During the 20th century, the following epistemology of mathematics was predominant: a sufficient condition for the possibility of the cognition of objects is that these objects can be reduced to set theory. The conditions for the possibility of the cognition of the objects of set theory (the sets), in turn, can be given in various manners; in any event, the objects reduced to sets do not need an additional epistemological discussion – they “are” sets. Hence, such an epistemology relies ultimately on ontology. Frege conceived the axioms as descriptions of how we actually manipulate extensions of concepts in our thinking (and in this sense as inevitable and intuitive “laws of thought”). Hilbert admitted the use of intuition exclusively in metamathematics where the consistency proof is to be done (by which the appropriateness of the axioms would be established); Bourbaki takes the axioms as mere hypotheses. Hence, Bourbaki’s concept of justification is the weakest of the three: “it works as long as we encounter no contradiction”; nevertheless, it is still epistemology, because from this hypothetical-deductive point of view, one insists that at least a proof of relative consistency (i.e., a proof that the hypotheses are consistent with the frequently tested and approved framework of set theory) should be available.
Doing mathematics, one tries to give proofs for propositions, i.e., to deduce the propositions logically from other propositions (premisses). Now, in the reductionist perspective, a proof of a mathematical proposition yields an insight into the truth of the proposition, if the premisses are already established (if one has already an insight into their truth); this can be done by giving in turn proofs for them (in which new premisses will occur which ask again for an insight into their truth), or by agreeing to put them at the beginning (to consider them as axioms or postulates). The philosopher tries to understand how the decision about what propositions to take as axioms is arrived at, because he or she is dissatisfied with the reductionist claim that it is on these axioms that the insight into the truth of the deduced propositions rests. Actually, this epistemology might contain a short-coming since Poincaré (and Wittgenstein) stressed that to have a proof of a proposition is by no means the same as to have an insight into its truth.
Attempts to disclose the ontology of mathematical objects reveal the following tendency in epistemology of mathematics: Mathematics is seen as suffering from a lack of ontological “determinateness”, namely that this science (contrarily to many others) does not concern material data such that the concept of material truth is not available (especially in the case of the infinite). This tendency is embarrassing since on the other hand mathematical cognition is very often presented as cognition of the “greatest possible certainty” just because it seems not to be bound to material evidence, let alone experimental check.
The technical apparatus developed by the reductionist and set-theoretical approach nowadays serves other purposes, partly for the reason that tacit beliefs about sets were challenged; the explanations of the science which it provides are considered as irrelevant by the practitioners of this science. There is doubt that the above mentioned sufficient condition is also necessary; it is not even accepted throughout as a sufficient one. But what happens if some objects, as in the case of category theory, do not fulfill the condition? It seems that the reductionist approach, so to say, has been undocked from the historical development of the discipline in several respects; an alternative is required.
Anterior to Peirce, epistemology was dominated by the idea of a grasp of objects; since Descartes, intuition was considered throughout as a particular, innate capacity of cognition (even if idealists thought that it concerns the general, and empiricists that it concerns the particular). The task of this particular capacity was the foundation of epistemology; already from Aristotle’s first premisses of syllogism, what was aimed at was to go back to something first. In this traditional approach, it is by the ontology of the objects that one hopes to answer the fundamental question concerning the conditions for the possibility of the cognition of these objects. One hopes that there are simple “basic objects” to which the more complex objects can be reduced and whose cognition is possible by common sense – be this an innate or otherwise distinguished capacity of cognition common to all human beings. Here, epistemology is “wrapped up” in (or rests on) ontology; to do epistemology one has to do ontology first.
Peirce shares Kant’s opinion according to which the object depends on the subject; however, he does not agree that reason is the crucial means of cognition to be criticised. In his paper “Questions concerning certain faculties claimed for man”, he points out the basic assumption of pragmatist philosophy: every cognition is semiotically mediated. He says that there is no immediate cognition (a cognition which “refers immediately to its object”), but that every cognition “has been determined by a previous cognition” of the same object. Correspondingly, Peirce replaces critique of reason by critique of signs. He thinks that Kant’s distinction between the world of things per se (Dinge an sich) and the world of apparition (Erscheinungswelt) is not fruitful; he rather distinguishes the world of the subject and the world of the object, connected by signs; his position consequently is a “hypothetical realism” in which all cognitions are only valid with reservations. This position does not negate (nor assert) that the object per se (with the semiotical mediation stripped off) exists, since such assertions of “pure” existence are seen as necessarily hypothetical (that means, not withstanding philosophical criticism).
By his basic assumption, Peirce was led to reveal a problem concerning the subject matter of epistemology, since this assumption means in particular that there is no intuitive cognition in the classical sense (which is synonymous to “immediate”). Hence, one could no longer consider cognitions as objects; there is no intuitive cognition of an intuitive cognition. Intuition can be no more than a relation. “All the cognitive faculties we know of are relative, and consequently their products are relations”. According to this new point of view, intuition cannot any longer serve to found epistemology, in departure from the former reductionist attitude. A central argument of Peirce against reductionism or, as he puts it,
the reply to the argument that there must be a first is as follows: In retracing our way from our conclusions to premisses, or from determined cognitions to those which determine them, we finally reach, in all cases, a point beyond which the consciousness in the determined cognition is more lively than in the cognition which determines it.
Peirce gives some examples derived from physiological observations about perception, like the fact that the third dimension of space is inferred, and the blind spot of the retina. In this situation, the process of reduction loses its legitimacy since it no longer fulfills the function of cognition justification. At such a place, something happens which I would like to call an “exchange of levels”: the process of reduction is interrupted in that the things exchange the roles performed in the determination of a cognition: what was originally considered as determining is now determined by what was originally considered as asking for determination.
The idea that contents of cognition are necessarily provisional has an effect on the very concept of conditions for the possibility of cognitions. It seems that one can infer from Peirce’s words that what vouches for a cognition is not necessarily the cognition which determines it but the livelyness of our consciousness in the cognition. Here, “to vouch for a cognition” means no longer what it meant before (which was much the same as “to determine a cognition”), but it still means that the cognition is (provisionally) reliable. This conception of the livelyness of our consciousness roughly might be seen as a substitute for the capacity of intuition in Peirce’s epistemology – but only roughly, since it has a different coverage.