Meaning in Mathematics: a folkloric account

Ainsley May

Current accounts of meaning in mathematics face a dilemma between triviality and over-specificity. On the one hand, intensional accounts of meaning such as possible world semantics give the trivial result that every mathematical theorem has the same meaning since they are all necessarily true. This triviality is unsatisfactory because we clearly hold some mathematical theorems have different meanings from others. On the other hand, hyperintensional accounts like impossible worlds and structured propositions allow us to distinguish between necessary truths. However, they are so fine-grained that it becomes difficult to uniformly identify the salient semantic features.

In response to this dilemma, I propose an account of mathematical meaning called the folkloric account. On the folkloric account the content of a mathematical theorem is the collection of models, within some reference class of models, that make the theorem true. The appeal of this account is partly that it retains central aspects of world-based accounts, such as evaluation within a model. Yet it overcomes their limitations by incorporating more models to represent different mathematical theories and structures without allowing absolutely every such structure. Here, I introduce the folkloric account and use examples to highlight some of its strengths and identify weaknesses to address in future research.