Paul Benacerraf

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Paul Benacerraf
BornMarch 26, 1931
Paris, France
EducationPrinceton University (PhD, 1960)
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic philosophy
ThesisLogicism, Some Considerations (1960)
Doctoral advisorHilary Putnam
Doctoral studentsJohn Earman
Alvin Goldman
Richard Grandy
Gideon Rosen
Ronald de Sousa
Main interests
Philosophy of mathematics
Notable ideas
Mathematical structuralism (eliminative variety)[1]
Benacerraf's identification problem for set-theoretic realism
Benacerraf's epistemological problem for mathematical realism

Paul Joseph Salomon Benacerraf (/bɪˈnæsərəf/; born 26 March 1931)[2][3] is a French-born American philosopher working in the field of the philosophy of mathematics who taught at Princeton University his entire career, from 1960 until his retirement in 2007. He was appointed Stuart Professor of Philosophy in 1974, and retired as the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy.[4]

Life and career[edit]

Benacerraf was born in Paris to a Moroccan-Venezuelan father and an Algerian mother. In 1939 the family moved to Caracas and then to New York City.[5]

When the family returned to Caracas, Benacerraf remained in the United States, boarding at the Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey. He attended Princeton University for both his undergraduate and graduate studies.[5]

He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998.[3]

His brother was the Venezuelan Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Baruj Benacerraf.

Philosophical work[edit]

Benacerraf is perhaps best known for his two papers "What Numbers Could Not Be" (1965) and "Mathematical Truth" (1973), and for his anthology on the philosophy of mathematics, co-edited with Hilary Putnam.

In "What Numbers Could Not Be" (1965), Benacerraf argues against a Platonist view of mathematics, and for structuralism, on the ground that what is important about numbers is the abstract structures they represent rather than the objects that number words ostensibly refer to. In particular, this argument is based on the point that Ernst Zermelo and John von Neumann give distinct, and completely adequate, identifications of natural numbers with sets (see Zermelo ordinals and von Neumann ordinals). This argument is called Benacerraf's identification problem.

In "Mathematical Truth" (1973), he argues that no interpretation of mathematics offers a satisfactory package of epistemology and semantics; it is possible to explain mathematical truth in a way that is consistent with our syntactico-semantical treatment of truth in non-mathematical language, and it is possible to explain our knowledge of mathematics in terms consistent with a causal account of epistemology, but it is in general not possible to accomplish both of these objectives simultaneously (this argument is called Benacerraf's epistemological problem). He argues for this on the grounds that an adequate account of truth in mathematics implies the existence of abstract mathematical objects, but that such objects are epistemologically inaccessible because they are causally inert and beyond the reach of sense perception. On the other hand, an adequate epistemology of mathematics, say one that ties truth-conditions to proof in some way, precludes understanding how and why the truth-conditions have any bearing on truth.

Sexual harassment allegation[edit]

Elisabeth Lloyd has alleged that while she was a PhD student at Princeton, Benacerraf "petted and touched" her every day. She said, "It was just an extra price I had to pay, that the men did not have to pay, in order to get my Ph.D."[6] Benacerraf has denied the allegations, stating in an email to The Chronicle that he was "genuinely puzzled" by the accusations and does not know what prompted them. "I am not the sort of person that she describes in her interview", he said. "Yet I do not doubt her sincerity or the depth of the feelings that she reports", he added.[6]


  • Benacerraf, Paul (1960) Logicism, Some Considerations, Princeton, Ph.D. Dissertation, University Microfilms.
  • ———— (1965) "What Numbers Could Not Be", The Philosophical Review, 74:47–73.
  • ———— (1967) "God, the Devil, and Gödel"[dead link], The Monist, 51: 9–33.
  • ———— (1973) "Mathematical Truth", The Journal of Philosophy, 70: 661–679.
  • ———— (1981) "Frege: The Last Logicist", The Foundations of Analytic Philosophy, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 6: 17–35.
  • ———— (1985) "Skolem and the Skeptic", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 56: 85–115.
  • ———— and Putnam, Hilary (eds.) (1983) Philosophy of Mathematics : Selected Readings 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press: New York.
  • ———— (1996) "Recantation or Any old ω-sequence would do after all", Philosophia Mathematica, 4: 184–189.
  • ———— (1996) What Mathematical Truth Could Not Be – I, in Benacerraf and His Critics, A. Morton and S. P. Stich, eds., Blackwell's, Oxford and Cambridge, pp 9–59.
  • ———— (1999) What Mathematical Truth Could Not Be – II, in Sets and Proofs, S. B. Cooper and J. K. Truss, eds., Cambridge University Press, pp. 27–51.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stewart Shapiro, "Mathematical Structuralism", Philosophia Mathematica, 4(2), May 1996, pp. 81–2.
  2. ^ "Paul Joseph Salomon Benacerraf - Oxford Reference". Retrieved 2018-12-29.
  3. ^ a b "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 2, 2011.
  4. ^ "Paul Benacerraf Symposium | Department of Philosophy". Retrieved 2017-11-30.
  5. ^ a b Moseley, Caroline (November 23, 1998). "Whatever I am now, it happened here". Princeton Weekly Bulletin. Princeton University. Retrieved October 13, 2011.
  6. ^ a b "Tracking Higher Ed's #MeToo Moment: Updates on Sexual Assault and Harassment". Chronicle of Higher Education. 1 Dec 2017. Archived from the original on 2017-12-11. Retrieved 1 Dec 2017.

Further reading[edit]

Books about Benacerraf[edit]

Papers about Benacerraf[edit]

Articles on Benacerraf[edit]

External links[edit]