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The paradox that appears under Burali–Forti’s name in many textbooks of set theory is a clever piece of reasoning leading to an unproblematic theorem. The theorem asserts that the ordinals do not form a set. For such a set would be–absurdly–an ordinal greater than any ordinal in the set of all ordinals. In this article, we argue that the paradox of Burali–Forti is first and foremost a problem about concept formation by abstraction, not about sets. We contend, furthermore, that some hundred years after its discovery the paradox is still without any fully satisfactory resolution. A survey of the current literature reveals one key assumption of the paradox that has gone unquestioned, namely the assumption that ordinals are objects. Taking the lead from Russell’s no class theory, we interpret talk of ordinals as an efficient way of conveying higher-order logical truths. The resulting theory of ordinals is formally adequate to standard intuitions about ordinals, expresses a conception of ordinal number capable of resolving Burali–Forti’s paradox, and offers a novel contribution to the longstanding program of reducing mathematics to higher-order logic.
It’s well known that it’s possible to extract, from Frege’s Grudgesetze, an interpretation of second-order Peano Arithmetic in the theory
, whose sole axiom is Hume’s principle. What’s less well known is that, in Die Grundlagen Der Arithmetic §82–83 Boolos (2011), George Boolos provided a converse interpretation of
. Boolos’ interpretation can be used to show that the Frege’s construction allows for any model of
to be recovered from some model of
. So the space of possible arithmetical universes is precisely characterized by Hume’s principle.
In this paper, I show that a large class of second-order theories admit characterization by an abstraction principle in this sense. The proof makes use of structural abstraction principles, a class of abstraction principles of considerable intrinsic interest, and categories of interpretations in the sense of Visser (2003).
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