compatriots embraced it, but few logicians outside Poland did; Łukasiewicz’s notation thus inadvertently served as a distinctively national vehicle for his and his colleagues’ output. What he had intended as his most universally applicable invention became instead a respected but provincialized way of writing. Łukasiewicz’s system later spread in an unanticipated form, when postwar computer scientists found aspects of its design practical for working under the specific constraints of machinery; they developed a modified version for programming called “Reverse Polish Notation” (RPN). RPN attained a measure of international currency that Polish notation in logic never had, enjoying a global career in a different discipline outside its namesake country. The ways in which versions of the notation spread, and remained or did not remain “Polish” as they traveled, depended on how readers (whether in mathematical logic or computer science) chose to read it; the production of a nationalized science was inseparable from its international reception.

Author Biography

David E. Dunning, Princeton University, Department of History, Princeton, New Jersey



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How to Cite

Dunning, D. E. (2018). The logic of the nation: Nationalism, formal logic, and interwar Poland. Studia Historiae Scientiarum, 17, 207–251.