Explanation in mathematical conversations: An empirical investigation

Alison Pease, Andrew Aberdein, Ursula Martin (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
231 Downloads (Pure)


Analysis of online mathematics forums can help reveal how explanation is used by mathematicians; we contend that this use of explanation may help to provide an informal conceptualization of simplicity. We extracted six conjectures from recent philosophical work on the occurrence and characteristics of explanation in mathematics. We then tested these conjectures against a corpus derived from online mathematical discussions. To this end, we employed two techniques, one based on indicator terms, the other on a random sample of comments lacking such indicators. Our findings suggest that explanation is widespread in mathematical practice and that it occurs not only in proofs but also in other mathematical contexts. Our work also provides further evidence for the utility of empirical methods in addressing philosophical problems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20180159
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2140
Early online date21 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - 11 Mar 2019


  • Crowd-sourced mathematics
  • Experimental philosophy
  • Explanation
  • Hilbert problems
  • Mathematical practice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Mathematics
  • General Engineering
  • General Physics and Astronomy


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