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Exploring the fruitfulness of diagrams in mathematics

  • Jessica CarterEmail author


The paper asks whether diagrams in mathematics are particularly fruitful compared to other types of representations. In order to respond to this question a number of examples of propositions and their proofs are considered. In addition I use part of Peirce’s semiotics to characterise different types of signs used in mathematical reasoning, distinguishing between symbolic expressions and 2-dimensional diagrams. As a starting point I examine a proposal by Macbeth (Realising reason. A narrative of truth & knowing, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014). Macbeth explains how it can be that objects “pop up”, e.g., as a consequence of the constructions made in the diagrams of Euclid, that is, why they are fruitful. It turns out, however, that diagrams are not exclusively fruitful in this sense. By analysing the proofs given in the paper I introduce the notion of a ‘faithful representation’. A faithful representation represents as either an image (resembling what it stands for) or as a metaphor (sharing some underlying structure). Secondly it represents certain relevant relations (that is, as an iconic diagram in Peirce’s terminology). Thirdly manipulations on the representations respect manipulations on the objects they represent, so that new relations may be found. The examples given in the paper illustrate how such representations can be fruitful. These examples include proofs based on both symbolic expressions as well as diagrams and so it seems diagrams are not special when it comes to fruitfulness. Having said this, I do present two features of diagrams that seem to be unique. One consists of the possibility of exhibiting the type of relation in a diagram—or simply showing that a relation exists—as a contrast to stating in words that it exists. The second is the spatial configurations possible when using diagrams, e.g., allowing to show multiple relations in a single diagram.


Diagrams in mathematical reasoning Fruitfulness Semiotics Philosophy of mathematical practice 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Mathematics and Computer ScienceUniversity of Southern DenmarkOdenseDenmark

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