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Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery (Cambridge Philosophy Classics) Paperback – October 15, 2015
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"For anyone interested in mathematics who has not encountered the work of the late Imre Lakatos before, this book is a treasure; and those who know well the famous dialogue, first published in 1963-4 in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, that forms the greater part of this book, will be eager to read the supplementary material ... the book, as it stands, is rich and stimulating, and, unlike most writings on the philosophy of mathematics, succeeds in making excellent use of detailed observations about mathematics as it is actually practised."
Michael Dummett, Nature
"The whole book, as well as being a delightful read, is of immense value to anyone concerned with mathematical education at any level."
C. W. Kilmister, The Times Higher Education Supplement
"In this book the late Imre Lakatos explores 'the logic of discovery' and 'the logic of justification' as applied to mathematics ... The arguments presented are deep ... but the author's lucid literary style greatly facilitates their comprehension ... The book is destined to become a classic. It should be read by all those who would understand more about the nature of mathematics, of how it is created and how it might best be taught."
"How is mathematics really done, and - once done - how should it be presented? Imre Lakatos had some very strong opinions about this. The current book, based on his PhD work under George Polya, is a classic book on the subject. It is often characterized as a work in the philosophy of mathematics, and it is that - and more. The argument, presented in several forms, is that mathematical philosophy should address the way that mathematics is done, not just the way it is often packaged for delivery."
William J. Satzer, MAA Reviews
Imre Lakatos's influential and enduring work on the nature of mathematic discovery and development continues to be relevant to philosophers of mathematics. Including a specially commissioned preface written by Paolo Mancosu, and presented in a fresh twenty-first-century series livery, it is now available for a new generation of readers.
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In "Proofs and Refutations," Lakatos illustrates how a single mathematical theorem developed from a naive conjecture to its present (far more sophisticated) form through a gruelling process of criticism by counterexamples and subsequent improvements. Lakatos manages to seemlessly narrate over a century of mathematical work by adopting a quasi-Platonic dialogue form (inspired by Galileo's "Dialogues"?), which he thoroughly backs up with hard historical evidence in the voluminous footnotes. The story he tells explores the clumsy and halting heuristic processes by which mathematical knowledge is created: the very process so carfully hidden from view in most mathematics textbooks!
The participants of Lakatos' dialogue argue over questions like "when is something proved?", "what is a trivial vs. severe counterexample?", "must you state all your assumptions or can some be thought of as implicit?", "in the end, what has been proved?",etc.. The answers to these questions change as the theorem under consideration is successively seen in a new light. Throughout, Lakatos is at pains to point out that the different perspectives adopted by his characters are representative of viewpoints that were once taken by the heroes of mathematics.
However, for those readers (including beginning mathematicians) who are interested in the broader picture, who are interested in the nature of mathematical proof, then Lakatos is essential reading. The examples chosen are vivid, and there is a rich sense of historical context. The dramatised setting (with Teacher and students Alpha, Beta, Gamma, etc) is handled skilfully. Now and then, a foolish-seeming comment from one of the students has a footnote tagged to it; more often than not, that student is standing in for Euler, Cauchy, Poincare or some other great mathematician from a past era, closely paraphrasing actual remarks made by them. That in some ways is the most important lesson I learned from this book; "obvious" now doesn't mean obvious then, even to the greatest intellects of the time.
Although "Proofs and Refuatations" is an easy book to begin reading, it is not an easy book per se. I have returned to it repeatedly over the last ten years, and I always learn something new. The text matures with the reader.
Displaying solid content with artful execution, this book interested me in both the math of the thing and the acompanying thought processes.
Content: This book has near-poetic density and elegance in arguing a non-linear approach to mathematical development and, for me, to just plain thinking. Our tendency (as born worshippers of linearity and causality) is to discover a brick for the building then immediately look for the next to stack on top. Lakatos contends that PERHAPS you have discovered a brick worthy of the building, now let's see what truly objective tests we will put to this brick and before giving it a final stamp of approval. It seems obvious to say "always question", but the exercise in this book will take you through the process and show you what you may take for granted in this simple concept. For example, do you observe HOW you question? See his discussion throughout on global vs. local counterexamples, just as a start.
Execution of the text: This is the beautiful part. Mr. Lakatos has written this book as theater: characters with definite identities, plot, drama. The narrative flows in the voices of students and a professor who proves to be a sound moderator, intervening at timely points, i.e. those where questions may be crystallized or thoughts prodded to that point. This is where learning takes place, in a heated, moderated debate over Euler's formula. What was most interesting to me about this method was that it lent itself easily to isolating a particular thread of discussion. I literally chose certain characters to research from beginning to end in order to follow the evolution or confirmation of their thinking.
You emerge with a good framework that makes this book excellent reference material for problem-solving.
One last, but important note. This book will have you praising the lowly footnote. I would buy it for that alone. You will read along with the discussion, then get off and examine a footnote, and then pick the dialogue back up not having lost a step. On the contrary, Mr. Lakatos deepens your context with on-point explanations and math history.
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(a) "Under the present dominance of formalism, ...Read more