An Introduction to Proof Theory, Ch. 1

It’s arrived! Ever since it was announced, I’ve been very much looking forward to seeing this new book by Paolo Mancosu, Sergio Galvan and Richard Zach. As they note in their preface, most proof theory books are written at a fairly demanding level. So there is certainly a gap in the market for a book that presents some basic proof theory taking up themes from Gentzen in a more widely accessible way, covering e.g. proof normalization, cut-elimination, and a proof of the consistency of arithmetic using ordinal induction. An Introduction to Proof Theory (OUP, newly published) aims to be that book.

Back in the day, when I’d finished my Gödel book, I had it in mind for a while to write a Gentzen book a bit like IPT (as I’ll refer to it) though in parts a couple of notches more technical. But when I got down to work, I quickly realized that my grip on the area was really quite embarrassingly shallow in places, and I lost all confidence. What I should have done was downsize my ambitions and tried instead to write a book more like this present one. So I have a particular personal interest in seeing how Mancosu, Galvan and Zach write up their project. I’m cheering them on!

Some brisk notes, then, as I read through …


Chapter 1: Introduction has three brisk sections, on ‘Hilbert’s consistency program’, ‘Gentzen’s proof theory’ and ‘Proof theory after Gentzen’.

The scene-setting here is done very cogently and reliably as far as it goes (just as you’d expect). However, on balance I do think that — given the intended readership — the first section in particular could have gone rather more slowly. Hilbert’s program really was a great idea, and a bit more could have been said to  explore and illuminate its attractions. On the other hand, an expanded version of the third section would probably have sat more naturally as a short valedictory chapter at the end of the book.

But then, one thing I’ve learnt from writing my own introductory books is that you aren’t going to satisfy everyone — indeed,  probably not even a majority of your hoped-for readers will be happy. Wherever you set the dial, many will complain that you take things at far too slow a pace, while others will complain that you lost them only a few chapters in. So, in particular, these questions of how much initial scene-setting to provide are very much a judgement call.

To be continued (and I’ll return to The Many and the One in due course).

9 thoughts on “An Introduction to Proof Theory, Ch. 1”

  1. How have you managed to get a copy so soon? It’s still only pre-order on Amazon UK, and there isn’t any faster way for me to get a book than getting it from Amazon.

    Anyway, although I’m not normally a fan of proof theory, I have been looking forward to this book, and to whatever you have to say about it.

      1. Thanks. I’ve now seen it there too.

        I find it very frustrating that books are announced so long before their publication date and that even when they’re published it can take 1 to 3 weeks before it’s actually possible to get a copy.

    1. Hmm. When I order from Blackwell’s, it seems to take at least 4-5 days for the book to arrive. And they send it by Whistl, which I don’t like at all.

      On their website, it says “10+ copies available online – Pre-order Dispatch on 17 Aug 2021”, with nothing that suggests they’re already sending copies. So you seem to be getting exceptionally good service!

      I still have an account with them, though. I’ll give them another chance and see what happens.

      1. I did pre-order weeks back. Yep, they usually take a few days. But often significantly cheaper than Amazon, and books much better packed too. So worth spreading around the orders!

        1. Better packed than some ways Amazon packages books (in what’s just a big cardboard envelope) but not than others; and I think better packaging is outweighed by using Whistl anyway.

          Not that Amazon lacks delivery problems — but I get pretty good results these days when something’s delivered by Amazon or by Royal Mail, and poor results when it’s DPD, Hermes, Whistl, etc.

  2. I ordered the book from Blackwell’s on the same day as my first comments above, 14 August, and it arrived on the 26th. That’s nearly two weeks.

    (Blackwell’s acknowledged the order the same day (via e-mail), so I think it’s fair to start the count then, even though it was a Saturday.)

    The way it seemed to work from there is that Blackwell’s eventually dispatched the book (saying so in e-mail on the 20th) without saying anything about when or how it would be delivered. However, dispatching seemed to mean giving it to Whistl, and then Whistl eventually gave it to someone else: for the next time I was sent anything it was e-mail from Hermes on the 25th that said “We’ve got your Whistl parcel.”

    Two weeks and two intermediaries — to me, that suggests a company that is not taking their online business seriously. Blackwell’s main advantage was that they had copies (or said they did) before other people; but if that doesn’t result in the book arriving sooner, what’s the point?

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