Home Philosophy Advances in Proof-Theoretic Semantics
The notion of proof from hypotheses—hypothetical proof—lies at the heart of prooftheoretic semantics. A hypothetical proof is what justifies a hypothetical judgement, which is formulated as an implication. However, it is not clear what is to be understood by a hypothetical proof. In fact, there are various competing conceptions, often not made explicit, which must be addressed in order to describe this crucial concept.
The most widespread view in modern proof-theoretic semantics is what I have called the primacy of the categorical over the hypothetical [58, 60]. According to this view, there is a primitive notion of proof, which is that of an assumption-free proof of an assertion. Such proofs are called closed proofs. A closed proof proves outright, without referring to any assumptions, that which is being claimed. A proof from assumptions is then considered an open proof, that is, a proof which, using Frege's term, may be described as 'unsaturated'. The open assumptions are marks of the places where the proof is unsaturated. An open proof can be closed by substituting closed proofs for the open assumptions, yielding a closed proof of the final assertion. In this sense, the open assumptions of an open proof are placeholders for closed proofs. Therefore, one can speak of the placeholder view of assumptions.
Prawitz , for example, speaks explicitly of open proofs as codifying open arguments. Such arguments are, so-to-speak, arguments with holes that can be filled with closed arguments, and similarly for open judgements and open grounds . A formal counterpart of this conception is the Curry-Howard correspondence, in which open assumptions are represented by free term variables, corresponding to the function of variables to indicate open places. Thus, one is indeed justified in viewing this conception as extending to the realm of proofs Frege's idea of the unsaturatedness of concepts and functions. That hypotheses are merely placeholders entails that no specific speech act is associated with them. Hypotheses are not posed or claimed but play a subsidiary role in a superordinated claim of which the hypothesis marks an open place.
I have called this placeholder view of assumptions and the transmission view of hypothetical proofs a dogma of standard semantics. It should be considered a dogma, as it is widely accepted without proper discussion, despite alternative conceptions being readily available. It belongs to standard semantics, as it underlies not only the dominant conception of proof-theoretic semantics, but in some sense it also underlies classical truth-condition semantics. In the classical concept of consequence according to Bolzano and Tarski, the claim that B follows from A is justified by the fact that, in any model of A—in any world, in which A is true—, B is true as well. This means that hypothetical consequence is justified by reference to the transmission of the categorical concept of truth from the condition to the consequent. We are not referring here to functions or any sort of process that takes us from A to B, but just to the metalinguistic universal implication that, whenever A is true, B is true as well. However, as with the standard semantics of proofs, we retain the idea that the categorical concept precedes the hypothetical concept, and the latter is justified by reference to the former concept.
The concept of open proofs in proof-theoretic semantics employs not only the idea that they can be closed by substituting something into the open places, but also the idea that they can be closed outright by a specific operation of assumption discharge. This is what happens with the application of implication introduction as described by Jas´kowski  and Gentzen . Here the open place disappears because what is originally expressed by the open assumption now becomes the condition of an implication. This can be described as a two-layer system. In addition to hypothetical judgements given by an open proof with the hypotheses as open places, we have hypothetical judgements in the form of implications, in which the hypothesis is a subsentence. A hypothetical judgement in the sense of an implication is justified by an open proof of the consequent from the condition of the implication. The idea of two layers of hypotheses is typical for assumption-based calculi and in particular for natural deduction, which is the main deductive model of proof-theoretic semantics.
According to the placeholder view of assumptions there are two operations that one can perform as far as assumptions are concerned: Introducing an assumption as an open place, and eliminating or closing it. The closing of an assumption can be achieved in either of two ways: by substituting another proof for it, or by discharge. In the substitution operation the proof substituted for the assumption need not necessarily be closed. However, when it is open then instead of the original open assumption the open assumptions of the substitute become open assumptions of the whole proof. Thus a full closure of an open assumption by means of substitution requires a closed proof as a substitute. To summarise, the three basic operations on assumptions are: assumption introduction, assumption substitution, and assumption discharge.
These three basic operations on assumptions are unspecific in the following sense: They do not depend on the internal form of the assumption, that is, they do not depend on its logical or non-logical composition. They take the assumption as it is. In this sense these operations are structural. The operation of assumption discharge, although pertaining to the structure of the proof, is normally used in the context of a logical inference, namely the introduction of implication. The crucial idea of implication introduction, as first described by Jas´kowski and Gentzen, involves that, in the context of a logical inference, the structure of the proof is changed. This structure-change is a non-local effect of the logical rule.
The unspecific character of the operations on assumptions means that, in the placeholder view, assumptions are not manipulated in any sense. The rules that govern the internal structure of propositions are always rules that concern the assertions, but not the assumptions made. Consequently, the placeholder view is assertion-centred as far as content is concerned. In an inference step we pass from assertions already made to another assertion. At such a step the structure of the proof, in particular which assumptions are open, may be changed, but not the internal form of assumptions. This may be described as the forward-directedness of proofs. When proving something, we may perform structural changes in the proof that lies 'behind' us, but without changing the content of what lies behind. It is important to note that we do not here criticise this view of proofs. We merely highlight what one must commit oneself to in affirming this view.