Purifying applied mathematics and applying pure mathematics: how a late Wittgensteinian perspective sheds light onto the dichotomy


In this work we argue that there is no strong demarcation between pure and applied mathematics. We show this first by stressing non-deductive components within pure mathematics, like axiomatization and theory-building in general. We also stress the “purer” components of applied mathematics, like the theory of the models that are concerned with practical purposes. We further show that some mathematical theories can be viewed through either a pure or applied lens. These different lenses are tied to different communities, which endorse different evaluative standards for theories. We evaluate the distinction between pure and applied mathematics from a late Wittgensteinian perspective. We note that the classical exegesis of the later Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics, due to Maddy, leads to a clear-cut but misguided demarcation. We then turn our attention to a more niche interpretation of Wittgenstein by Dawson, which captures aspects of the aforementioned distinction more accurately. Building on this newer, maverick interpretation of the later Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics, and endorsing an extended notion of meaning as use which includes social, mundane uses, we elaborate a fuzzy, but more realistic, demarcation. This demarcation, relying on family resemblance, is based on how direct and intended technical applications are, the kind of evaluative standards featured, and the range of rhetorical purposes at stake.

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Deniz Sarikaya
Vrije Universiteit Brussel

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