Visual Insight in Geometry

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Fletcher, Logan
Carruthers, Peter
According to a traditional rationalist proposal, it is possible to attain knowledge of certain necessary truths by means of insight—an epistemic mental act that combines the 'presentational' character of perception with the a priori status usually reserved for discursive reasoning. In this dissertation, I defend the insight proposal in relation to a specific subject matter: elementary Euclidean plane geometry, as set out in Book I of Euclid's Elements. In particular, I argue that visualizations and visual experiences of diagrams allow human subjects to grasp truths of geometry by means of visual insight. In the first two chapters, I provide an initial defense of the geometrical insight proposal, drawing on a novel interpretation of Plato's Meno to motivate the view and to reply to some objections. In the remaining three chapters, I provide an account of the psychological underpinnings of geometrical insight, a task that requires considering the psychology of visual imagery alongside the details of Euclid's geometrical system. One important challenge is to explain how basic features of human visual representations can serve to ground our intuitive grasp of Euclid's postulates and other initial assumptions. A second challenge is to explain how we are able to grasp general theorems by considering diagrams that depict only special cases. I argue that both of these challenges can be met by an account that regards geometrical insight as based in visual experiences involving the combined deployment of two varieties of 'dynamic' visual imagery: one that allows the subject to visually rehearse spatial transformations of a figure's parts, and another that allows the subject to entertain alternative ways of structurally integrating the figure as a whole. It is the interplay between these two forms of dynamic imagery that enables a visual experience of a diagram, suitably animated in visual imagination, to justify belief in the propositions of Euclid’s geometry. The upshot is a novel dynamic imagery account that explains how intuitive knowledge of elementary Euclidean plane geometry can be understood as grounded in visual insight.