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In several of his works Fréchet made important commentaries on Poin- caré’s ideas on such topics as conventionalism, mathematical language, intuition and logic, and geometry and experience. In this part of our study we will refer to the relation between these ideas, how both of them have been conceptualised, mainly with regard to the nature and function of con- ventions in mathematics. Nevertheless, beyond the record of a similarity of ideas that becomes evident, what interests us most at the present time, is to identify the difficulties encountered (at least those faced by Fréchet), when trying to defend the conventionality position, researchers were gradually led to elucidate more fundamental problems, particularly the problem of understanding those acts of reasoning that allow the cognitive subject to formulate and to study mathematical entities as conventions. They were also led to attempt to clarify the genetic relation between mathematical conventions and empirical reality. We will begin by a quick revision of some publications which throw light on the subject in order to locate this issue within the philosophical and intellectual context of the time.

  • 1.1. The Practical Value of Science Down the Centuries

Poincaré belongs to the generation of philosophers and scientists that, at the end of the XIX century and the beginning of the new millennium, openly participated in the debates about the new philosophical and epi- stemological tendencies in science and mathematics, in particular, on the problem of the genesis of knowledge from experience, and the debates on the practical value of science. They also reflected on the relationships between intuition and logic that were gaining such importance at a time in which the movement of the arithmetisation of analysis was becoming consolidated. We will begin by referring to the first two of these tendencies.


Synthese 134: 245–272, 2003. © 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.


Around the year 1900, in contrast to ideas of a static reason, only committed to the rigorous study of eternal truths, intellectuals such as Nietzsche, Boutroux and Bergson, as also the so-called empiricist critics (Avenarius and Mach) 1 were promoting different intellectual values, which were more closely related to action and to life as primary realities. As Leo Freuler 2 has recalled, at the turn of the century science could no longer es- cape from practical impositions. In contrast to neo-Kantian intellectualism, expressed for instance by Leon Brunschvicg, philosophers like Edouard Le Roy argued that “thought should be lived to be fruitful”, that “it is only known by its action” and that “knowledge is less the contemplation of a clarity than the effort and movement to descend down to the intimate darkness of things and to fit into the rhythm of its original life” 3 . For this intellectual view it is not possible to continue defending the thesis that the laws of logic and mathematics, like the laws of nature, are natural and eternal truths. On the contrary, the former would constitute instead of a language – a type of “intellectual shorthand” (James) – in- vented by man to register his observations of natural phenomena. On the other hand, the knowledge of the laws of nature is not a natural agreement between human understanding and nature, as man thinks and registers such observations according to his practical needs. It is better to consider the correspondence between this knowledge and natural phenomena from the perspective of an agreement among human beings. We are then here – according to Freuler – before one of the original sources of that con- ventionalism of which Poincaré figures as one of its most characteristic defenders.

  • 1.2. The Conventional Character of Geometry in Poincaré

Poincaré’s position with respect to the nature of the geometry’s axioms 4 is well known. These are not synthetic a priori judgements, as Kant re- quired from arithmetic propositions (whose true example is the principle of induction). If they were, they would impose on our understanding in such a way, that they would make it impossible to conceive an axiomatic in an opposite sense, on base of which to erect a theoretical construction like non-Euclidean geometry. 5 Furthermore, geometrical axioms are not experimental facts. Ideal straight lines or circumferences cannot be exper- imented with in the same way as material objects. In his 1895 publication about space and geometry, 6 Poincaré would make this approach more explicit establishing the distinction between geometrical space and repres- entative space. This is based on sensorial experiences (visual, tactile, and motor) and on associations among them. Geometrical space on the other hand, corresponds to a more complex level of conceptualisation and of



organisation of the sensations, compared with representative space. What geometry borrows from experience, are the properties of (ideal) bodies that inhabit representative space. This is the aim of geometry: the laws of displacements of bodies, not the bodies themselves. The concept of a group of transformations to which the study of geometry is applied, 7 pre-exists in our understanding. It is presented to us rather as a form of our under- standing than as a form of our sensitivity. As it is not possible to consider geometry as experimental science, its axioms are therefore conventions:

Our choice among all possible conventions is guided by experimental facts but remains free and only responds to the necessity of avoiding all contradiction. For this reason its postulates can be rigorously valid, even though the experimental laws that have determined its adoption are only approximations. 8

It is convenient to note the historical character of this affirmation. Poincaré says that once they are adopted with the help of experience, geometrical propositions are subject to a demand for freedom which can only be conditioned by the principle of non-contradiction. Thus, Poincaré makes geometry comply with one of the most important epistemological canons regarding the rigour and arithmetisation of the mathematics movement in the second part of the XIX century. Hankel, Dedekind, but above all Cantor, have insisted that mathematics can be defined in relation to other sciences, precisely because is a free creation of our understanding. Cantor stated that the essence of mathematics is found in its freedom, and that on this aspect, its simple and inhibited character depends precisely:

Mathematics is completely free in its development, and only knows of one obligation

(. . .


its concepts must be non-contradictory in themselves and, moreover, they must relate to

concepts which have been previously formed, already present and secured, with fixed rules regulated by definitions. 9

Given its conventional character, one geometry can derive from another (regardless of how contradictory its axioms can be) providing the defini- tions are adequately chosen. Therefore, for Poincaré there is not sense in asking oneself if Euclidean geometry is truer than other. It is – and will continue to be – the most comfortable one. In the first place because it is the most simple. No in terms of the intuition we have of Euclidean space, but as far as a first grade polynomial is simpler than a second grade one, or straight line trigonometry is simpler than spherical trigonometry. Second, the Euclidean geometry is the most comfortable as it agrees quite well with the properties of natural solids of the sensitive experience. 10 Marco Panza 11 has observed that Poincaré does not have a logical explanation of the notion of comfort. That maybe owing to the fact that Poincaré’s thought shows difficulties in satisfactorily explaining the process from which the “geometrical hypothesis” are constructed from experience. Poincaré does


not tell us how it is that – from the experience of our physical displacement – our understanding arrives at the mathematical expression of Euclidean distance as a characteristic notion of the Euclidean group of transform- ations. This type of explanation is necessary in order to understand (by means other than intuition, as required by Poincaré himself), that Euc- lidean geometry is more comfortable than other groups such as those of Riemann’s or Lobatschewski’s. Another difficulty related with the previous one is Poincaré’s refusal to accept that the geometrical hypothesis can be placed within the Kantian classification of analytical or synthetic a priori or a posteriori judgements. According to Panza it is due to the fact that for Poincaré the nature of conventions, escapes logical explanation for all acts of knowledge. Poincaré’s conception would state that individuals have the mental capacity to develop conventions; the intervention of experience would consist in offering the signal and providing the opportunity for this capacity to materialise.

  • 1.3. Intuition and Logic in Poincaré

More elements could be found in favour of this last interpretation of Poin- caré’s ideas on logic and intuition expressed in his famous communication to the second international congress of mathematicians (Paris 1900). 12 For Poincaré logic and intuition each fulfill a necessary role. As instrument of demonstration, it corresponds to logic to ensure certainty. Intuition is, for its part, the instrument of invention. There are different types of intuition:

“in the first place, the type that is based on senses and imagination; next, generalisation by induction, copied in a certain sense from the procedures of experimental science; finally, we have the intuition of the pure number”. This last is the foundation of the principle of mathematical induction (in Poincaré’s opinion the true synthetic a priori judgement), and breeds “true mathematical reasoning”. 13 In front of the two forms of intuition, arith- metic intuition is the only one capable of giving us certainty. Apparently in agreement with the intellectual tendencies of the time, Poincaré does not refer to the synthesis criterion that Kant developed in the Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason. Although it is not clear what his criterion is, Poincaré at least wanted to show when he stated that the arithmetic propos- itions are synthetic a priori, that they are based on something that we could understand as a certain assumption a priori to which human beings are led by reason of its intrinsic nature. 14 Thus, this type of intuition is based on a purely intellectual certainty. The principle of the human mind that rules it is mathematical intuition. Otte has insisted that for Poincaré logic and number intuition are functionally related only to the subject and not to ob- jective reality. Poincaré proceeded in a similar way to Dedekind, for whom



the certainty of arithmetic depends totally on our (mental) ability to prove the existence of an infinite system, by infinite repetition of mental acts. 15 It means, that the safest intuitions from the mathematical point of view are not related to an object of concrete reality, but to the mind of the individual. This position, is to some extent contrary to the Kantian tradition, in the sense that all knowledge is knowledge of something. Knowledge is, above all related functionally to a reality. According to Kant, the subject’s active role in his perception of the world, makes knowledge both an activity of human reason and a function of inputs coming from external reality. Therefore:

Intuition depends on experience and experience emerges when the subject is confronted

with something external to his own mind

(. . .

) Poincaré, on the contrary, started from

mathematical psychology leaving aside the objective character of the cognitive. As we have already pointed out, cognition always attempts to understand and explain the nature of mathematics in terms of mathematicians’ activities, without assuming the existence of (mathematical) objects. 16

  • 1.4. Fréchet’s Opposition to Poincaré’s Ideas on Intuition

For his part, Fréchet strongly opposed to the conception of Poincaré on number intuition, although without mentioning indirectly and without en- tering into a polemic discussion with him. In fact, the ideas to which we are going now to refer, and that according to him were presented in the Entretiens de Zurich do not appeared in the proceedings of that meeting. Fréchet argues that not because in an axiomatized theory arithmetization is imposed, and that intuitive representations or the referents of the physical world are excluded in their logical development, that we may affirm that theory has been exclusively developed for our understanding. Arithmetic could not be “a town impenetrable by the external noises, where the pure spirit reigns”. The integer number is not an spontaneous creation of a logic spirit away from contingencies. On the contrary, is a schematic expression of a common characteristic of several collections. In the same way as the concept of mass is a common characteristic of certain collections of differ- ent bodies. Furthermore, the integer number is the “fundamental scientific notion that was first separated from the complications of human bargaining not because necessarily it was the simplest, but because it was the most useful”. 17 In respect to the notion of countably finite, Fréchet says that the notion of countably infinite sequence does not appeared in the mind through the intervention of the pure intuition of mathematical induction. Is precisely the opposite. Initially the infinite successions of integer num- bers were accepted in arithmetic for the same reasons as the Euclidean straight lines are accepted: both are comfortable schematisations of con-


crete objects. Later, “from the moment we introduced the consideration of integer numbers, the principle of complete induction is legitimised”. 18 Fréchet thought he had thus eliminated the radical separation established by Poincaré between the three categories of intuition. To each of these, the character of conformable conventions can be applied which geometry hypothesis have when they are based on experience. The rules of logic themselves are for Fréchet a product of our experience. An axiomatic is a schematisation which is essentially revisable from the practical rules of reasoning. If we accept these rules from our predecessors, is precisely because our daily experience teach us that if we applied them correctly, we would never make mistakes. Later, we will study Fréchet’s ideas on inductive synthesis that led mathematical thought from the concrete to the abstract. This concept, allows Fréchet to elude the concept of synthetic a priori judgement. Somehow in this inductive synthesis the reasoning abstracts, gradually, from the complexity of things, the simple principles that constitute the basis of a deductive theory. Therefore, deductive theory is not a spontaneous creation. It is only because of a persistent delusion in the mentality of mathematicians throughout history, that it was believed that:

The immediate data of consciousness’, the synthetic a priori judgement, themselves lead to the formulation of the axioms that are the starting point of the deductive theory. 19

  • 1.5. “Natural” Conventions and “Comfortable” Conventions in Fréchet

We will now follow Fréchet in his attempt to scrutinise “from a closer point of view”, according to his words, Poincaré’s thought on conventionalism. 20 We will point out in passing that this scrutiny is necessary for him, as in his opinion there has been attempts to relegate Poincaré to a simple defender of nominalistic positions that give definitive and absolute value to the scientific constructions. Fréchet probably refers to those like Federigo Enriques, who strongly reacted at the beginning of this century to nomin- alistic conceptions. 21 Enriques would easily agree with Poincaré in that the postulates of pure geometry symbolise positional relationships of bodies. Nevertheless, agreement ceased when Poincaré – according to Enriques – went so far as to state that such geometrical properties do not corresponds to true facts. Instead, they constitute a simple system of conventions that expresses physical facts, in the same way as magnitudes are related in a measurement system. The system can be comfortable, agrees Enriques, but there is nothing to stop us from changing it. “To ask oneself if a phenomena is possible in a certain geometric system and impossible in the opposite system, is to ask oneself if there are lengths that are expressed by metres



and not by English feet”. Enriques can not accept this type of reasoning, as, in his opinion, the conceptual validity of pure geometrical proposi- tions, – that at the same time represent (even though only approximately) certain entities of the physical world – is not a sufficient condition for these propositions to be the subject of arbitrary choice in relation to reality which is represented. For Enriques geometry can not be separated from the experience of space, as this is the first representation of the physical world. 22 For his part, Fréchet has no difficulty in subscribing to the notion that Poincaré’s conventionalism is based on a criteria of selection of geomet- rical propositions, not so much in that one would be more valid than the other, but in that it is more comfortable. He limits himself to checking that although it is true that there is an arbitrary limit in such criteria, this disap- pears in the development of the theory when convention presents itself to us with an absolute meaning. Fréchet adds the following example to those already presented by Poincaré: It is about comparing the income distribu- tion of two populations (English and Italians) {x i } and {y i }, 1 i n, comparing their respective “typical value”, a unique number that under certain conditions represents their order of magnitude. The problem is ini- tially reduced to define this representative or typical value. X is the typical value of {x i }, if X is as near as we want of all x i (therefore X ∈ [x 1 , x n ]). But that is not enough; it is necessary to assign some sense to the notion of proximity between the points of the space. It is where it is indispensable to establish one or the other convention:

Lets define X is as near as we want of {x i }, if and only if the following condition is verified:

X = sup{max{|X x i |}}, where X ∈ [x 1 , x n ], (1 i n)

In this case the arithmetic mean is chosen between the minimum and maximum of the ordered set.

But the condition could as well be the following:

sup{ |X

x i |}, where X ∈ [x 1 , x n ], (1 i n)

In this case, as natural as the proceeding one, it must be verified that X is the median of the x i .

Finally, in any case, the condition could be defined as a variant of the same property although in a “less natural” manner:

sup{ (X x i ) 2 }, where X ∈ [x 1 , x n ], (1 i n)


In this case, X it is verified as the arithmetic mean of the x i , (1 i n). If this third convention has been chosen in the study of the problem of the distribution of income typical in populations, it is not because is the most natural, but because it is the most comfortable. Fréchet adds:

The most comfortable in algebraic calculations [not in the numeric ones] where mathem- aticians know that the sum of the squares have simpler properties that the sum of absolute values. Applying this principle has become so common that frequently it is assigned an absolute value that does not possess. 23

  • 1.6. Legitimising Theoretical Conventions and Agreement with Experience

In consequence, Fréchet supports the first two characteristics used by Poin- caré, in his work on non-Euclidean geometry. When is one convention more comfortable than other? According to Poincaré when it is presented to us as the simpler from the formal and analytical points of view. However, once the convention has been established at his formal level, it excludes – for Poincaré in an explicit manner, for Fréchet in an in-explicit manner, and in not at all for Enriques 24 – any intervention, at least on this level of reasoning, of any kind of intuition by faculties of our psychological appar- atus or of conditioning factors of our social and cultural behaviour. Formal and analytical thought is the final instance of conceptual legitimisation 25 of the conventions agreed by mathematicians in their activity. At the same time, it is here where they are able to reduce what constitutes their intrinsic limitation: the arbitrary of its choice. The method of the sum of the squares is the simplest convention from the point of view of analysis and operations in which it is made to intervene in theory, and no mathematician – Fréchet adds – would agree with using any other method in which, for example, the notion of typical value of the {x i } is defined as the products of its significant digits. With respect to second aspect that allows us to distinguish when a con- vention is more comfortable than other – in other words, when it agrees better with the characteristics of the phenomena revealed by objective perception-, Fréchet takes care to show in his comments that his ideas coin- cide with those of Poincaré. The careful choice of the following quotation demonstrates his interest in highlighting this coincidence:

Conventions yes; arbitrary not. They would be if the experiences that led the founders of the science to adopt them, were not taken into account. 26

But Fréchet does not hide the fact that he can not justify a convention, only or mainly because of easy or (theoretical) simplification. If he did so, it would imply that a science is “complete” when it limits itself to postulating



axioms and deriving consequences. For this reason, he reminds Enriques – for whom the arbitrary of the person who defines, does not differ from the architect who built a house based on a harmonious project – that exactitude or even the beauty of propositions in an axiomatic-deductive system, are not the result of an “arbitrary” building plan (arbitrary in the sense of being a free creation). In the same way as the architect is constrained to his aesthetic project by the requirements of the solidity of his building, the mathematician is obliged by the choice of his conventions to remain in agreement with nature. In this way, it is clear that Fréchet is expressing his doubts that math- ematical reasoning can by itself, without resorting to experience, guarantee the exactitude (the simple character or inclusive beauty) of mathematical propositions. In fact, the central aim of his presentation in the Entretiens de Zurich is “to restore the experimental origin of basic mathematical notions”. Nevertheless, Fréchet does not offer a (reasonably) satisfact- ory explanation of how the analytical form of a convention is derived from experience, a form in which mathematicians compare conventions by means of the criteria and properties of the specific theory, finally does recognising it as the most comfortable and natural one (the expressions are from Poincaré). In the sum of the squares example, Fréchet limits himself to reiterating the principle of relation between the analytical form and its corresponding empirical problem: to “compare the pecuniary media between the “English” and “Italian” populations through the process of replacing (“approximating”) the two populations by the typical value of each one of them. Later, he seems to indicate that in the establishing act of convention (the typical value), our intuitions of magnitude or order of approximation among the elements of the populations intervene. Fréchet is not interested in providing any explanation about the cognitive nature of these intuitions and how their intervention is carried out in the constitution of the convention. He goes on immediately to compare the different (con- ventional) definitions of typical value as a limit, in relation to the topology assigned to the space of the population focused.

  • 1.7. Cognitive Subject and Mathematical Objectivity

In fact, for Fréchet the mental capacities and abilities fulfill an important role in the subject’s reasoning activity, and allow him to play an important role vis-à-vis the object in the process of its constitution. Probably this does not extend to the point that mental ability allows the subject to exhibit the object directly (for example, to formulate the convention in a finished manner). However, it does allow him to “prefigure it” in a certain way, from a class of possible objects. Thus the gifted mathematician has the ability


to discard within the family of propositions that motivates his interest in a particular problem, the class of propositions that are false, without needing to employ inductive mathematical processes. This mental capacity operates unconsciously in the subject through intuitions, evidences, sub- jective experiences, inventions or faculties such as the researcher’s “sense of smell”. In a publication during the last period of his life, dedicated to the study of the life and works of Emile Borel, 27 Fréchet would make a more rad- ical stance in the position he had adopted almost thirty years before in his exposé in the Entretiens de Zurich. He underlines Borel’s conception that mathematics should have a solid basis in concrete reality and in hu- man nature. With regard to the first idea, he reminds us that he expressed the point of view before that mathematical notions which are “truly new and important” have been suggested by problems thrown up by nature. In ”addition to these notions, mathematicians have developed others, through independent processes of (“artificials”) experience, in order to harmonise, generalise and simplify the results already obtained. This autonomous de- velopment of mathematics produces results which are “comfortable but not absolutely necessary”. With regard to Borel’s second idea, Fréchet thinks that the mathematician’s personality or mental characteristics (not the affective neither the cultural o social aspects) are “more or less inde- pendent of the studied domain”. Nevertheless they imprint a deep mark on his works, being responsible for the choice of his research problems and his epistemological focuses. It is thanks to them that:

Some mathematicians concentrate to discover amazing paradoxical situations; to diagnose “pathological cases”. (That) others, on the contrary, only study different cases in order to modify the definitions and in this way, to present such cases as particular cases that could have been predicted. (That) others, who are talented analysts search, for a particular mathematical quantity, to establish their properties, the more precise and useful formulae. (That) others, compare different mathematical quantities, establish their common proper- ties and formulate a theory that allows for the immediate postulation of all their common properties. 28

Fréchet never thought it to be necessary to go further than the declaration, to the logical explanation of the privilege that he assigns to the cognitive subject in the production of mathematical objectivity. One possible explan- ation maybe found examining his conceptions on experience as a condition of possibility of mathematical reasoning, the autonomy he concedes to the development of certain pure concepts, although they are auxiliaries to the fundamental ones (those obtained by experience), and his idea of construction of mathematics by the process of successive schematising or inductive synthesis, to which we will dedicate the second part of this study.




Fréchet’s ideas on the origin of mathematical notions in experience, are tightly related to his critical postures towards the difficulties of using the axiomatic-deductive method in the research and teaching of mathemat- ics. This opposition marks practically all his philosophical reflection, both historical or educational on mathematics. Perhaps the first publication in which Fréchet expressed himself openly on this subject was in the open- ing conference of the analysis course in the university of Strasbourg, 17 November 1919. 29 Fréchet was part of the group of professors whose offi- cial responsibility was to higher studies in the province of Alsace, once the French political control was established, as a consequence of the territorial distributions after the great war.

  • 2.1. Fréchet Reader of Arbogast: Critic to Formalism in Teaching

His inaugural talk was a carefully prepared piece; up to what was ex- pected of the strategic mission that was confided to him in a politically difficult situation. Fréchet chooses the mathematical work and intellectual biography of an eminent Alsacian – Louis-Francoise-Antoine Arbogast – in order to revindicate before his audience a set of themes that were undoubtedly of a central interest in such a context: (a) the originality of Arbogast’s contribution to mathematics (formal calculus of operat- ors, discontinuity of real functions, the algebraic study of holomorphic functions, 30 series theory). These helped Fréchet to emphasize that the boundaries of knowledge in mathematics can effectively pass to the dif- ferent regions; not only to central France; (b) his academic development and his public performance (particularly in educational institutions and in the National Convention), shows to what extent, Arbogast knew how to combine Alsacian tradition with the French esprit; and (c) his intellectual formation in the German culture and the regional influence that charac- terised him, were always far beyond any narrow sectarianism. Alborgast advocated the establishment of a unified regime throughout the country for the teaching of science in the French language, which should be car- ried out in agreement with the requirements of French pedagogy, which were notoriously superior, in his judgement to those used in the German educational institutions. We will now comment on this last point. Fréchet underlines Arbogast’s opinion in the general plan of public teaching adopted by the National Convention. He believed that the discov- ery method was also the most adequate way of communicating knowledge. Any person, independently of his/her capacities is able to understand the


chaining of ideas used to reach the invented object. For this, he/she only needs to be given, according to his/her intelligence, “the procedure ne- cessary to develop all intermediate ideas between what is already known, which is the starting point, and the unknown point we wish to arrive at”. 31 It is not about using the historical method at all costs, observes Fréchet. If in the present state of the theory there is a more direct procedure to introduce a particular piece of knowledge, compared with the one initially used, it would be useless to make the student take an indirect route. Arbo- gast considered this procedure fell within the analysis method. Apparently Fréchet represented it to himself, at least from the teaching point of view, in the following way: begin by introducing the problem in question in a few words; next step is to establish where the main difficulty lies, and to teach the student how to overcome it through a series of successive ap- proximations. For Fréchet, this method of presentation is most appropriate for the purposes of public instruction in the first Republic, in the same way as they were announced by Arbogast:

What he wanted above all, was to proscribe the method that presents science as a kind of divine revelation, through a succession of lemmas, theorems, and corollaries, each of which is perfectly demonstrated, but which succession develops according to a inaccessible and mysterious law. 32

Although comfortable, this dogmatism seems narrow to Fréchet, and besides, does not correspond to the French method of teaching. He re- commends helping to remove from the minds of those then training as candidates for the mathematics’ aggregation in France, the idea that what was important was comfort in the logic of presentation. The origin of this dogmatism is found in formalist conceptions of institutional organisation and the teaching of German mathematics. “The Germans try to adorn sci- ence purposely with certain mystery and do not mind being obscure as long as they appeared to be profound”. With respect to his teaching of analysis at Strasbourg university, Fréchet describes his orientation in his inaugural lecture:

Our ideal is completely the opposite; we would like to be so clear and simple that when the lesson is over the student can say to himself: “how is it that I did not think like this before myself?”. Probably it would go against our immediate prestige, but would be to our audience’s benefit. 33

  • 2.2. Fréchet’s conceptions on axiomatisation and “désaxiomatisation” in abstract spaces

In a conference given in Berna in 1925, 34 Fréchet returns to these consider- ations about the type of exposition which would be more convenient in the



teaching of mathematics, setting aside, for the time being, the chauvinistic treatment of the question he had used 5 years back. Without disowning the importance that the axiomatic-deductive method had then attained in mathematical activity, thanks to Hilbert’s school in Göttingen, he set out to explain in his article, the interest that a program of “désaxiomatisation” carried out in a parallel fashion, would have in teaching and research. He makes it clear that he is not an adversary of the ever more dominant tendency of basing science on the smallest possible number of simple principles. He himself had used this method with the “utmost persever- ance” in a considerable part of his work, between 1904–1925. 35 His main concern in this research has been to separate and extract from the lineal set theory (parts of R and R n ), and from the theory of real functions as well, those properties that do not depend on the nature of the objects in question. Without Fréchet using this terminology in any way, we may agree in that the formal class of these properties or mathematical propositions is precisely what he proposed to call the abstract spaces theory (spaces in which certain topology is defined). Based on this first class, Fréchet built another category of propositions and theories, which was more complex in formal ways: general analysis, one of whose chapters is precisely functional analysis. The intervention of the deductive method consisted, according to Fréchet, in making avail- able an adequate choice of axioms to establish increasingly general kinds of propositions and mathematical entities. For instance, the axiom of the metric and the topological properties associated with this notion, allowed him to structure the theory of metric spaces. This theory made possible the study of several kinds of functional spaces, (continuous functions, ana- lytical functions, curve spaces, etc.) which from then onwards, share the fact of having that same structure. The axiomatic-formal procedure was used again by Fréchet to characterise the topology of space not in terms of metric, but of convergence of numerable sequences or of neighborhood families. From this, more general theories or classes of topological spaces were delivered. 36 What is it then according to Fréchet the function of the “désaxiomatisa- tion”? We need first to remember what representation Fréchet constructs of the functioning of the axiomatic method? This implies a double interven- tion: (a) to constitute mathematical objects from empirical objects; or, in Fréchet’s terms to deduct the definitions from notions introduced from ex- perience, according to logical procedures; and (b) a second operation that can be understood as the formulation and demonstration of propositions that, through convenient hypothesis and certain modalities of reasoning (observation), affirm properties of such objects. In Fréchet own words, this


second intervention would consist of “trying to prove logically the laws of observation from convenient hypothesis”. 37 Then “désaxiomatisation” consists of carrying out with the sciences that have reached a high degree of axiomatisation, an inverse procedure from the one carried out by the understanding when constituting mathematical objects from empirical ob- jects (non-elementals). He considers that if the main task of the scientific researcher to contribute to the development and (formal) perfection of sci- ence, it is not forbidden for him to look back the road travelled and try to determine the results of individual efforts, with the added purpose of trying to control the negative effects of tradition and fashion. Although this perspective was frequently applied in mathematical activity, it did not constitute as yet an established doctrine. Then, Fréchet dedicates his 1925 conference to specify and justify his ideas on “désaxiomatisation” with a few elemental examples: the definition of the length of a circumference, the geometrical definition of the tangent to a curve and the definition of the differential of a real value function.

  • 2.3. Experience as the Founding Instance of Mathematical Entities

We will now consider the example of the definition of the length of the circumference. We will try to decipher Fréchet’s conceptions about the modalities of reasoning that may guide the subject, through acts of repres- entation of a given reality, which is external to him, to construct the object to which this definition may be applied. Without specifically referring to this in any part of the paper, Fréchet establishes a distinction between mathematics as a theory or class of propositions and as a human activity of reasoning with different modalities which are adjusted to certain logical procedures. He thinks that the subject is faced with a world of objects in perceptible reality, towards which he has formed representations of a cer- tain kind, mainly about their space-temporal characteristics. Through his experience with these objects, the subject is confronted with the practical problem of determining the length of the iron plaque with which to repair his carriage. He disposes of a serial of concepts and forms of assignation of concepts to objects, that allows him to determine an “experimental no- tion” of the length of the plaque. This notion is the following: it is about a deformable non-elastic longitudinal plaque, that is applied exactly to the wheel’s contour. This is the first moment of the axiomatisation procedural, as Fréchet understands it. In vain we may look (at least in this paper) for some philosophical interpretation on the relation of the object-subject relationship that allows us to understand the development of this experimental notion as an act of reasoning. We will consider this absence more precisely. Let us suppose,



against all evidence, that Fréchet understands the representation of this circumference-object, which is still not know in terms, for example, of the Kantian thesis on objective perception. But this elemental knowledge (the length of the plaque that fixes exactly around the wheel) would only be possible as the first of a series of subjective a priori constitutive acts. 38 Later, we will see that Fréchet would never agree with an interpretation like this. In reality, what Fréchet thinks is that that notion is “imposed” on the subject by experience, where experience – non-definable instance; information prior to all conceptualisation – would have, at the same time, a kind of intrinsic capacity to project this experimental notion on to the subject. We would then have, up to now, two characteristics of Fréchet’s conception on experience. 39 The philosophical explanation is not less absent in what refers to the second moment of the axiomatic method. In other words, the act of the subject from which the “logic definition” results, “which is found in all geometry books”: the length of the circumference as the limit of the total length of a regular convex polygon inscribed in the circumference, when the length of the side tends to zero. The geometrical (or logical) definition is different from the physical or experimental type, in that it is a com- bination (of course logical) of preceding notions. Fréchet does not think, naturally, this combination in terms of judgements that connect concepts of objects, and concepts of properties and relationships, even less of the dif- ferent acts involved in the exhibition of those objects and class of objects, and in the connection among them. This would have forced him to think of the criteria that the cognitive subject should mobilise in his consciousness in order to individualise objects, and to produce the definition of length as a synthesis of reasoning. And, therefore to take into account the intervention of pure intuition that secures the unity of objective consciousness in the synthesis. Fréchet escapes once again the a priori issue, having recourse to his idea of experience as original instance. The only objective of the geometrical definition – according to Fréchet – , is to allow for the pre- diction of the physical evaluation of length. This is because for him, there is no logical guarantee that the number corresponding to the geometrical definition agrees with the number that expresses the physical definition. The concordance is only probable (vraisemblable). It would originate in:

A series of experimental observations unconsciously stored in the understanding. The geo- meter already knew that when he placed a piece of string on wheels which are slightly irregular, but of the same diameter, he would find the same length. 40

We then find a third idea relating to Fréchet’s conception of experience:

this would be the only irrefutable guarantee 41 of the validity of math- ematical propositions. Because of this, it is necessary for him to do the


opposite thing, to return to experience to exam the correspondence of the geometrical definition with the experimental one. In other words, it requires what Fréchet calls “désaxiomatisation”, which aims at the direct or indirect verification of the mathematical result of a physical hypothesis. The verification of the concordance between the two definitions is more necessary than the teaching, as it is essential to make the student under- stand that all our science only give us an approximated idea of reality; and that an inductive theory can not by itself, explain the world of sens. 42 When the presentation method begins with the announcement of a system of axioms, the student refuses to accept as simple or intuitive the notions introduced by way of concepts, or the laws introduced as postulates. The student must be helped in the reconstruction of the abstraction work carried out by the author of the theory, in order for him no to deny his trust to the theory. The teaching of mathematics has to take into account that the axiomatic utterance and the deductive part of the theory are the result of a previous work. This previous work constitutes the moment of justification of all axioms. Jean-Louis Destouches had studied it as inductive synthesis:

the first of the three parts of the construction of all physical theory. In his communication for the Entretiens de Zurich Fréchet revisits Destouches’ ideas and proposes to add a forth section to his classification, precisely related to the verification of the agreement between what is abstracted, with concrete reality. This is the operation which he calls “désaxiomatisa- tion” and he assigns it an important role in the teaching of science and mathematics (see note 15). 43 We will now examine, in general terms, what Destouches-Fréchet’s classification consists of.

  • 2.4. The Inductive Synthesis and the Kantian Position on the Synthetic a priori

Destouches formulates these ideas in the context of his thesis on the form of physical theories. 44 In any (physical) theory, there is a preliminary part called inductive synthesis, which contains all reasoning that make up the general ideas at the base of the theory and its presentation as axiomatic utterances. The other part of the theory is deductive: it is formed by a set of results from which the axiomatic utterance is deducted as the application of rules of reasoning. According to Destouches, then, in a physical theory three parts must be considered: inductive synthesis, axiomatic utterance, and a deductive part. 45 The axiomatic utterance marks the end of the in- ductive synthesis and the beginning of the deductive part. All theoretical notion, (for instance geometry) are not purely arbitrary construction of reasoning. They are the result of a mental process of schematisation and abstraction from the physical reality. Besides, Destouches emphasises, it



is a schematization that proves to be efficient and useful in its summary applications and realisations where it was originally understood. As far as the rules and laws of reasoning that intervene in the constitution of the theoretical notion (form), they are neither a priori reality nor posses an absolute formative character a priori. They are separated (dégaées) from physical reality and are one of the first theoretical constructions by the same process of schematization and construction that gave rise to concepts and other theoretical notions. The theoretical form appears at moments in which the rules of reasoning and definition relate both terms and ut- terances. From certain notions it is then possible to move to others by means of definitions. Equally, it is possible to pass from one proposition to another using the rules of reasoning and the original utterances. As these utterances (concepts and postulates) are no evident in themselves, it is necessary for the understanding to intervene in their acceptance through a process of inductive synthesis. Among the different modalities of reasoning that constitute the induct- ive synthesis, Destouches stresses the following: experimentation, intuitive knowledge, previous theory considered as a summary of the theory that needs to be created, the combination of partial deductive theories, and diverse forms of induction and analogy. Fréchet undoubtedly adopts this classification in his conference of Entretiens de Zurich and, based on some examples, he shows how some of these forms of thought associate with different types of mathematical theories. It is not only the development of fundamental mathematical objects, that as we have already mention, originates, according to Fréchet, in experience. It is also the more abstract theories and notions, those that are “imagined by the mathematicians as useful devices that have not been imposed from outside”. 46 But what is absent both in Destouches as in Fréchet, is a satisfactory philosophical explanation of the modalities of reasoning that made up the classification schema. In this necessarily global view of Destouches’ thesis on inductive synthesis, we will focus on one idea that shows that although inductive synthesis aims at interpreting knowledge as a human activity of conceptual schematisation from reality, it reflects a convincing philosophical explana- tion of mathematical reasoning, as the Kantian thesis of a priori synthesis. At least in one important point: the no acceptation of the subject’s capacity (a priori) to produce concepts of pure forms through a synthesis of thought. Destouches states that in the different types or forms of thought of his schema, there is always a “subjective element”. But he understands it as: “a reasoning that some accept as justifying an axiomatic and, in consequence self-evident, would not be accepted by others”. 47 Nevertheless, in the Kantian thesis of the ‘Introduction’ to the


Critic to Pure Reason, as Panza remind us, from the moment an object becomes a subjective act, its relation to a pure form is seen as possible. It is pure intuition that will guarantee the availability of these pure forms (for example, circles and straight lines) and its compositions with others which are more complex (triangles and polygons). Equally, there is the pure intuition that guarantees the unity of subjective consciousness that connects concepts to pure forms through real judgements, in the sense that these synthetic a priori judgements express the conditions of a discursive knowledge a posteriori. These judgements are the dynamic principle of the pure understanding “analogies of experience” and “postulates of empirical thought in general”; they are rules “according to which a unity of exper- ience of perception can emerge”. 48 To sum up, if on one hand Fréchet agrees in understanding mathematics as acts of reasoning that lead from empirical definitions to mathematical definitions, on the other, he does not accept that synthetic judgements, through which such definitions are formulated and discerned, have the character of a priori judgements. This negation would lead him to maintain ambiguous stands, as some of his contemporaries pointed out to him on several occasions.

  • 2.5. The Dialectics of Gonseth: Mediation Between Fréchet’s “Empiricism” and Enriques’ Idealism

In the Entretiens de Zurich, the positions advocated by Fréchet on the origin of mathematical notions and the inductive synthesis gave rise to comments and criticisms from several of the participants: Gonseth, En- riques, Bernays, Lukasiewicz and Lebesgue. We will now look more closely at what the first two of these said about the subject we have been considering. 49 Enriques agrees with Fréchet that mathematics can not be reduced to its formal or logic aspect. However, he criticises him for fallen into excessive empiricism when trying to abandon pure logic. If it is true that this was a current philosophical position of that time, its explanation seemed insufficient to him. Essentially Enriques argues for the need to characterise the mathematical object as an idealised object, not as an object of direct experience. He accepts that Fréchet is right when he proposes a didactic strategy of geometry as the science of reality, but not at the cost of creating for the student grater difficulties in his interpretation of the nature of the act of reasoning. Certainly, for some ends within this strategy, it is possible to suggest that the students should represent geometrical objects as solid objects. But there is need to solve the obstacle of understanding, for example, the abstract rectangle as the measure of all possible material rectangles. The measure of all possible cubs is something very near to a cub, but it is not the cub itself. Nevertheless, Enriques goes further when



he states that “the idea of cub pre-exits in the understanding of each one of


(. . .

) the mathematical objects are not material objects, but ideals de-

veloped in human understanding by the intimate laws of the structure of the spirit”. Fréchet answers that “the intervention of the understanding does not consist in creating the fundamental concepts of human thought in a completely developed form, but only in separating the essential characters of certain class of concrete objects leaving aside the secondary particular- ities. In this way, certain concrete objects are made to correspond with an ideal object, a simpler one, and therefore one showing better the imprint of logical reasoning, but one that seems the most possible one to the concrete object”. 50 At the end of the debate, Gonseth acknowledges the coincidence of the two points of view, that he has stated in several of his works, with the ideas of Fréchet; particularly in two aspects: (a) the empirical roots of the fundamental mathematical notions, and (b) the commitment of all our conceptual apparatus to experience in its most ample sense (the lat- ter should include mental experience, according to Bernays’ suggestion, as well as experience of the physical world). But he objects to Fréchet’s former statement: “When Mr. Fréchet talks, for example, of the creation of a simplify image by the elimination of secondary qualities, Mr. Enriques could respond that none of those eliminations that do not already suppose the idea of the notion to abstract”. Further on, in the ‘Conclusions’ (see Note 20), Gonseth reiterates that Enriques’ objection is a serious one, and that the geometrical idea of the cub is not an experimental measure among all possible realisations of the cub; that mathematical beings are ideal objects, created by the understanding with a certain independence from the immediate and conscious experimentation. And given that, previously, Bernays had pointed out that the debate could not be confined within tra- ditional philosophical stands, which are extremely schematic and simple, he takes on himself the task of reviewing such positions; especially as the relationships between intuition and experimentation, had been, if that were the case, suggested in the interventions. From this perspective, Gonseth aligns himself with Fréchet against the idealist conception expressed by Enriques, that creation is a product which is completely independent from understanding, and was simply under the immanent demands of reason. He proposes to interpret the question through the idea of dialect inspired by some of the philosophical comments of Lebesgue’s presentation to the Entretiens. 51 Lesbegue had said that mathematical activity develops as a double ten- sion between the study’s theme (object and aim to be reached) and the appropriate mode of reasoning. Gonseth proves that this idea has already


been validated by historical experience, and that it is consistent with the fact that scientific activity is not informed automatically and exclusively by the formal logic. Then, he suggests an interpretation of Lebesgue’s position, based on a three level dialectic: (a) the meaning of things which are been talked about; (b) the purposes of thought when talking about what is being talked about; and (c) the already accepted ways of talk- ing about the subject with good sense and efficiency. On the horizon of dialectic, Gonseth adds, logic is found: the order of the symbolic, at the limit, eliminates the dialectic’s three moments; or, in other words, in logic, the intentional dialect’s order disappears. Now, mathematical activity in its widest sense should incorporate, besides knowledge of a psychological order, the knowledge of the world of natural and physical reality. Then, Gonseth proposes a classification of mathematical activities according to the different essential intentions they are aiming at: (a) Dialectics of sen- sation: Intentional activities addressed to the real world and controlled by sensitive intuition (geometry, cinematic, the mathematical theory of colours); (b) Dialectics of the systematic experience: Intentional activities like the former ones but using systematic experience to intervene (rational mechanics, classical or relativist mechanics and other mathematisation of phenomena); and (c) Dialectics of our elemental behaviours: Intentional activities and elemental behaviour related to the most primitive aspects of the physical and mental world (elemental arithmetic and logic). From this schema, Gonseth believes it possible to establish a comprom- ise between Fréchet’s realism and the idealism of which Enriques was the spokesman, at least on one occasion. In sensation dialectics information is exercise through a priori forms of intuition. These forms are unques- tionably normative in character. The ideas that they develop are reason entities in Enriques’ sense. But it is necessary not to forget that contact with the real is established precisely through the forms of the intuition and the senses. Therefore, the content of such forms should be thought of as schematic representation of reality. The same can be said about all math- ematical activity that points, directly or through intuition of the senses, to knowledge of the real. This experiment does not exhaust all possibilities of mathematical activities. There are the dialectics which are directed towards the infinite and the formal. The mathematical objects that intervene here are not schematic images of a certain reality obtained immediately, from the “natural and not specifically mathematical play of intuitive forms and the “previous” categories that all human adults have at their disposition. They are abstract entities created by the mathematical imagination, or im- mediate intuitive representations, or by analogy and extension”. They are the objects of general analysis and the theory of abstract spaces to which



Fréchet refers in the second part of his presentation. As Lebesgue had in- sisted that the objects in this new dialectic should be thought of at the same time as the logic that is convenient to them, Gonseth adds that these last dialectics are not a formalism. In the same way as “first degree” dialectics are based on the intuitive knowledge of the objects to which they refer, the knowledge of “second grade dialectics” also involve their own intuition and their own evidence, even if they are not explicitly formulated. The guarantee of their coherence and legitimacy is given by the fact that activity at this level develops in a symbolic universe which is more or less conven- tional, influenced by intuitions and evidences. With this articulated schema of evidences, Gonseth has attempted to contribute to the characterisation of the intentions that underlie the different manifestations of mathematical activity. This is an attempt at explanation that tries to overcome the level of general formulae, devoid of content. It is part of a mathematical philo- sophy, yet to be built, says Gonseth, that should be rigorous and adequate. An “utilitarian philosophy” destined above all, to examine and explain how the mathematical thought operates; how mathematics are built in reality and in a precise fashion.


  • 1 Analysing the impact of these conceptions on young Einstein, Michel Paty has done an interesting panoramic revision on the essential aspects that characterises “the nov- elty” of these philosophical stands. Particularly in regard to the experience’s problem and the foundations of the modern physic-mathematical sciences: Paty, M.: 1993. Einstein Philosophe. Paris P.U.F. The last two parts of this work Parcours épistémologiques and Construction théorique et réalite, are very informative on this question. In the present paper and in others on the philosophical problematic of mathematics and experience, we have gained from this and other Paty’s studies, from his generous personal talks in Colombia and France, as well as from his conferences and courses as a visiting professor at Univer- sidad del Valle (Cali). Particularly important, for clarifying several punctual questions on Poincaré, was his December 1997 course in our Ph.D academic program on mathematical education.

  • 2 Freuler, L.: 1995. Les tendances majeures de la philosophie autour de 1900, in M. Panza and J.-C. Pont (eds.), Les savants et l’épistémologie vers la fin du XIXe siècle. Paris, Blanchard, pp. 1–15.

  • 3 Le Roy, E. (1901): ‘Sur quelques objections adressées à la nouvelle philosophie’, Revue de métaphysique et de Morale, IX, pp. 292–327, 407–432; cited in: Freuler (1995), p. 9.

  • 4 Poincaré, H.: 1891, ‘Les géométries non-euclidiennes’, Revue générale des sciences pures et appliquées 2, 769–774. in Poincaré (ed.), (1902): La science et l’hypothèse. Paris, Flammarion; Chap. 3. In this and other relating parts to Poincaré’s conceptions on space and geometry, we have profited from Paty’s readings of this part of Poincaré’s studies. See Paty (1995, pp. 250–264).


    • 5 For the same reasons he considers they are not analytical judgements. See H. Poincaré, (1886–1887): ‘Sur les hypothèses fondamentales de la géométrie’, Bulletin de la Société Mathématique de France XV, 203–216. At the beginning of his studies on non-Euclidean geometries, he affirms too, that the characterisation of geometrical propositions will not concern itself with analytical a priori judgements. These are not geometrical propositions, but belong to analysis. They are axioms of the type “two quantities equal to a third one are equal between them”, on which all educational science are based: Poincaré (1902, p. 63).

    • 6 Poincaré, H.: 1895. ‘L’espace et la géométrie’, in H. Poincaré (ed.), (1902, Chap. 4), Revue de métaphysique et de morale 3, 631–646.

    • 7 For Poincaré geometry is the study of the formal properties of a certain group of trans- formations. Almost ten years before his 1895 work on space and geometry, Poincaré had set himself to determine the conditions that a group of transformations should be con- sidered a geometry. In particular an Euclidean geometry in two dimensions. The criteria for the selection of such conditions, are precisely the simplicity and comfort regarding the representation of physical phenomena. See Poincaré, H.: 1886–1887. ‘Sur les hypo- thèses fondamentales de la géométrie’, Bulletin de la Société Mathématique de France XV, 203–216.

    • 8 Poincaré (1902, p. 75).

    • 9 Cantor, G.: 1883. Über unendliche lineare Punktmannigfaltifkeiten, 5, Math. Annalen 21, 546–586. French translation (1883) in Acta Mathematica 2, 381–408.

      • 10 Poincaré (1902, p. 76).

      • 11 Panza, M.: 1995a. L’intuition et l’évidence. La philosophie kantienne et les géométries non euclidiennes: relecture d’une discussion. In Panza and Pont (1995; pp. 39–87). See paragraph 4.4 Poincaré: Géométrie et groupes de transformations, pp. 65–68.

      • 12 Poincaré, H.: 1905. La valeur de la science. Paris, Flammarion. See 1970 edition, L’intuition et la logique en mathématiques, Chap. 1, pp. 27–40.

      • 13 Poincaré (1970, pp. 33, 39).

      • 14 Otte and Panza: 1997a. ‘Mathematics as an Activity and the Analytic-Synthetic Distin- tion’, in M. Otte and M. Panza (eds.), Analysis and Synthesis in Mathematics. History and Philosophy, Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp. 261–271.

      • 15 Otte, M.: 1991. O formal, o social e o subjetivo. Uma Introdução à Filosofia e à Didáctica da Matemática. São Paulo, Unesp. Translation from the original in German: M. Otte (1994) Das Formale, das Soziale und Subjektive. EineEinführung in die Philosophie und Didaktik der Mathematik, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M. See particularly Chap. 15: ‘In- tuição e lógica em matemática’, pp. 301–318. Of interest on the same subject is: Otte, M.: 1994a. ‘Intuition and Logic in Mathematics’, in D. F. Robitaille, D.H. Wheeler and C. Kieran (eds.), Selected Lectures from the 7th International Congress on Mathematical Education, Les Presses de l’Université de Laval, Sainte-Foy, Québec, pp. 271–284.

      • 16 Otte (1991, pp. 310–311).

      • 17 Fréchet: 1955. Mathematiques et le concret, Paris, P.U.F., p. 18.

      • 18 Fréchet, op. cit., p. 21. Further on page 32, when examining Poincaré’s ideas on con- ventions, Fréchet agrees with those that object to Poincaré for having placed the complete induction principle outside experience.

      • 19 Fréchet, op. cit., p. 28.

      • 20 Fréchet’s comments on Poincaré’s conventionalism were made in his 1938 lecture in the Entretiens de Zurich, but was not published in the memoirs of that meeting and edited by Gonseth and published three years later: Fréchet, M.: 1941, ‘L’Analyse générale et la question des fondements’, Les Entretiens de Zurich sur les fondements et la méthode des



sciences mathématiques, Zurich, Leemann, pp. 53–81. Fréchet only published the com- plete text of this conference fifteen years later, with a title that emphasises the genetic character of the question: “Les origines des notions mathématiques”, in M. Fréchet: 1955. Mathématiques et le concret, Paris, P.U.F., pp. 11–51.

  • 21 Fréchet was an assiduous reader of Enriques, and cites him on several occasions in his lecture of the Entretiens, and with whom he kept an interesting discussion to which we will refer later. In this conference, Fréchet mentions his publications in the list of cited authors:

Enriques, F.: 1912. ‘La critique des principes et son rôle dans le développement des math- ématiques’, Scientia 12, 59–79. The critical positions on Poincaré and conventionalism were originally published in the second part of: Enriques, F.: 1906. Problemi della Scienza, Zanichelli, Bologna. This part was translated into French in F. Enriques (1919), Les con- cepts fondamentaux de la science: leur signification réelle et leur acquisition psycologique, Paris, Flammarion.

  • 22 Enriques (1919, pp. 11–12).

  • 23 Fréchet (1955, pp. 32–34).

  • 24 “Enriques finds the justification of the conventions either in the critically evaluated data by the psychology of senses and the analysis of sensations, or in the general laws of association of ideas”, in L. Rougier (trans.), ‘Avertissement’, in Enriques (1919, pp.


  • 25 This terminology is not foreign to Fréchet’s discourse when he expresses his ideas. In this context he includes the following reference to Poincaré to back up his argumentation:

‘(. . .

) All probability problem presents two study periods: The first one is, the so called,

metaphysical: legitimates such or such convention. The second, mathematics, applies to

such conventions the rules of the calculus’, Fréchet (1955, p. 32).

  • 26 Poincaré, H.: 1902. La science et l’hipothèse. Flammarion, Paris. See 1968 edition (Chap. 6, p. 128). It is interesting to complete here Poincaré’s quotation: “Conventions, yes; arbitrary, no”; They would be so if it was not taken into account those experiences that led the founders of the science to adapt them, even if they were imperfect, it is enough to adapt them. It would be good from time to time, to focus our attention on the experimental origin of such conventions.

  • 27 Fréchet, M.: 1965. La vie et l’œuvre d’Émile Borel. L’Enseignement mathématique,

Genève; second part ‘Les tendances générales de l’oeuvre scientifique d’Emile Borel’ (see

particularly pp. 39–42).

  • 28 Fréchet (1965, p. 40).

  • 29 Fréchet, M.: 1920. ‘Les mathématiques à l’université de Strasbourg’, La Revue du Mois 21, 337–362. Reproduced almost totally in: Fréchet (1955, pp. 368–388), under the title ‘Biographie du mathématicien Alsacien Arbogast’.

  • 30 A function f is holomorphic in a point z 0 over an open domain D of C, if and only if, f is defined on a neighborhood of z 0 and f is derivable in z 0 . The function f is then infinitly derivable in z 0 . If z is holomorphic in all points of D, f is analytic on D. The holomorphic concept was introduced by Cauchy in 1851, under the name “synectique”. Briot and Bouquet substituted this word by the word “holomorphic” in their 1859 study on double periodical functions. See J. Dieudonné (ed.): 1978. Abrége d’histoire des mathématiques. 1700–1900 (2 volumes). Paris, Hermann, Vol. 1, p. 147 and ss.

  • 31 Quoted in Fréchet (1955), op. cit., p. 383.

  • 32 Fréchet (1955), op. cit., p. 383.

  • 33 Fréchet (1955), op. cit., p. 383. Immediately Fréchet backs himself up in the following opinion – that coming from Émile Picard, then life time secretary of the Paris Academy


of Sciences – shows to what extent it was shared by a group of personalities in the French mathematical community of the time, as opposed to their German colleagues: “Usually, among the most illustrious ones, the guiding ideas remain obscure, maybe intentionally

(. . .

) the reader walks with difficulty without knowing where to go”.

  • 34 Fréchet, M. (1925): ‘Sur une désaxiomatisation de la science’, conference published for the first time in: Fréchet (1955), pp. 1–10.

  • 35 In this year (1925), Fréchet had already finished writing his study on abstract spaces [Fréchet 1928], which would be circulated among a selected group of his colleagues at international level. In the book and in Fréchet’s correspondence of the Paris Academy of Sciences, numerous traces can be found of the objectives reorganisation process, re- organisation of propositions, legitimation of criteria, to which the manuscript had to be submitted to finally adopt the formal organisation of the published text. See: Arboleda (1979, 1981, 1984) (compacidity); Gispert (1980) (dimension); Taylor (1982, 1985, 1987). This too is the year in which Fréchet published an article on which he will elaborate the interesting ‘Introduction’ to Abstracts Spaces: Fréchet, M.: 1925. ‘L’Analyse générale et les Ensembles abstraits’, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 32, 1–30.

  • 36 Fréchet (1955), op. cit., p. 2.

  • 37 Fréchet (1955), op. cit., p. 3. Fréchet does not explicitly use philosophical categories (Kantians or of other types) in his argumentation. But as he is approaching as a matter of fact a philosophical problematic on the act of knowledge, we consider relevant here the use of these type of categories. This has made possible: (a) a more systematic reading of articles published at different times and of different purposes; (b) to decipher the meaning of its argumentation; and (c) finally, to identify and characterise ambiguities in his conceptions. Obviously, if our interpretation of such categories and their application to the study of Fréchet’s ideas are correct.

  • 38 As in other parts of this study, we use here Panza’s study dedicated in several of his publications on Kant’s philosophical thesis on mathematics. Most important for us has been his reading of the Critic to the Pure Reason in Panza (1997a). We have also benefitted from his courses on history and philosophy of mathematics in May 1998 and April 1999, in the PhD program on Mathematical Education at Universidad del Valle. We have also clarified doubts consulting: Friedman, M.: 1992. Kant and the Exact Sciences, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

  • 39 In an interesting study of the philosophy of Ferdinand Gonseth, Panza criticises his frequent use of the experience notion as a first step of the relationship of man with the world, and judgment of reason, without going further into the formulation of philosophical hypothesis on the forms of the relationships and the sanctions implied in these statements. “Therefore, as “manifest” experience, all “experience” needs a previous step to formulate the problem (the gnoseological problem per excellency)”. Panza, M.: 1992a. ‘Gonseth et les prolégomènes d’une logique de la connaissance’, in M. Panza and J.-C. Pont (eds.), Espace et horizons de réalité. Masson, Paris, pp. 23–45.

  • 40 Fréchet (1955; p. 4).

  • 41 It is important to mention here Panza’s opinion, at the end of his study (Panza, 1997a, p. 323): “Therefore, the philosophy of mathematics’ objective to me, is to provide powerful categories that allow the characterisation and understanding of mathematics as a typical human activity, and not founded or legitimised on an irrefutable guarantee –although to un- derstand a mathematical theory is also to return to its origins and to clarify (and eventually to discuss) its reasons”.

  • 42 Fréchet (1955; p. 16).



  • 43 The apart of the Communication of the Entretiens in which Fréchet mentions Destouches’ ideas, is titled ‘Les quatre parties de chaque science mathématique’ [Fréchet 1941, pp. 55–60]. Let’s remember that this is a summary version. It does not include several examples in which Fréchet analyses the inductive synthesis study that has allowed to built in a deductive way, several correlated mathematical notions: the infinite, the numerable successions, and the principle of complete induction.

  • 44 Destouches, J.-L.: 1938, Essai sur la forme générale des théories physiques. Thèse principale pour le Doctorat-ès-Lettres. Université de Paris (see Chap. IV). On this ques- tion, we have used a sample of the following manuscript that is found in Biblioteca L. A. Arango, Bogotá: Destouches, J.-L, (1955): Cours de Logique et Philosophie générale, 4 ed., Centre de Documentation Universitaire, Paris (see Chap. 3). Lets remember here that Destouches had an intense intellectual relationship with Fréchet. The second facsimile of the series ‘Exposés d’Analyse générale’ directed by Fréchet in Hermann, was highlighted by Destouches when he pointed out the importance, that around 1930, was initially re- cognised of the abstract spaces theory (particularly metric spaces) in quantic physics and wave mechanics was mentioned. There, Destouches expresses the following opinion: “It is possible to say that the abstract spaces theory constitutes the geometrical bases that quanta physicians should know, in the same way in which the Riemannian spaces constitute the geometrical base of the relativity theory”: Destouches, J.-L.: 1935. Le rôle des espaces abstraits en physique nouvelle, Paris, Hermann.

  • 45 Destouches (1955, pp. 25–26). Fréchet prefers to talk of four parts in each mathematical theory: inductive synthesis, separation from them of the axiomatic enunciations, deductive theory and verification of its consequences. This last part precisely results from the “désax- iomatización” function. Fréchet defines it as follows: ‘verification of the consequences of the theory when the abstract notions that figure in it are substituted by the concrete notions to which they try to represent schematically’, Fréchet (1955, p. 22).

  • 46 Fréchet (1955, p. 37). These notions are not schemas of reality. They are mathem- aticians’ abstract creations through reasoning formed by analogy, extension, scaling of deductive processes from preliminary theories etc.

  • 47 Destouches (1955). Maybe this relativisation of the capacity of the subjective syn- thesis act to produce objectivity explains Fréchet’s determination to add a fourth item to Destouches’ classification: The verification – through the “désaxiomatisation” – of the mathematical propositions obtained in the inductive-axiomatisation-deduction chain. It is something more than objectivity’s natural pulsing, that he demands for the research spirit, to go back to the intentional act that originated reasoning, in order to verify that its purpose was not abandoned half way.

  • 48 Panza (1997a, p. 290).

  • 49 The outline of this debate was organised by Gonseth as co-ordinator of the Entretiens and as the debates’ chairman. The complete content was published both in Fréchet (1941) as in Fréchet (1955, pp. 45–51). Gonseth’s general comments, in which he analysis these and other discussions that took place in the Entretiens, are only to be found in the pro- ceedings of the meeting: Gonseth (1941); ‘Conclusions. Sur le role unificateur de l’idée de dialectique’, pp. 188–209.

  • 50 Frechet (1955, pp. 47–48). Fréchet had supported a similar idea in his communication, which he identifies with Bacon’s method: “(this) consists of separating, gradually, from the regularities, from the approximated permanencies that we see around us in a multitude of similar phenomena, permanencies more general each time, and gives schematic represent- ations, each time more simple of the sensitive world, but making sure, at each step, that the


approximations obtained remain within their admissible limits (limits conditioned by the successive states of our instruments and measurement methods)” (op. cit., p. 17). 51 Lesbegue, H.: “Les controverses sur la théorie des ensembles et la question des fondaments”, in Gonseth (1941, pp. 109–124).


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