Social constructivism in mathematics? The promise and shortcomings of Julian Cole’s institutional account

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The core idea of social constructivism in mathematics is that mathematical entities are social constructs that exist in virtue of social practices, similar to more familiar social entities like institutions and money. Julian C. Cole has presented an institutional version of social constructivism about mathematics based on John Searle’s theory of the construction of the social reality. In this paper, I consider what merits social constructivism has and examine how well Cole’s institutional account meets the challenge of accounting for the characteristic features of mathematics, especially objectivity and applicability. I propose that in general social constructivism shows promise as an ontology of mathematics, because the view can agree with mathematical practice and it offers a way of understanding how mathematical entities can be real without conflicting with a scientific picture of reality. However, I argue that Cole’s specific theory does not provide an adequate social constructivist account of mathematics. His institutional account fails to sufficiently explain the objectivity and applicability of mathematics, because the explanations are weakened and limited by the three-level theoretical model underlying Cole’s account of the construction of mathematical reality and by the use of the Searlean institutional framework. The shortcomings of Cole’s theory give reason to suspect that the Searlean framework is not an optimal way to defend the view that mathematical reality is socially constructed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11517 - 11540
Issue number3-4
Early online date18 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • John Searle
  • Julian C. Cole
  • Mathematical entities
  • Ontology of mathematics
  • Social constructivism
  • Social ontology

Publication forum classification

  • Publication forum level 3

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Social Sciences(all)


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