27/04/2016 – Irina Starikova


Irina Starikova

University of São Paulo


Philosophers of mathematical practice have recently returned to the intriguing question of

mathematical beauty. This clearly does not belong to traditional aesthetics, because of the

abstractness of mathematical matter. Interestingly, mathematicians insist on its presence in

mathematics and seem to grant it an important status. They regard mathematical beauty as a

major inspiration and often a factor motivating their choices and preferences in practice, such

as the search for more elegant proofs and solutions. Philosophers try to find an account for this

very special attitude. Sceptics trumpet the fact that mathematics has nothing to please our

senses, and claim that all intellectual pleasures are simply epistemic, hence non-aesthetic.

This talk aims to introduce the audience to the recent discussion, present the main actors and

the main lines of play. Then it suggests a new angle on the situation from which something new

can be learned to defeat a sceptic.

The first suggestion is to widen the focus from proofs, to include mathematical structures.

Proofs have a major justificatory purpose, whereas structures do not have any epistemic

purpose; so it is credible that they can have properties which mathematicians value

independently of epistemic function. This opens the possibility of mathematical beauty at least

for mathematical structures. Then, if we can make a good case for claiming that it is possible

for an abstract mathematical structure to be beautiful, we can return to proofs to investigate

whether they too can have positive aesthetic value, without having to worry that aesthetic

value is restricted to concrete sensory entities. The second suggestion is about the choice of

mathematical entities to look for instances of mathematical beauty. It is instructive to look at

those entities that can be both perceptually and intellectually pleasing, i.e. are considered as

mathematically beautiful and simultaneously have an attractive visual presentation, to see

whether mathematicians differentiate the two types of beauty. In fact they do!

Using a case study from graph theory (the highly symmetric Petersen graph), this talk tries to

distinguish genuine aesthetic from epistemic or practical judgements, and correct uses of the

word “beautiful” from loose ones. It demonstrates that mathematicians may respond to a

combination of perceptual properties of visual representations and mathematical properties of

abstract structures; the latter seem to carry greater weight. Mathematical beauty thus

primarily involves mathematicians' sensitivity to aesthetics of the abstract.

The next move would be to return to mathematical entities which are both epistemically

functional and regarded as mathematically beautiful, to see if mathematicians also differentiate

the epistemic value from the aesthetic value in these cases.