Foundations of Science 24 (3):411-425 (2019)

Emiliano Ippoliti
Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza
I investigate the construction of the mathematical concept of quaternion from a methodological and heuristic viewpoint to examine what we can learn from it for the study of the advancement of mathematical knowledge. I will look, in particular, at the inferential microstructures that shape this construction, that is, the study of both the very first, ampliative inferential steps, and their tentative outcomes—i.e. small ‘structures’ such as provisional entities and relations. I discuss how this paradigmatic case study supports the recent approaches to problem-solving and philosophy of mathematics, and how it suggests refinements of them. In more detail, I argue that the inferential micro-structures enable us to shed more light on the informal, heuristic side of mathematical practice, and its inferential and rational procedures. I show how they enable the generation of a problem, the construction of its conditions of solvability, the search for a hypothesis to solve it, and how these processes are representation-sensitive. On this base, I argue that: 1.the recent development of the philosophy of mathematics was right in moving from Lakatos’ initial investigation of the formal side of a mathematical proof to the investigation of the semi-formal, heuristic side of the mathematical practice as a way of understanding mathematical knowledge and its advancement. 2.The investigation of mathematical practice and discovery can be improved by a finer-grained study of the inferential micro-structures that are built during mathematical problem-solving.
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DOI 10.1007/s10699-018-9576-9
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