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Synthese (2008) 162:225233

DOI 10.1007/s11229-007-9177-6

From geometry to phenomenology


Mirja Helena Hartimo

Received: 15 September 2006 / Accepted: 17 April 2007 / Published online: 26 May 2007
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Abstract Richard Tieszen [Tieszen, R. (2005). Philosophy and Phenomenological


Research, LXX(1), 153173.] has argued that the group-theoretical approach to modern geometry can be seen as a realization of Edmund Husserls view of eidetic intuition. In support of
Tieszens claim, the present article discusses Husserls approach to geometry in 18861902.
Husserls first detailed discussion of the concept of group and invariants under transformations takes place in his notes on Hilberts Memoir Ueber die Grundlagen der Geometrie that
Hilbert wrote during the winter 19011902. Husserls interest in the Memoir is a continuation of his long-standing concern about analytic geometry and in particular Riemann and
Helmholtzs approach to geometry. Husserl favored a non-metrical approach to geometry;
thus the topological nature of Hilberts Memoir must have been intriguing to him. The task of
phenomenology is to describe the givenness of this logos, hence Husserl needed to develop
the notion of eidetic intuition.
Keywords Husserl Geometry Eidetic intuition Group theory Foundations
of geometry Hilbert

1 Introduction
In Hilberts famous Paris list of problems, the fifth challenge was to formulate Lies concept
of a continuous group of transformations without the assumption of the differentiability
of the functions defining the group. To solve the problem Hilbert wrote a short memoir
on the foundations of geometry ber die Grundlagen der Geometrie during the winter

The author wishes to thank Academy of Finland for financial assistance that enabled her to work on this
article.
M. H. Hartimo (B)
Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Philosophy,
University of Tampere,
Pinni A, Tampere 33014, Finland
e-mail: mirja.hartimo@uta.fi

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1901/1902, and published as an appendix of the English translation of the Foundations


of Geometry in 1902, and separately, in more detail, in Mathematische Annalen in 1903.
In the memoir Hilbert partially solves the fifth problem using group theory, Cantors set
theory and the notion of Jordan curve. (To distinguish the Memoir from Hilberts 1899
Grundlagen der Geometrie, I will call the 1903 published paper Memoir and the 1899
foundations Festschrift.) Husserl took detailed notes on the Memoir which were published
in Husserliana XXI. The objective of this paper is to explain Husserls interest in Hilberts
Memoir. It will be argued that Husserls interest is a continuation of his long-standing concern
about analytic geometry and in particular Riemann and Helmholtzs approach to geometry. In
his notes Husserl also displays understanding of group-theoretical notions for the first time.
Thus it may have motivated Husserl in his subsequent work on eidetic intuition. In any case,
information about Husserls engagement with geometry is useful in assessing Husserls later
claims about geometry.
The paper clarifies one respect in which the roots of phenomenology are in mathematics: Husserl was initially led to phenomenology in order to provide foundations for analysis
(cf. Hartimo 2006); the subsequent development of mathematics towards a more structural
approach suggested to Husserl the view of ideality which was crucial to his rejection of psychologism (Hartimo 2007); this paper suggests that Husserls interest in the group-theoretical
approach to geometry might have inspired his eidetic phenomenology.

2 Two routes towards intrinsic geometry


Already in 1679 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz criticized Descartess analytic geometry for not
being properly geometrical and direct (Dorier 1995, p. 234). Similarly, in the 19th century
analytic geometry came under heavy criticism. The idea of analyzing geometrical figures
by means of calculation was considered external and transitory (Dorier 1995, p. 254). The
same charge was brought against the projective geometers in Gttingen in the 1870s and
1880s. The objection was that numerical coordinates incorporate Euclidean distance, and
hence using the coordinates is viciously circular (Tappenden 1995, pp. 324325; Klein 1979,
p. 141).
These charges motivated von Staudt and others to search for a purely qualitative projective
basis for analytic geometry. Klein, in particular, emphasized the need for a solution (Johnson
1979, p. 127). The development culminated in Hilberts Festschrift, the first edition of which
was published in 1899. In it Hilbert sought to develop plane geometry independently of
the Archimedean axiom (given any two line segments, either may be exceeded by an entire
multiple of the other), which brings an arithmetical element into geometry. In his work,
Hilbert developed a segment calculus independent of the Archimedean axiom, thus giving
elementary foundations to analytic geometry (Bernays 1967, pp. 497498).
The search for intrinsic methods and the development of pure geometry took also place
in the attempts to legitimize the use of complex numbers by giving them a geometrical representation. A great deal of work was carried out in this field in the early 19th century, most
notably by Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1831 and Augustin-Louis Cauchy in 1849 (Dorier 1995,
p. 234). Later Frege, among others, held that geometric interpretations of the complex numbers introduce foreign elements into analysis (Tappenden 2006, p. 124). For the present
purposes a particularly important work is Hermann Grassmanns (18091877) Theory of
Extension (1844). In this at first relatively unknown work, Grassmann attempted to give an
abstract foundation of the theory of space as a pure mathematical science, freed from any
spatial intuition. Independently of Gauss, Grassmann treated complex numbers in a manner

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similar to Gausss. Grassmanns Theory of Extension is a coordinate-free geometrical calculus, a theory of n-dimensional vector spaces (Torretti 1978, p. 109).

3 Husserl and the externality of the analytic tradition


In the 1890s Husserls worry was that space could not be properly analyzed by means of
analytic geometry. According to Husserl, the usage of analytic methods brought artificial and
unjustified constraints to the representation of space. Likewise, in his Habilitationsschrift
from (1887) Husserl had already questioned Helmholtzs view that the analytic methods
advantageously allow the geometrical results to be obtained by calculation without needing
intuition in proofs. Husserl claimed that obviously even the analytic method presupposes
certain facts of intuition in assuming the general hypotheses according to which every
geometrical form can be algebraically defined by means of an equation, and according to
which, then from every algebraic relation a geometrical relation can be derived. Husserl
continues: For does not the well-known, fundamental expedient of analytic geometry, which
first makes possible the transposition just mentionednamely, the univocally characterizing
statement of any spatial point by means of the vectorial numbers of its distances for three
fixed co-ordinate axesrest upon the peculiar properties of our representation of space?
(Husserl 1970, pp. 293294; English translation Husserl 2003, pp. 309310). The analytic
geometers who claimed to avoid the customary facts of intuition for conceptual necessities
relied on Cartesian or skewed coordinates and hence seemed to take some facts of intuition
as conceptual necessities. Hence, Husserl writes that
It is obvious that, so long as the relation of arithmetic to geometry is not completely
cleared up, no attempt to answer questions of principle in geometry by numerical
analysis offers us a sure guarantee that we are not being led in a circle as, in my
opinion, actually occurs with the Riemann-Helmholtz theory. (Husserl 1970, p. 294;
English translation Husserl 2003, pp. 309310.)
Husserl expresses similar criticisms in his lectures of 18901891, when, as requested
by his students, Husserl discussed raumlogischen questions and especially the Riemann
Helmholtz theory of space (Husserl 1983, p. 250). In the lectures Husserl had first discussed
the disputed questions in geometry related to general arithmetic and analysis. The published
part starts with an overview of the development of Euclidean geometry, the problem of
parallels, and the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry. Husserl gives a detailed exposition of Gausss theory of curvature. Then Husserl goes on to criticize Riemanns manifolds,
claiming that Riemanns theory of curvature cannot be taken as an adequate generalization of Gausss theory. In the end, Husserl raises objections especially towards Riemanns
approach following Minding, Kronecker, and Beez (Husserl 1983, pp. 337342). For the
present purposes Husserls more philosophical objections towards the whole approach is
most interesting. Hussel first repeats the claim from the Habilitationsschrift that to think that
the general theory of curvature could clarify the logical foundations of geometry amounts to
reasoning in a circle: Ich behaupte: Die ganze Tendenz der philosophisch-mathematischen
Untersuchungen, welche in Gauss, Riemann und Helmholtz ihre hervorragendsten Vertreter
besitzt, beruht auf einem vollstndigen Zirkel, Husserl claims (Husserl 1983, p. 344). To
him Gauss already presupposes three dimensional space in his definition of a line-element
(Husserl 1983, p. 344). Hence, Gausss work is already, according to Husserl, viciously
circular.

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From the present-day standpoint Husserls criticism appears silly: he does not seem to
understand Gausss empirical and dynamic approach at all. However, similar criticism has
been expressed by D. M. Johnson in 1979 from the point of view of the development of
topology. According to Johnson, [o]n a very profound level there is a serious problem related
to Riemanns entire approach. Ultimately he links his basic topological objects with numbers
and coordinate systems. In other words, a Riemannian manifold is always reducible to a
number-manifold. Consequently, when trying to construct a framework for nonmetrical
analysis situs, he nonetheless seems to fall back on concepts of measurement and ordinary
analytic geometry. In this way he appears to complete a logical circle (1979, p. 126). The
ultimate solution to this problem requires the concept of a topological mapping (Johnson
1979, p. 127). Thus Husserls criticism could be understood to express a worry that fueled
the subsequent development of topology. Husserl wanted the analysis situs to be entirely
non-metrical.
Husserls final point is that [t]he truth is that the concept of surface is not mathematically
but only logically definable, and that mathematics cannot do anything but presuppose this
concept, and with help of its determinations declare mathematical characteristics, through
which one can express the position of a point in such surface manifold. Not the concept of
surface manifold, but the position of a point in a surface manifold is to be mathematically
defined. (Husserl 1983, pp. 345346). Husserl also complains that in Riemannian geometry,
Euclidean geometry is just an arbitrary case of geometry in general (Husserl 1983, p. 347).
Hence, Husserl thinks that only mathematical, not philosophical, value can be attributed to
Riemanns theory (Husserl 1983, p. 347). Bertrand Russell has formulated the issue more
poetically as follows: For mathematics, where quantity reigns supreme, Riemanns conception has proved itself abundantly fruitful; for philosophy, on the contrary, where quantity
appears rather as a cloak to conceal the qualities it abstracts from, the conception seems to
me more productive of error and confusion than of sound doctrine. (Russell 1897, p. 69).
Later, the Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie followed in the steps of Riemann and
Helmholtz in solving Helmholtzs problem of space purely mathematically by use of transformation groups (Torretti 1978, p. 154, 172). No detailed notes on Lies work can be found
in Husserls published writings. This is not surprising because Husserl writes in a letter to
Natorp that he engaged in an intense investigation in geometry, arithmetic, and the theories
of manifolds in the years from 1888 to 1893 (Husserl 1983, p. 396), while Lie published
his first papers on the foundations of geometry in 1890, but the third volume of his Theory
of Transformation Groups, in which Lie gave the most expanded solution to Helmholtzs
problem of space, appeared in 1893 (Torretti 1978, p. 154). Curiously, however, Husserl
mentions Lies transformation groups in Prolegomena as an example of a theory of theories.
However, Husserls list of potentially fruitful theories is long and contradictory. Besides Lies
transformation groups, Husserl explicitly mentions Cantors, Grassmanns, and Hamiltons
approaches as well as RiemannianHelmholtzian theory (Husserl 1975, p. 252).
In an 1892 letter to Brentano, Husserl claims that he has changed his view about Riemann
Helmholtz view. However, though he now thinks that the RiemannHelmholtz theory has
a valuable core, he himself has followed a much deeper and unvergleichlich ebener und
leichter way in his investigations (Husserl 1994b, p. 11). Around 1893 Husserl drafted an
outline for how one should proceed in solving the problem of space. Husserls to-do list is
the following:
the origin and content of the geometrically basic concepts have to be studied
the origin and content of the axioms, and thereby are also clarified
the origin and content of the geometrical space. (Husserl 1983, p. 286)

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This list suggests that Husserl favored a synthetic approach to geometry. However,
Husserl did not want to compromise the method of calculation either and accordingly favored
Hermann Grassmanns approach. Here, Husserls criticism of Ernst Schrders Vorlesungen
is analogous to his criticism of analytic geometry. Husserl complains about the externality
of calculations that were used in place of genuine deductions (Husserl 1983, p. 8, 1994a,
p. 56) as well as of the arbitrariness of Schrders stipulative definitions that did not capture
the natural processes of thought (Husserl 1983, p. 33, 1994a, p. 81). In general Husserl
does not object to calculations as such, but only that they were not founded on genuine
thought. This attitude is demonstrated in his remarks on geometry as well. For a long time
Husserl thought that Grassmanns Ausdehnungslehre provided the approach that combined
the logical analysis of our space intuition and the analytic methods purely, without presupposing Cartesian coordinates. In 1897, Husserl still thought that the only satisfactory general
framework for Euclidean manifolds could be found in Grassmanns Ausdehnungslehre of
1862 (In a letter to Natorp in March 29, 1897. Husserl 1994c, pp. 6061).
However, by the turn of the century Husserl is in approximate agreement with Hilbert,
who views the axiomatics as the way of proper analysis of our perception of space. In 1901
Husserl gave two lectures to a Gttingen mathematical society. Husserls view of Definitheit in his Double Lectures has been discussed in detail in Authors (2007) paper, so I
will not digress now except to mention that in his lectures Husserl shares Hilberts view
of completeness or definiteness of an axiom system as categoricity. Thus Husserls development in the 1890s takes him from the justification of imaginaries through Grassmannian
approach to axiomatics. Contrary to Hilbert, who was influenced by projective geometry,
Husserl followed the route via justification of the complex numbers. In Husserls writings
the search for intrinsic methods is clearly combined with the desire to justify the usage of
complex numbers. Accordingly Husserl explains in the Formal and Transcendental Logic
that his initial motivation to study definite systems came from questions such as: Under what
conditions can one operate freely, in a formally defined deductive system with concepts
that, according to the definition of the system, are imaginary? (Husserl 1974, p. 101.
English translation 1969, p. 97). Likewise in the foreword to the Philosophie der Arithmetik,
Husserl held that in the second volume he is going to discuss a new philosophical theory of
Euclidean geometry based on Gausss work Anzeige der Theoria residuorum biquandraticorum, Commentatio secunda from 1831 (Husserl 1970, p. 8). Husserl was inspired by Gausss
treatment of complex numbers in his 1831 work and for the same reasons Husserl seems to
have been interested in Grassmanns Ausdehnungslehre (Husserl 1983, pp. 396397).
Thus Husserls statement in the Formal and Transcendental Logic (1929) summarizes his
and Hilberts development:
Throughout the present exposition I have used the expression complete system of
axioms, which was not mine originally but derives from Hilbert. Without being guided
by the philosophico-logical considerations that determined my studies, Hilbert arrived
at his concept of completeness (naturally quite independently of my still-unpublished
investigations); he attempts, in particular, to complete a system of axioms by adding a
separate axiom of completeness. (Husserl 1974, 1969, 31)

4 Husserls notes on the Memoir


The two directions, one through projective geometry and another via Grassmann thus both
culminate in the notion of completeness as captured by Hilberts completeness axiom that

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was added to the French translation of the Grundlagen (1900), and then to its second edition.
Both directions were guided by similar criticisms of analytic geometry. But in contrast to
the Festschrift, Hilberts Memoir is a contribution to the HelmholtzLie problem of space.
Hilberts approach is group-theoretical and it uses the notion of Jordan curve as well as
Cantors set theory. In the words of Weyl, Hilbert in the Memoir does get rid of [Lies
assumptions of differentiability] as far as Helmholtzs problem in the plane is concerned.
The proof is difficult and laborious; naturally continuity is now the foundation, and not the
keystone of the building as it had been in his Grundlagen book (Weyl 1968, p. 156). In his
notes, Husserl lists Hilberts axioms, briefly describes the main idea of the proof, and then
makes some remarks about the theorems. The first axiom is the definition of a plane, the
second the definition of a motion, the third states that the motions form a group. The fourth is
a definition of a rotation, and the fifth one states that the system of rotations is closed. Hilbert
also defines the true circle and the true line, which are isomorphic to the number circle
and number line, respectively. The assertion that Hilbert proves is the following: A plane
geometry in which Axioms IIII are satisfied is either the Euclidean plane geometry or the
BolyaiLobachevskian geometry. (Hilbert 1990, p. 155). In other words Hilbert manages
to show that by means of his first three axioms one can characterize either the group of
Euclidean motions or the group of BolyaiLobachevski motions, i.e., that the three axioms
alone characterize Bolyais absolute geometry of plane (cf. Torretti 1978, p. 187). Thus
Hilbert gives a solution to the HelmholtzLie problem of space.
The editors of the Husserliana date Husserls notes to around the turn of the century
(wohl um 1900). Hilbert first presented the introductory part of the Memoir in a meeting of Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Gttingen on November 8, 1901 (Hilbert 2004,
pp. 8, 537). This paper was added to the English translation of the Festschrift of 1902 as a
summary of the forthcoming Memoir. According to the editors of (Hilbert 2004), the paper
lacks the detailed working-out of the proofs of the latter part of the Memoir. The finished
paper, published in the Mathematische Annalen, has been signed on May 10, 1902, and it
appeared in the Mathematische Annalen, Volume 56 (3) in 1903.
Husserl moved to Gttingen in the fall of 1901; he started lecturing at the end of October
1901 (Schuhmann 1977, p. 67); attended Hilberts lecture Abgeschlossenheit von Axiomensystemen in the Mathematical Society on November 5 (Schuhmann 1977, p. 68); and he gave
the Doppelvortrag in Gttingens mathematical society in November 26, and December 10,
1901 (Schumann and Schumann 2001, p. 97). In his notes, Husserl summarizes the Memoir
without giving a detailed working out of the proofs. Husserl makes references to Hilberts
saying something: Mit dem Raum habe ich mich nicht befasst, sagt Hilbert (Husserl 1983,
p. 413), hence we can assume that Husserls notes are based on Hilberts oral explanation
of the Memoir, either in a presentation or privately. Husserl might have attended Hilberts
lecture on November 8, 1901, or the two might have discussed the matter privately as well:
at some point Hilbert had also shown Husserl Freges letter of December 27, 1899 in which
Frege claims that the consistency follows from the truth of the axioms and not the other
way around. Husserls remark to this is that Frege does not understand the sense of Hilberts
axiomatic grounding of geometry (Husserl 1970, p. 448, English translation Husserl 2003,
p. 469).
There are some differences between the published Memoir and Husserls notes. For
example, in his notes on Hilberts memoir Husserl first distinguishes between two directions in geometry: one is the development from Euclid to Gauss, Lobatchefsky, and others,
the direction in which the points, lines, etc, are equally justified, and where one studies
relationships between them seeking for the simplest possible system with which to capture
all of geometry (Husserl 1983, p. 412). This is the approach of the Festschrift.

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The other direction is the analytic tradition of Riemann, Helmholtz, and Lie. According to
the notes Lies approach was the first mathematically rigorous formulation. But, his approach
is complicated and non-geometrical (Husserl 1983, p. 412). In his Paris problems, as well as in
the Memoir, Hilbert similarly claimed that Lies solution is rather forced and complicated
(Browder 1976, p. 13). The problem is the artificial assumption of the differentiability of the
functions defining the group.
Instead of distinguishing between the two approaches Hilberts Memoir starts directly with
a discussion of Lies approach. However, in the end of the Memoir, there are some remarks that
should have interested Husserl too, but are missing from Husserls notes. Hilbert concludes
the memoir by pointing out the characteristic difference between it and the Festschrift. The
difference is in the arrangement of the axioms. In the Festschrift Hilbert listed them so that the
axioms of continuity were listed last, so that the question as to what extent geometry could
be developed without them would arise in a natural way. In the Memoir, on the contrary,
continuity is required first among the axioms by the definition of the plane and a motion so
that here the most important task has been rather to determine the least number of conditions
from which to obtain by the most extensive use of continuity the elementary figures of
geometry (circle and line) and their properties necessary for the construction of geometry.
(Hilbert 1990, p. 189). It is likely that Hilbert did not explain this remark in a conversation with
Husserl for Husserl would have mentioned it in his notes, but that it was added to the Memoir
afterwards. This addition may prompt one to speculate on Husserls possible influence on
Hilbert. In his Double Lectures Husserl criticized Hilberts treatment of completeness as an
axiom, saying that, to him, it should never be an axiom but a theorem (Husserl 1970, p. 102).
This suggests that Husserl and Hilbert might have discussed continuity and completeness
and Hilberts remark in the published Memoir might have been inspired by these discussions.

5 From geometry to phenomenology


Let us attempt to imagine what Husserl might have thought of Hilberts work. Why was he
so interested in Hilberts solution to the problem of space? At the time, Husserl was mainly
concerned with the epistemological foundation for the ideal form of a scientific theory that
to him was captured by a definite, or a complete system of axioms. In his lectures 19011902
Husserl explains the importance of it with the following words:
Logic reveals to us the essence of the objective reason. Man has reason in so far as
he is a theoretical being, thus, a being, that has the capability to think, to know, and
build sciences and respectively to discover scientific theories, which brings the different
material domains to systematic exposition. The reasonable and the reasoning of men
can be found in the form of science that also composes what the idea of reason originally
constitutes. (Husserl 2001a, p. 305)1
By logic Husserl means the Euclidean form captured by Hilberts axiomatization in
the Festschrift, the ideal form, which Newton and Galilei used to express their theories.
In the Introduction to the Logical Investigations Husserl states as his desideratum: to bring
1 In German original: Die Logik enthllt uns das Wesen der objektiven Vernunft. Vernnftig ist der Mensch,

sofern er ein theoretisches Wesen ist, also ein Wesen, das die Fhigkeit besitzt zu denken, zu erkennen,
und somit Wissenschaften zu bauen bzw. wissenschaftliche Theorien entdecken, welche die verschiedenen
Sachgebiete zur systematischen Darstellung bringen. Das Vernnftige an der Vernungtttigkeit des Menschen
liegt in der Form der Wissenschaft, die also das ausmacht, was die Idee der Vernunft eigentlich konstituiert
(Husserl 2001a, p. 305).

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the ideas of logic, the logical concepts and laws, to epistemological clarity and definiteness. Here phenomenological analysis must begin (Husserl 1984, p. 9; English translation,
Husserl 2001b, p. 168, italics in the original). Respectively, in the Logical Investigations
Husserl develops the notion of categorial intuition aiming to give epistemological justification for Hilbertian axiomatics (more on this, see Hartimo 2007).
In his Memoir Hilbert gives alternative, group-theoretical foundations for geometry. Thus
he gives an alternative solution to Husserls earlier concern about analytic geometry and
Riemann and Helmholtzs approach to the problem of space. The Memoirs non-metrical,
topological nature must have been pleasing to Husserl. But otherwise it must have raised a
question of how to reconcile with it the view that Hilbertian axiomatics gives the form of
reason. Hilberts Memoir suggests that the proper theory form could take a group-theoretical
form instead of the form of the Festschrift. In addition, shortly afterwards Minkowskis work
on special relativity was surely another source suggesting the group-theoretical form for the
a priori.
It seems likely that the two alternative ways of characterizing the a priori inspired Husserl
to distinguish between the formal and the material eidetic sciences. Thus, Husserl in the
Ideen I describes geometry at times as a formal discipline and at times as material eidetics
(for example, Husserl 1977, p. 20 vs. p. 135). This is not a sign of indecision on
Husserls part; rather, depending on the occasion, he refers to either the group-theoretical or to
the axiomatic approach. To undertake a phenomenological analysis of the group-theoretical
approach, Husserl is led to analyze the givenness of groups. Given that Richard Tieszen
(2005) has shown, quite plausibly, that the group-theoretical approach to modern geometry
can be seen as a realization of eidetic intuition, it is no wonder that Husserl soon started to
develop his view of eidetic intuition.

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