, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 453-481

Platonism and metaphor in the texts of mathematics: Gödel and Frege on mathematical knowledge

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Abstract

In this paper, I challenge those interpretations of Frege that reinforce the view that his talk of grasping thoughts about abstract objects is consistent with Russell's notion of acquaintance with universals and with Gödel's contention that we possess a faculty of mathematical perception capable of perceiving the objects of set theory. Here I argue the case that Frege is not an epistemological Platonist in the sense in which Gödel is one. The contention advanced is that Gödel bases his Platonism on a literal comparison between mathematical intuition and physical perception. He concludes that since we accept sense perception as a source of empirical knowledge, then we similarly should posit a faculty of mathematical intuition to serve as the source of mathematical knowledge. Unlike Gödel, Frege does not posit a faculty of mathematical intuition. Frege talks instead about grasping thoughts about abstract objects. However, despite his hostility to metaphor, he uses the notion of ‘grasping’ as a strategic metaphor to model his notion of thinking, i.e., to underscore that it is only by logically manipulating the cognitive content of mathematical propositions that we can obtain mathematical knowledge. Thus, he construes ‘grasping’ more as theoretical activity than as a kind of inner mental ‘seeing’.