Envisioning Transformations – The Practice of Topology

In Brendan Larvor (ed.), Mathematical Cultures: The London Meetings 2012--2014. Zurich, Switzerland: Birkhäuser. pp. 25-50 (2016)
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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.
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