Mathematical diagrams are frequently used in contemporary mathematics. They are, however, widely seen as not contributing to the justificatory force of proofs: they are considered to be either mere illustrations or shorthand for non-diagrammatic expressions. Moreover, when they are used inferentially, they are seen as threatening the reliability of proofs. In this paper, I examine certain examples of diagrams that resist this type of dismissive characterization. By presenting two diagrammatic proofs, one from topology and one from algebra, I show that diagrams form genuine notational systems, and I argue that this explains why they can play a role in the inferential structure of proofs without undermining their reliability. I then consider whether diagrams can be essential to the proofs in which they appear.

  • “The Epistemological Subject(s) of Mathematics,” The Handbook of the History and Philosophy of Mathematical Practice, Ed: Bharath Sriraman, Springer, forthcoming.

Paying attention to the inner workings of mathematicians has led to a proliferation of new themes in the philosophy of mathematics.  Several of these have to do with epistemology.  Philosophers of mathematical practice, however, have not (yet) systematically engaged with general (analytic) epistemology.  To be sure, there are some exceptions, but they are few and far between.  In this chapter, I offer an explanation of why this might be the case and show how the situation could be remedied.  I contend that it is only by conceiving the knowing subject(s) as embodied, fallible, and embedded in a specific context (along the lines of what has been done within social and feminist epistemology) that we can pursue an epistemology of mathematics sensitive to actual mathematical practice.  I further suggest that this reconception of the knowing subject(s) does not force us to abandon the traditional framework of epistemology in which knowledge requires justified true belief.  It does, however, lead to a fallible conception of mathematical justification that, among other things, makes Gettier cases possible.  This shows that topics considered to be far removed from the interests of philosophers of mathematical practice might reveal to be relevant to them.

If there is an area of discourse in which disagreement is virtually absent, it is mathematics. After all, mathematicians justify their claims with deductive proofs: arguments that entail their conclusions. But is mathematics really exceptional in this respect? Looking at the history and practice of mathematics, we soon realize that it is not. First, deductive arguments must start somewhere. How should we choose the starting points (i.e., the axioms)? Second, mathematicians, like the rest of us, are fallible. Their ability to recognize whether a putative proof is correct is not infallible. In most cases, disagreement over the correctness of a putative proof is, however, evanescent. Once an error is spotted and communicated, the disagreement disappears. But this is not always the case. Sometimes it is recalcitrant; that is, it persists over time. In order to zoom in on this type of disagreement and explain its very possibility, we focus on a single case study: a decades-long (1921-1949) controversy between Federigo Enriques and Francesco Severi, two prominent exponents of the Italian school of algebraic geometry. We suggest that the instability of the mathematical community to which they belonged can be explained by the gap between an abstract criterion of rigor and local criteria of acceptability. It is this instability that made the existence of recalcitrant disagreement over putative proofs possible. We do not condemn speculative mathematics but rather its pretense of being rigorous mathematics. In this respect, we show that the overly self-confident Severi and the more intuitive, visionary Enriques had a completely different attitudes.

The classification of algebraic surfaces by the Italian School of algebraic geometry is universally recognized as a breakthrough in 20th-century mathematics. The methods by which it was achieved do not, however, meet the modern standard of rigor and therefore appear dubious from a contemporary viewpoint. In this article, we offer a glimpse into the mathematical practice of the three leading exponents of the Italian School of algebraic geometry: Castelnuovo, Enriques, and Severi. We then bring into focus their distinctive conception of rigor and intuition. Unlike what is often assumed today, from their perspective, rigor is neither opposed to intuition nor understood as a unitary phenomenon – Enriques distinguishes between small-scale rigor and large-scale rigor and Severi between formal rigor and substantial rigor. Finally, we turn to the notion of mathematical objectivity. We draw from our case study in order to advance a multi-dimensional analysis of objectivity. Specifically, we suggest that various types of rigor may be associated with different conceptions of objectivity: namely objectivity as faithfulness to facts and objectivity as intersubjectivity.

Although traditionally neglected, mathematical diagrams have recently begun to attract attention from philosophers of mathematics. By now, the literature includes several case studies investigating the role of diagrams both in discovery and justification. Certain preliminary questions have, however, been mostly bypassed. What are diagrams exactly? Are there different types of diagrams? In the scholarly literature, the term “mathematical diagram” is used in diverse ways. I propose a working definition that carves out the phenomena that are of most importance for a taxonomy of diagrams in the context of a practice-based philosophy of mathematics, privileging examples from contemporary mathematics. In doing so, I move away from vague, ordinary notions. I define mathematical diagrams as forming notational systems and as being geometric/topological representations or two-dimensional representations (or both). I also examine the relationship between mathematical diagrams and spatiotemporal intuition. By proposing an explication of diagrams, I explain (away) certain controversies in the existing literature. Moreover, I shed light on why mathematical diagrams are so effective in certain instances, and, at other times, dangerously misleading.

Rigorous proof is supposed to guarantee that the premises invoked imply the conclusion reached, and the problem of rigor may be described as that of bringing together the perspectives of formal logic and mathematical practice on how this is to be achieved. This problem has recently raised a lot of discussion among philosophers of mathematics. We survey some possible solutions and argue that failure to understand its terms properly has led to misunderstandings in the literature.

The distinction between propositional and doxastic justification is well-known among epistemologists. Propositional justification is often conceived as fundamental and characterized in an entirely apsychological way. In this chapter, I focus on beliefs based on deductive arguments. I argue that such an apsychological notion of propositional justification can hardly be reconciled with the idea that justification is a central component of knowledge. In order to propose an alternative notion, I start with the analysis of doxastic justification. I then offer a notion of propositional justification, intersubjective propositional justification, that is neither entirely apsychological nor idiosyncratic. To do so, I argue that to be able to attribute propositional justification to a subject, we have to consider her social context as well as broad features of our human cognitive architecture.

According to the received view, genuine mathematical justification derives from proofs. In this article, I challenge this view. First, I sketch a notion of proof that cannot be reduced to deduction from the axioms but rather is tailored to human agents. Secondly, I identify a tension between the received view and mathematical practice. In some cases, cognitively diligent, well-functioning mathematicians go wrong. In these cases, it is plausible to think that proof sets the bar for justification too high. I then propose a fallibilist account of mathematical justification. I show that the main function of mathematical justification is to guarantee that the mathematical community can correct the errors that inevitably arise from our fallible practices.

Criteria of acceptability for mathematical proofs are field-dependent. In topology, though not in most other domains, it is sometimes acceptable to appeal to visual intuition to support inferential steps. In previous work (2015; 2016) my co-author and I aimed at spelling out how topological proofs work on their own terms, without appealing to formal proofs which might be associated with them. In this article, I address two criticisms that have been raised in Tatton-Brown (2019) against our approach: that it leads to a form of relativism according to which validity is equated with social agreement and that it implies an antiformalizability thesis according to which it is not the case that all rigorous mathematical proofs can be formalized. I reject both criticisms and suggest that our previous case studies provide insight into the plausibility of two related but quite different theses.

Giacomo Leopardi, a major Italian poet of the nineteenth century, was also an expert in evil to whom Schopenhauer referred as a “spiritual brother.” Leopardi wrote: “Everything is evil. That is to say, everything that is, is evil; that each thing exists is an evil; each thing exists only for an evil end; existence is an evil.” These and other thoughts are collected in the Zibaldone, a massive collage of heterogeneous writings published posthumously. Leopardi’s pessimism assumes a polished form in his literary writings, such as Dialogue between Nature and an Islander (1824)—an invective against nature and the suffering of creatures within it. In his last lyric, Broom, or the flower of the desert (1836), Leopardi points to the redeeming power of poetry and to human solidarity as placing at least temporary limits on the scope of evil.

The aim of this article is to investigate the roles of commutative diagrams (CDs) in a specific mathematical domain, and to unveil the reasons underlying their effectiveness as a mathematical notation; this will be done through a case study. It will be shown that CDs do not depict spatial relations, but represent mathematical structures. CDs will be interpreted as a hybrid notation that goes beyond the traditional bipartition of mathematical representations into diagrammatic and linguistic. It will be argued that one of the reasons why CDs form a good notation is that they are highly mathematically tractable: experts can obtain valid results by ‘calculating’ with CDs. These calculations, take the form of ‘diagram chases’. In order to draw inferences, experts move algebraic elements around the diagrams. It will be argued that these diagrams are dynamic. It is thanks to their dynamicity that CDs can externalize the relevant reasoning and allow experts to draw conclusions directly by manipulating them. Lastly, it will be shown that CDs play essential roles in the context of proof as well as in other phases of the mathematical enterprise, such as discovery and conjecture formation.

The objective of this article is twofold. First, a methodological issue is addressed. It is pointed out that even if philosophers of mathematics have been recently more and more concerned with the practice of mathematics, there is still a need for a sharp definition of what the targets of a philosophy of mathematical practice should be. Three possible objects of inquiry are put forward: (1) the collective dimension of the practice of mathematics; (2) the cognitives capacities requested to the practitioners; and (3) the specific forms of representation and notation shared and selected by the practitioners. Moreover, it is claimed that a broadening of the notion of ‘permissible action’ as introduced by Larvor (2012) with respect to mathematical arguments, allows for a consideration of all these three elements simultaneously. Second, a case from topology – the proof of Alexander’s theorem – is presented to illustrate a concrete analysis of a mathematical practice and to exemplify the proposed method. It is discussed that the attention to the three elements of the practice identified above brings to the emergence of philosophically relevant features in the practice of topology: the need for a revision in the definition of criteria of validity, the interest in tracking the operations that are performed on the notation, and the constant and fruitful back-and-forth from one representation to another in dealing with mathematical content. Finally, some suggestions for further research are given in the conclusions.

The aim of this article is to investigate specific aspects connected with visualization in the practice of a mathematical subfield: low-dimensional topology. Through a case study, it will be established that visualization can play an epistemic role. The background assumption is that the consideration of the actual practice of mathematics is relevant to address epistemological issues. It will be shown that in low-dimensional topology, justifications can be based on sequences of pictures. Three theses will be defended. First, the representations used in the practice are an integral part of the mathematical reasoning. As a matter of fact, they convey in a material form the relevant transitions and thus allow experts to draw inferential connections. Second, in low-dimensional topology experts exploit a particular type of manipulative imagination which is connected to intuition of two- and three-dimensional space and motor agency. This imagination allows recognizing the transformations which connect different pictures in an argument. Third, the epistemic—and inferential—actions performed are permissible only within a specific practice: this form of reasoning is subject-matter dependent. Local criteria of validity are established to assure the soundness of representationally heterogeneous arguments in low-dimensional topology.

The aim of this article is to explain why knot diagrams are an effective notation in topology. Their cognitive features and epistemic roles will be assessed. First, it will be argued that different interpretations of a figure give rise to different diagrams and as a consequence various levels of representation for knots will be identified. Second, it will be shown that knot diagrams are dynamic by pointing at the moves which are commonly applied to them. For this reason, experts must develop a specific form of enhanced manipulative imagination, in order to draw inferences from knot diagrams by performing epistemic actions. Moreover, it will be argued that knot diagrams not only can promote discovery, but also provide evi- dence. This case study is an experimentation ground to evaluate the role of space and action in making inferences by reasoning diagrammatically.



  • Book Manuscript in preparation: How to Prove Things with Diagrams.
  • Entry: “Diagrams,” to appear in: The Third Edition of the Blackwell Companion to Epistemology, Ed: Kurt L. Sylvan.
  • “The Philosophy of Mathematical Practice” (with Paolo Mancosu) in preparation for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • “Visualizations and Diagrams in Mathematics” in preparation for: Routledge Handbook of the History of Philosophy of Science, Ed: Flavia Padovani and Adam Tamas Tuboly.