In general, mathematical theories can be classified as analytic or synthetic. An analytic theory is one that analyzes, or breaks down, its objects of study, revealing them as put together out of simpler things, just as complex molecules are put together out of protons, neutrons, and electrons. For example, analytic geometry analyzes the plane geometry of points, lines, etc. in terms of real numbers: points are ordered pairs of real numbers, lines are sets of points, etc. Mathematically, the basic objects of an analytic theory are defined in terms of those of some other theory.

By contrast, a synthetic theory is one that synthesizes, or puts together, a conception of its basic objects based on their expected relationships and behavior. For example, synthetic geometry is more like the geometry of Euclid: points and lines are essentially undefined terms, given meaning by the axioms that specify what we can do with them (e.g. two points determine a unique line). (Although Euclid himself attempted to define “point” and “line”, modern mathematicians generally consider this a mistake, and regard Euclid’s “definitions” (like “a point is that which has no part”) as fairly meaningless.) Mathematically, a synthetic theory is a formal system governed by rules or axioms. Synthetic mathematics can be regarded as analogous to foundational physics, where a concept like the electromagnetic field is not “put together” out of anything simpler: it just is, and behaves in a certain way.

(...)