How much should an average mathematician not working in an area like logic, set theory, or foundations know about the foundations of mathematics?

The thread Why should we believe in the axiom of regularity? suggests that many might not know about the cumulative hierarchy, which is the intended ontology that ZFC describes. (Q1) But is this something everyone should know or does the naive approach of set theory suffice, even for some mathematical research (not in the areas listed above)?

EDIT: Let me add another aspect. As Andreas Blass has explained in his answer to the MO-question linked above, when set theorists talk about "sets", they mean an entity generated in the following transfinite process:

Begin with some non-set entities called atoms ("some" could be "none" if you want a world consisting exclusively of sets), then form all sets of these, then all sets whose elements are atoms or sets of atoms, etc. This "etc." means to build more and more levels of sets, where a set at any level has elements only from earlier levels (and the atoms constitute the lowest level). This iterative construction can be continued transfinitely, through arbitrarily long well-ordered sequences of levels.

Now, for foundational purposes it may be prudent to take the "none atoms" (pure) version of set theory. But in mathematical practice, one is working with many different types of mathematical objects, and many of them are not sets (even though one might often encode them as such). But even if one adds some atoms/non-sets – for example the real numbers –, one does not get a universe which is satisfactory for the practice of mathematics. This is because notions like "functions" or "ordered tuples" are from a conceptual perspective not sets; but we can't take them as our atoms for the cumulative hierarchy – the set of all "functions" or "ordered pairs" ... leads to paradoxes (Russell). Now I wonder:

(Q2) What should mathematicians not working in an area like logic, set theory, or foundations understand by "set"?

Note that there is also the idea of structural set theory (see the nlab), and systems such as ETCS or SEAR (try to) solve these "encoding problems" and remove the problem with "junk theorems" in material set theories. One can argue that these structural set theories match (more than material set theories do) with the mathematical practice. But my personal problem with them is that they have no clear ontology. So this approach doesn't answer Q2, I think.

Or, (Q3) do mathematicians not working in foundational subjects not need to have a particular picture in mind of how their set-theoretic universe should look like? This would be very unsatisfactory for me since this would imply that one had to use axioms that work – but one doesn't understand why they work (or why they are consistent). The only argument I can think of that they are consistent would be "one hasn't found a contradiction yet".

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    $\begingroup$ What is your problem with ETCS, i.e. what do you mean by no clear ontology? Also, have you looked into homotopy type theory or, generally speaking, more synthetic foundations? $\endgroup$
    – HeinrichD
    Oct 8, 2016 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ I believe that a mathematician who is not working in foundational subjects should learn some basic facts from set theory, memorize everything, and then forget everything. (From Paul Halmos). $\endgroup$ Oct 8, 2016 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ Most mathematicians spend at least some of their time teaching undergraduate courses such as calculus. Therefore it seems to me that the average mathematician should know at least enough to be able to avoid making false or misleading statements about a subject like calculus due to a lack of knowledge of foundations. For example, nobody should be telling their freshman calc students "dx isn't a number," because this is at best misleading (without further explanation) and at worst shows ignorance of both history and foundations. $\endgroup$
    – user21349
    Oct 9, 2016 at 2:00
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    $\begingroup$ I liked the version with just the first question better, I'd put the other questions in another post. $\endgroup$
    – user44143
    Oct 9, 2016 at 3:03
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    $\begingroup$ I'm with @MattF. in that I don't think it's good practice to add in other aspects after the original question had been asked and after it received an answer. Really I think the added questions are very different, and that the added questions should be asked in a separate post. (As an aside, I think the "should" in Q2 leads into tendentious territory, especially since you reject structural set theory as a possible answer.) $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble
    Oct 9, 2016 at 13:24

3 Answers 3


The answer is essentially the same as how much should the average mathematician know about combinatorics? Or group theory? Or algebraic topology? Or any broad area of mathematics... It's good to know some, it's always helpful to know more, but only really need the amount that is relevant to your work. Perhaps a small but significant difference with foundations is that there is a natural curiosity about it, just like I'm naturally curious about the history and geography of where I live, even though I only need minimal knowledge in day-to-day life.

One does need to know where to go when deeper foundational questions arise. So one should keep a logician colleague as a friend, just in case. This entails knowing enough about foundations and logic to engage in casual conversation and, when the need arises, to be able to formulate the right question and understand the answer you get. This is no different than any other area of mathematics.

Some mathematicians may have more than just a casual curiosity about foundations, even if they work in a completely different area. In that case, learn as much as your time and curiosity permits. This is great since, like other areas of mathematics, foundations needs to interact with other areas in order to advance.

So, what do you need to have a casual conversation with a logician? Adjust to personal taste:

  • Some understanding of formal languages and the basic interplay between syntax and semantics.
  • Some understanding of incompleteness and undecidability.
  • Some understanding of the paradoxes that led to the current state of set-theoretic foundations.
  • Some understanding that logic and foundations does interact with your discipline.

To address the additional questions regarding sets. Personally, I don't think it's right to say that the notion of set is defined by foundations. It's a perfectly fine mathematical concept though it (sometimes confusingly) has two distinct and equally important flavors.

The main evidence for this point of view is that the notion of set existed well before Cantor and their use was common. Here is one of my favorite early definitions due to Bolzano (Paradoxien des Unendlichen, 1847):

There are wholes which, although they contain the same parts A, B, C, D,..., nevertheless present themselves as different when seen from our point of view or conception (this kind of difference we call 'essential'), e.g. a complete and a broken glass viewed as a drinking vessel. [...] A whole whose basic conception renders the arrangement of its parts a matter of indifference (and whose rearrangement therefore changes nothing essential from our point of view, if only that changes), I call a set.

(See this MO question for additional early occurrences of sets of various shapes and forms.)

What Bolzano describes is the combinatorial flavor of sets: it's a basic container in which to put objects, a container that is so basic and plain that it has no structure of its own to distract us from the objects inside it. There is another flavor to sets in which they are used to classify objects, to put into a whole all objects of the same kind or share a common feature. This usage is also very common and also prior to foundational theories.

Mathematicians use both flavors of sets, often together. For a variety practical reasons, foundational theories tend to focus on one, and formalize standard (albeit awkward) ways to accommodate the other.

  • So-called "material" set theories (ZFC, NBG, MK) focus on the combinatorial flavor of sets. To accommodate classification, these theories allow for as many collections of objects as possible to be put together in a set (with little to no concern whether this is motivated, necessary, or even useful).

  • So-called "structural" set theories (ETCS, SEAR, many type theories) focus on the classification flavor of sets. To accommodate combinatorics, these theories include a lot of machinery to relate sets and identify similar objects across set boundaries (with little to no concern about the nature of elements within sets).

Both of these approaches are viable and they both have advantages over the other. However, it's plainly wrong to think that working mathematicians have to choose one over the other, or even worry about the fact that it's difficult to formalize both simultaneously. The fact is that the sets mathematicians use in their day-to-day work are just as suitable as containers as they are as classifiers.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is the right answer, but I'd add that insofar as questions about foundations probably come up often in undergraduate courses, as for example a course in real analysis where the real numbers are constructed, or in topology where set theory needs to be discussed, one should have thought a little bit about foundations in order to field questions. $\endgroup$
    – Todd Trimble
    Oct 8, 2016 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ @ToddTrimble I would classify that in "the amount that is relevant to your work" and the amount necessary for this is an appropriately seasoned form of the third bullet at the end of my answer. Having a logician literally down the hall where to refer students is helpful too, though it's relatively rare. Fortunately, MO is available everywhere! $\endgroup$ Oct 8, 2016 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ I really like the (probably) non-intended ironic interpretation of "Some understanding of the paradoxes that led to the current state of set-theoretic foundations." $\endgroup$
    – HeinrichD
    Oct 8, 2016 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ @HeinrichD: Ha! Nice! It wasn't intended, but I like it! I especially like that it applies for all times by reinterpreting "current" appropriately, including at the beginning where your "ironic" alternative reading was plain fact. $\endgroup$ Oct 8, 2016 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ I think you hit on a good simple maxim in the second paragraph that summarizes how much knowledge is enough knowledge: "be able to formulate the right question and understand the answer you get". $\endgroup$
    – Jack M
    Oct 9, 2016 at 9:45

I agree with the previous answer: it is difficult to state what an average mathematician "should" know. (I dare to conjecture that there is no such thing!)

Each university has its own opinion on this: look at the graduate programs, and notice which courses are mandatory. In some countries this is decided by the state.

I can share my own experience of an "average mathematician". As student I has a 1-semester course of logic (it was required), the text was E. Mendelson, Introduction to mathematical logic, but we did not cover the whole book. (In my country the curriculum was established by the state and a course of logic was required). At the same time I read Lyndon, Notes on logic, and I liked this small and very clear book. After my first year, I decided that I will do something else, not logic, and never read anything else on the subject.


François G. Dorais's answer is excellent, but there are two things I would like to add in connection with the original question of what every mathematician should know about foundations.

  1. The first has already been mentioned in one or two comments. It's important to know enough to answer FAQs from students and to avoid common howlers that one sees too often in textbooks. Torkel Franzén's book Gödel's Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse does a great job of dispelling misconceptions surrounding Gödel's work. Two other areas where I frequently see misconceptions in print are (a) constructive mathematics (e.g., false, or at best misleading, claims that some argument is "nonconstructive"), and (b) the foundations of category theory (this is an area where a naïve approach can get you in trouble, but introductory texts typically gloss over the subtleties and do not always give sound advice about how to be rigorous if you so desire).

  2. Computerized proof assistants are becoming increasingly popular, which I think is a good thing. However, I think that there's a risk that many mathematicians will adopt them while having only a very hazy understanding of the underlying foundations. That's not a good thing, in my opinion. If the mathematical community is going to start relying on proof assistants more and more (and again, I regard this as a positive development), then we should all have a firm understanding of exactly what assumptions this entails.

Unfortunately, other than Franzén's book, I'm not sure what references to recommend to address the issues I've raised above. Of course, for each topic, there exist specialized texts, but what would be nice is an expository account that addresses a variety of these foundational topics, without going into more detail than is needed for the "average mathematician." If anyone reading this has suggested references, perhaps they can be mentioned in the comments.


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