The context principle and implicit definitions : towards an account of our a priori knowledge of arithmetic

Dissertation, St. Andrews (2005)

Philip A. Ebert
University of Stirling
This thesis is concerned with explaining how a subject can acquire a priori knowledge of arithmetic. Every account for arithmetical, and in general mathematical knowledge faces Benacerraf's well-known challenge, i.e. how to reconcile the truths of mathematics with what can be known by ordinary human thinkers. I suggest four requirements that jointly make up this challenge and discuss and reject four distinct solutions to it. This will motivate a broadly Fregean approach to our knowledge of arithmetic and mathematics in general. Pursuing this strategy appeals to the context principle which, it is proposed, underwrites a form of Platonism and explains how reference to and object-directed thought about abstract entities is, in principle, possible. I discuss this principle and defend it against different criticisms as put forth in recent literature. Moreover, I will offer a general framework for implicit definitions by means of which - without an appeal to a faculty of intuition or purely pragmatic considerations - a priori and non-inferential knowledge of basic mathematical principles can be acquired. In the course of this discussion, I will argue against various types of opposition to this general approach. Also, I will highlight crucial shortcomings in the explanation of how implicit definitions may underwrite a priori knowledge of basic principles in broadly similar conceptions. In the final part, I will offer a general account of how non-inferential mathematical knowledge resulting from implicit definitions is best conceived which avoids these shortcomings.
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