As Thurston says? On using quotations from famous mathematicians to make points about philosophy and education

Gila Hanna, Brendan Larvor

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2 Citations (Scopus)
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It is commonplace in the educational literature on mathematical practice to argue for a general conclusion from isolated quotations from famous mathematicians. In this paper, we supply a critique of this mode of inference. We review empirical results that show the diversity and instability of mathematicians’ opinions on mathematical practice. Next, we compare mathematicians’ diverse and conflicting testimony on the nature and purpose of proof. We lay especial emphasis on the diverse responses mathematicians give to the challenges that digital technologies present to older conceptions of mathematical practice. We examine the career of one much cited and anthologised paper, WP Thurston’s ‘On Proof and Progress in Mathematics’ (1994). This paper has been multiply anthologised and cited hundreds of times in educational and philosophical argument. We contrast this paper with the views of other, equally distinguished mathematicians whose use of digital technology in mathematics paints a very different picture of mathematical practice. The interesting question is not whether mathematicians disagree—they are human so of course they do. The question is how homogenous is their mathematical practice. If there are deep differences in practice between mathematicians, then it makes little sense to use isolated quotations as indicators of how mathematics is uniformly or usually done. The paper ends with reflections on the usefulness of quotations from research mathematicians for mathematical education.
Original languageEnglish
Article number10.1007/s11858-020-01154-w
Pages (from-to)1137-1147
Number of pages10
JournalZDM – Mathematics Education
Issue number6
Early online date31 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - 8 Sept 2020


  • mathematical practice
  • Thurston
  • proof
  • mathematics


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