Recalcitrant Disagreement in Mathematics: An “Endless and Depressing Controversy” in the History of Italian Algebraic Geometry

Global Philosophy 33 (38):1-29 (2023)
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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 attitude.

Author's Profile

Silvia De Toffoli
University School of Advanced Studies IUSS Pavia


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