Poincaré on the Foundation of Geometry in the Understanding

In Maria Zack & Dirk Schlimm (eds.), Research in History and Philosophy of Mathematics: The CSHPM 2016 Annual Meeting in Calgary, Alberta. Springer. pp. 19-37 (2017)
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This paper is about Poincaré’s view of the foundations of geometry. According to the established view, which has been inherited from the logical positivists, Poincaré, like Hilbert, held that axioms in geometry are schemata that provide implicit definitions of geometric terms, a view he expresses by stating that the axioms of geometry are “definitions in disguise.” I argue that this view does not accord well with Poincaré’s core commitment in the philosophy of geometry: the view that geometry is the study of groups of operations. In place of the established view I offer a revised view, according to which Poincaré held that axioms in geometry are in fact assertions about invariants of groups. Groups, as forms of the understanding, are prior in conception to the objects of geometry and afford the proper definition of those objects, according to Poincaré. Poincaré’s view therefore contrasts sharply with Kant’s foundation of geometry in a unique form of sensibility. According to my interpretation, axioms are not definitions in disguise because they themselves implicitly define their terms, but rather because they disguise the definitions which imply them.
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