Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Alexander Levine, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Douglas Jesseph, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Roger Ariew, Ph.D.

Committee Member

William Goodwin, Ph.D.


Explanation, Four Color Theorem, History, Philosophy of Mathematics


My dissertation focuses on mathematical explanation found in proofs looked at from a historical point of view, while stressing the importance of mathematical practices. Current philosophical theories on explanatory proofs emphasize the structure and content of proofs without any regard to external factors that influence a proof’s explanatory power. As a result, the major philosophical views have been shown to be inadequate in capturing general aspects of explanation. I argue that, in addition to form and content, a proof’s explanatory power depends on its targeted audience. History is useful here, because from it, we are able to follow the transition from a first-generation proof, which is usually non-explanatory, into its explanatory version. By tracking the similarities and differences between these proofs, we are able to gain a better understanding of what makes a proof explanatory according to mathematicians who have the relevant background to evaluate it as so.

My first chapter discusses why history is important for understanding mathematical practices. I describe two kinds of history: one that presents a narrative of events, which influenced developments in mathematics both directly and indirectly, and another, typically used in mathematical research, which concentrates only on technical developments. I contend that both versions of the past benefit the philosopher. History used in research gives us an idea of what mathematicians desire or find to be important, while history written by historians shows us what effects these have on mathematical practices.

The next two chapters are about explanatory proofs. My second chapter examines the main theories of mathematical explanation. I argue that these theories are short-sighted as they only consider what appears in a proof without considering the proof’s purported audience or background knowledge necessary to understand the proof. In the third chapter, I propose an alternative way of analyzing explanatory proofs. Here, I suggest looking at a theorem’s history, which includes its successive proofs, as well as the mathematicians who wrote them. From this, we can better understand how and why mathematicians prove theorems in multiple ways, which depends on the purposes of these theorems.

The last chapter is a case study on the computer proof of the Four Color Theorem by Appel and Haken. Here, I compare and contrast what philosophers and mathematicians have had to say about the proof. I argue that the main philosophical worry regarding the theorem—its unsurveyability—did not make a strong impact on the mathematical community and would have hindered mathematical development in computer-assisted proofs. By studying the history of the theorem, we learn that Appel and Haken relied on the strategy of Kempe’s flawed proof from the 1800s (which, obviously, did not involve a computer). Two later proofs, also aided by computer, were developed using similar methods. None of these proofs are explanatory, but not because of their massive lengths. Rather, the methods used in these proofs are a series of calculations that exhaust all possible configurations of maps.

Included in

Philosophy Commons