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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.3 (2001) 454-456

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Michael Potter. Reason's Nearest Kin: Philosophies of Arithmetic from Kant to Carnap.New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 305. Cloth, $45.00.

This book tells the story of a remarkable series of answers to two related questions:

(1) How can arithmetic be necessary and knowable a priori? [End Page 454]

(2) What accounts for the applicability of arithmetic to matters of empirical fact?

These are philosophical questions, part of a "wider puzzle of explaining the link between experience, language, thought, and the world" (18). But answers to them are heavily constrained by technical results in logic and mathematics, and most of Potter's protagonists are either mathematicians (Frege, Dedekind, Ramsey, Hilbert, Gödel) or mathematically trained philosophers (Kant, Russell, Carnap). (Only Wittgenstein fits neither category.) Potter, whose doctorate was in pure mathematics, is an able guide.

It is not hard to think of answers to these questions taken singly; what is hard is answering both at the same time. Formalists can easily explain why arithmetic does not depend for its justification on empirical fact—it is just a game with symbols, not responsible to anything beyond its own rules—but they then have trouble explaining why the world of empirical fact is constrained by this game. Empiricists can explain the applicability of arithmetic in just the same way they explain the applicability of physics, but they then must then explain away the apparent a prioricity and necessity of arithmetic. Kant was the first to propose a plausible answer to both questions: arithmetic is both necessary and empirically applicable because it is grounded in the spatio-temporal form of any possible experience.

What unites Frege, Dedekind, Russell, Ramsey, Hilbert, and Carnap is that they reject Kant's answer while continuing to seek an answer to his question: how can arithmetic's necessity be reconciled with its applicability? Potter helpfully classifies their projects by the surrogates they substitute for Kant's appeal to the form of spatio-temporal intuition: Frege and Dedekind appeal to thought, Russell to necessary features of the world, Wittgenstein, Ramsey, and Carnap to language, and Hilbert to the necessary structure of our experience of finitary combinations of objects. (Revealingly, the logicists are not grouped together in Potter's taxonomy.) A chapter (or two) is devoted to each of these thinkers, plus Kant and Gödel.

This breadth of coverage does not come at the price of superficiality: Potter's chapters are (by and large) accurate, penetrating, and full of interesting insights. I cannot think of another book that offers such clear explanations of the many mathematical concepts and distinctions one must grasp in order to follow debates in the philosophy of arithmetic. The Russell chapters are enhanced by numerous quotations from archival material. The exposition of Hilbert's programme and the implications for it of Gödel's theorems is the best I have seen. The discussions of Wittgenstein's views on arithmetic and of Carnap's syntactical approach also shine. The chapters on Kant and Frege are somewhat weaker; the discussion of Kant, in particular, would have benefited from some engagement with Michael Friedman's views.

But the real contribution of Potter's book is its integration of these nine thinkers into a single coherent story. No one will be surprised that Russell's motivations can only be understood in light of Frege's failures, or that many features of Wittgenstein's cryptic work become clearer when seen in light of the specific problems with Russell's system. But there are also some less obvious payoffs: for example, Hilbert's programme is usefully compared with Russell's regressive method (227-8), and Carnap and Russell are shown to face a common dilemma (269, 286).

If there is a central theme to Potter's story, it is "how often we have had to reject an [End Page 455] account not for philosophical reasons but for technical ones" (278). Frege's program founders on Russell's paradox, Russell's...