Version: v1, Published online: 1998

Retrieved February 29, 2024, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/set-theory-different-systems-of/v-1

## Article Summary

To begin with we shall use the word ‘collection’ quite broadly to mean anything the identity of which is solely a matter of what its members are (including ‘sets’ and ‘classes’). Which collections exist? Two extreme positions are initially appealing. The first is to say that all do. Unfortunately this is inconsistent because of Russell’s paradox: the collection of all collections which are not members of themselves does not exist. The second is to say that none do, but to talk as if they did whenever such talk can be shown to be eliminable and therefore harmless. This is consistent but far too weak to be of much use. We need an intermediate theory.

Various theories of collections have been proposed since the start of the twentieth century. What they share is the axiom of ‘extensionality’, which asserts that any two sets which have exactly the same elements must be identical. This is just a matter of definition: objects which do not satisfy extensionality are not collections. Beyond extensionality, theories differ. The most popular among mathematicians is Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory (ZF). A common alternative is von Neumann–Bernays–Gödel class theory (NBG), which allows for the same sets but also has proper classes, that is, collections whose members are sets but which are not themselves sets (such as the class of all sets or the class of all ordinals).

Two general principles have been used to motivate the axioms of ZF and its relatives. The first is the iterative conception, according to which sets occur cumulatively in layers, each containing all the members and subsets of all previous layers. The second is the doctrine of limitation of size, according to which the ‘paradoxical sets’ (that is, the proper classes of NBG) fail to be sets because they are in some sense too big. Neither principle is altogether satisfactory as a justification for the whole of ZF: for example, the replacement schema is motivated only by limitation of size; and ‘foundation’ is motivated only by the iterative conception.

Among the other systems of set theory to have been proposed, the one that has received widespread attention is Quine’s NF (from the title of an article, ‘New Foundations for Mathematical Logic’), which seeks to avoid paradox by means of a syntactic restriction but which has not been provided with an intuitive justification on the basis of any conception of set. It is known that if NF is consistent then ZF is consistent, but the converse result has still not been proved.

Potter, Michael. Set theory, different systems of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Y025-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/set-theory-different-systems-of/v-1.

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