Frege, Hilbert, and Structuralism

Title: Frege, Hilbert, and Structuralism
Authors: Burke, Mark
Date: 2015
Abstract: The central question of this thesis is: what is mathematics about? The answer arrived at by the thesis is an unsettling and unsatisfying one. By examining two of the most promising contemporary accounts of the nature of mathematics, I conclude that neither is as yet capable of giving us a conclusive answer to our question. The conclusion is arrived at by a combination of historical and conceptual analysis. It begins with the historical fact that, since the middle of the nineteenth century, mathematics has undergone a radical transformation. This transformation occurred in most branches of mathematics, but was perhaps most apparent in geometry. Earlier images of geometry understood it as the science of space. In the wake of the emergence of multiple distinct geometries and the realization that non-Euclidean geometries might lay claim to the description of physical space, the old picture of Euclidean geometry as the sole correct description of physical space was no longer tenable. The first chapter of the dissertation provides an historical account of some of the forces which led to the destabilization of the traditional picture of geometry. The second chapter examines the debate between Gottlob Frege and David Hilbert regarding the nature of geometry and axiomatics, ending with an argument suggesting that Hilbert’s views are ultimately unsatisfying. The third chapter continues to probe the work of Frege and, again, finds his explanations of the nature of mathematics troublingly unsatisfying. The end result of the first three chapters is that the Frege-Hilbert debate leaves us with an impasse: the traditional understanding of mathematics cannot hold, but neither can the two most promising modern accounts. The fourth and final chapter of the thesis investigates mathematical structuralism—a more recent development in the philosophy of mathematics—in order to see whether it can move us beyond the impasse of the Frege-Hilbert debate. Ultimately, it is argued that the contemporary debate between ‘assertoric’ structuralists and ‘algebraic’ structuralists recapitulates a form of the Frege-Hilbert impasse. The ultimate claim of the thesis, then, is that neither of the two most promising contemporary accounts can offer us a satisfying philosophical answer to the question ‘what is mathematics about?’.
CollectionThèses, 2011 - // Theses, 2011 -