Understanding in mathematics: The case of mathematical proofs

Noûs (forthcoming)
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Abstract

Although understanding is the object of a growing literature in epistemology and the philosophy of science, only few studies have concerned understanding in mathematics. This essay offers an account of a fundamental form of mathematical understanding: proof understanding. The account builds on a simple idea, namely that understanding a proof amounts to rationally reconstructing its underlying plan. This characterization is fleshed out by specifying the relevant notion of plan and the associated process of rational reconstruction, building in part on Bratman's theory of planning agency. It is argued that the proposed account can explain a significant range of distinctive phenomena commonly associated with proof understanding by mathematicians and philosophers. It is further argued, on the basis of a case study, that the account can yield precise diagnostics of understanding failures and can suggest ways to overcome them. Reflecting on the approach developed here, the essay concludes with some remarks on how to shape a general methodology common to the study of mathematical and scientific understanding and focused on human agency.

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Author Profiles

Yacin Hamami
ETH Zurich
Rebecca Morris
Independent Scholar

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References found in this work

No understanding without explanation.Michael Strevens - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44 (3):510-515.
Considered Judgment.Catherine Z. Elgin - 1999 - Princeton University Press.
Understanding.Stephen Grimm - 2011 - In D. Pritchard S. Berneker (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Epistemology. Routledge.
Understanding without explanation.Peter Lipton - 2009 - In H. W. de Regt, S. Leonelli & K. Eigner (eds.), Scientific Understanding: Philosophical Perspectives. University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 43-63.

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