What are mathematical diagrams?

Synthese 200 (2):1-29 (2022)
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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. I also examine the relationship between mathematical diagrams and spatiotemporal intuition. By proposing an explication of diagrams, I explain 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.

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Silvia De Toffoli
Linkoping University


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