One of the comments on this Math.SE question states that Hilbert had dyscalculia.

However I have not been able to find a reliable source that confirms this, and I do not really believe it. Of course, there were no tests that he could have done to confirm or deny it, but is there more evidence than just the classical, unsourced story that Hilbert could not add seven and five in a lecture? Or is there a good source for that story?


1 Answer 1


No sources, no history.

According to Constance Reid, Hilbert (1970, reprinted as Hilbert-Courant, 1986), page 7-8 :

At the Wilhelm Gymnasium, David was much happier than he had been at Friedrichskolleg. The teachers seemed to recognize and encourage his originality, and in later years he was often to recall them with affection. Grades improved — "good's" in almost everything (German, Latin, Greek, theology and physics) and in mathematics "vorzüglich, [excellent]" the highest possible mark given at the time. He did so well on his written examinations that he was excused from taking the final oral examination for the leaving certificate. The evaluation which appeared on the back of the certificate rated his deportment as "exemplary" commented on his industry and "serious scientific interest," and then concluded:

"For mathematics he always showed a very lively interest and a penetrating understanding: he mastered all the material taught in the school in a very pleasing manner and was able to apply it with sureness and ingenuity."

This is the earliest recorded glimpse of the mathematician Hilbert.

So, the conclusion is: it is not confirmed. After all, does it really matter?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I am curious about the origin of this meme. The sole basis for "diagnosing" Hilbert with discalculia seems to be an anecdote about him forgetting what 7+5 was. Is it mentioned in respectable biographies? The choice of numbers is curious, 7+5=12 is Kant's example from Critique of Pure Reason illustrating how arithmetic is a priori synthesis in time. The example Hilbert knew well since his formalist programme is based on synthetic a priori for "arithmetic" of symbols philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/28154/… $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Jan 25, 2016 at 19:58

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