Infinitesimals and Other Idealizing Completions in Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Mathematics

Thomas Mormann
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München (PhD)
We seek to elucidate the philosophical context in which the so-called revolution of rigor in inifinitesimal calculus and mathematical analysis took place. Some of the protagonists of the said revolution were Cauchy, Cantor, Dedekind, and Weierstrass. The dominant current of philosophy in Germany at that time was neo-Kantianism. Among its various currents, the Marburg school (Cohen, Natorp, Cassirer, and others) was the one most interested in matters scientific and mathematical. Our main thesis is that Marburg Neo-Kantian philosophy formulated a sophisticated position towards the problems raised by the concepts of limits and infinitesimals. The Marburg school neither clung to the traditional approach of logically and metaphysically dubious infinitesimals, nor whiggishly subscribed to the new orthodoxy of the "great triumvirate" of Cantor, Dedekind, and Weierstrass. Expressed in terms of modern mathematics, the Marburg philosophers saw the introduction of both infinitesimals and limits as completions whose prototype was Dedekind's of the rational number system resulting in the real numbers. At least partially,, this idea of "completions" can be captured in terms of a category-theoretical description of the conceptual development of modern mathematics. The feasibility of such a modern reformuation may be taken as evidence that the philosophical resources of Marburg neo-Kantianism may be of interest even for contemporary philosophy of mathematics.
Keywords Infinitesimals  Limits  Philosophy of mathematics  Neo-Kantianism  Hermann Cohen  Natorp  Cassirer  Cantor  Robinson
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