Philosophers of Mathematics - History

History

The origin of mathematics is subject to argument. Whether the birth of mathematics was a random happening or induced by necessity duly contingent of other subjects, say for example physics, is still a matter of prolific debates.

Many thinkers have contributed their ideas concerning the nature of mathematics. Today, some philosophers of mathematics aim to give accounts of this form of inquiry and its products as they stand, while others emphasize a role for themselves that goes beyond simple interpretation to critical analysis. There are traditions of mathematical philosophy in both Western philosophy and Eastern philosophy. Western philosophies of mathematics go as far back as Plato, who studied the ontological status of mathematical objects, and Aristotle, who studied logic and issues related to infinity (actual versus potential).

Greek philosophy on mathematics was strongly influenced by their study of geometry. For example, at one time, the Greeks held the opinion that 1 (one) was not a number, but rather a unit of arbitrary length. A number was defined as a multitude. Therefore 3, for example, represented a certain multitude of units, and was thus not "truly" a number. At another point, a similar argument was made that 2 was not a number but a fundamental notion of a pair. These views come from the heavily geometric straight-edge-and-compass viewpoint of the Greeks: just as lines drawn in a geometric problem are measured in proportion to the first arbitrarily drawn line, so too are the numbers on a number line measured in proportion to the arbitrary first "number" or "one".

These earlier Greek ideas of numbers were later upended by the discovery of the irrationality of the square root of two. Hippasus, a disciple of Pythagoras, showed that the diagonal of a unit square was incommensurable with its (unit-length) edge: in other words he proved there was no existing (rational) number that accurately depicts the proportion of the diagonal of the unit square to its edge. This caused a significant re-evaluation of Greek philosophy of mathematics. According to legend, fellow Pythagoreans were so traumatized by this discovery that they murdered Hippasus to stop him from spreading his heretical idea. Simon Stevin was one of the first in Europe to challenge Greek ideas in the 16th century. Beginning with Leibniz, the focus shifted strongly to the relationship between mathematics and logic. This perspective dominated the philosophy of mathematics through the time of Frege and of Russell, but was brought into question by developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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