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Second-order logic, philosophical issues in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-X004-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 09, 2023, from

Article Summary

Typically, a formal language has variables that range over a collection of objects, or domain of discourse. A language is ‘second-order’ if it has, in addition, variables that range over sets, functions, properties or relations on the domain of discourse. A language is third-order if it has variables ranging over sets of sets, or functions on relations, and so on. A language is higher-order if it is at least second-order.

Second-order languages enjoy a greater expressive power than first-order languages. For example, a set S of sentences is said to be categorical if any two models satisfying S are isomorphic, that is, have the same structure. There are second-order, categorical characterizations of important mathematical structures, including the natural numbers, the real numbers and Euclidean space. It is a consequence of the Löwenheim–Skolem theorems that there is no first-order categorical characterization of any infinite structure. There are also a number of central mathematical notions, such as finitude, countability, minimal closure and well-foundedness, which can be characterized with formulas of second-order languages, but cannot be characterized in first-order languages.

Some philosophers argue that second-order logic is not logic. Properties and relations are too obscure for rigorous foundational study, while sets and functions are in the purview of mathematics, not logic; logic should not have an ontology of its own. Other writers disqualify second-order logic because its consequence relation is not effective – there is no recursively enumerable, sound and complete deductive system for second-order logic.

The deeper issues underlying the dispute concern the goals and purposes of logical theory. If a logic is to be a calculus, an effective canon of inference, then second-order logic is beyond the pale. If, on the other hand, one aims to codify a standard to which correct reasoning must adhere, and to characterize the descriptive and communicative abilities of informal mathematical practice, then perhaps there is room for second-order logic.

Citing this article:
Shapiro, Stewart. Second-order logic, philosophical issues in, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-X004-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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