Hilbert’s substantial philosophical claims about the finitary standpoint are difficult to flesh out. For instance, Hilbert appeals to the role of Kantian intuition for our apprehension of finitary objects (they are given in the faculty of representation). Supposing one accepts this line of epistemic justification in principle, it is plausible that the simplest examples of finitary objects and propositions, and perhaps even simple cases of finitary operations such as concatenations of numerals can be given a satisfactory account.

Of crucial importance to both an understanding of finitism and of Hilbert’s proof theory is the question of what operations and what principles of proof should be allowed from the finitist standpoint. That a general answer is necessary is clear from the demands of Hilbert’s proof theory, i.e., it is not to be expected that given a formal system of mathematics (or even a single sequence of formulas) one can “see” that it is consistent (or that it cannot be a genuine derivation of an inconsistency) the way we can see, e.g., that || + ||| = ||| + ||. What is required for a consistency proof is an operation which, given a formal derivation, transforms such a derivation into one of a special form, plus proofs that the operation in fact succeeds in every case and that proofs of the special kind cannot be proofs of an inconsistency.

Hilbert said that intuitive thought “includes recursion and intuitive induction for finite existing totalities.” All of this in its application in the domain of numbers, can be formalized in a system known as primitive recursive arithmetic (PRA), which allows definitions of functions by primitive recursion and induction on quantifier-free formulas. However, Hilbert never claimed that only primitive recursive operations count as finitary. Although Hilbert and his collaborators used methods which go beyond the primitive recursive and accepted them as finitary, it is still unclear whether they (a) realized that these methods were not primitive recursive and (b) whether they would still have accepted them as finitary if they had. The conceptual issue is which operations should be considered as finitary. Since Hilbert was less than completely clear on what the finitary standpoint consists in, there is some leeway in setting up the constraints, epistemological and otherwise, an analysis of finitist operation and proof must fulfill. Hilbert characterized the objects of finitary number theory as “intuitively given,” as “surveyable in all their parts,” and said that their having basic properties must “exist intuitively” for us. This characterization of finitism as primarily to do with intuition and intuitive knowledge has been emphasized in that what can count as finitary on this understanding is not more than those arithmetical operations that can be defined from addition and multiplication using bounded recursion.

Rejecting the aspect of representability in intuition as the hallmark of the finitary; one could take finitary reasoning to be “a minimal kind of reasoning supposed by all non-trivial mathematical reasoning about numbers” and analyze finitary operations and methods of proof as those that are implicit in the very notion of number as the form of a finite sequence. This analysis of finitism is supported by Hilbert’s contention that finitary reasoning is a precondition for logical and mathematical, indeed, any scientific thinking.