Who’s afraid of mathematical diagrams?

Philosophers' Imprint (forthcoming)
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Abstract

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.

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Silvia De Toffoli
Linkoping University

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