Local axioms in disguise: Hilbert on Minkowski diagrams

Synthese 186 (1):315-370 (2012)
Abstract
While claiming that diagrams can only be admitted as a method of strict proof if the underlying axioms are precisely known and explicitly spelled out, Hilbert praised Minkowski’s Geometry of Numbers and his diagram-based reasoning as a specimen of an arithmetical theory operating “rigorously” with geometrical concepts and signs. In this connection, in the first phase of his foundational views on the axiomatic method, Hilbert also held that diagrams are to be thought of as “drawn formulas”, and formulas as “written diagrams”, thus suggesting that the former encapsulate propositional information which can be extracted and translated into formulas. In the case of Minkowski diagrams, local geometrical axioms were actually being produced, starting with the diagrams, by a process that was both constrained and fostered by the requirement, brought about by the axiomatic method itself, that geometry ought to be made independent of analysis. This paper aims at making a twofold point. On the one hand, it shows that Minkowski’s diagrammatic methods in number theory prompted Hilbert’s axiomatic investigations into the notion of a straight line as the shortest distance between two points, which start from his earlier work focused on the role of the triangle inequality property in the foundations of geometry, and lead up to his formulation of the 1900 Fourth Problem. On the other hand, it purports to make clear how Hilbert’s assessment of Minkowski’s diagram-based reasoning in number theory both raises and illuminates conceptual compatibility concerns that were crucial to his philosophy of mathematics
Keywords Hilbert  Minkowski  Geometry of numbers  Axiomatization  Conceptual compatibility  Foundations of geometry  Hilbert’s fourth problem  Convexity
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References found in this work BETA
Michael Hallett (1994). Hilbert's Axiomatic Method and the Laws of Thought. In Alexander George (ed.), Mathematics and Mind. Oxford University Press. 158--200.
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