BLTC Press Titles

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The Diplomatic Background of the War

Charles Seymour

Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu, James Legge (trans.)

The Secret Doctrine, Volume II Anthropogenesis

H. P. Blavatsky

Vanity Fair

William Thackery

Introduction to mathematical philosophy

by Bertrand Russell




Mathematics is a study which, when we start from its most familiar portions, may be pursued in either of two opposite directions. The more familiar direction is constructive, towards gradually increasing complexity: from integers to fractions, real numbers, complex numbers; from addition and multiplication to differentiation and integration, and on to higher mathematics. The other direction, which is less familiar, proceeds, by analysing, to greater and greater abstractness and logical simplicity; instead of asking what can be defined and deduced from what is assumed to begin with, we ask instead what more general ideas and principles can be found, in terms of which what was our starting-point can be defined or deduced. It is the fact of pursuing this opposite direction that characterises mathematical philosophy as opposed to ordinary mathematics. But it should be understood that the distinction is one, not in the subject matter, but in the state of mind of the investigator. Early Greek geometers, passing from the empirical rules of Egyptian land-surveying to the general propositions by which those rules were found to be justifiable, and thence to Euclid's axioms and postulates, were engaged in mathematical philosophy, according to the above definition; but when once the axioms and postulates had been reached, their deductive employment, as we find it in Euclid, belonged to mathematics in the ordinary sense. The distinction between mathematics and mathematical philosophy is one which depends upon the interest inspiring the research, and upon the stage which the research has reached; not upon the propositions with which the research is concerned.

We may state the same distinction in another way. The most obvious and easy things in mathematics are not those that come logically at the beginning; they are things that, from the point of view of logical deduction, come somewhere in the middle. Just as the easiest bodies to see are those that are neither very near nor very far, neither very small nor very great, so the easiest conceptions to grasp are those that are neither very complex nor very simple (using "simple" in a logical sense). And as we need two sorts of instruments, the telescope and the microscope, for the enlargement of our visual powers, so we need two sorts of instruments for the enlargement of our logical powers, one to take us forward to the higher mathematics, the other to take us backward to the logical foundations of the things that we are inclined to take for granted in mathematics. We shall find that by analysing our ordinary mathematical notions we acquire fresh insight, new powers, and the means of reaching whole new mathematical subjects by adopting fresh lines of advance after our backward journey. It is the purpose of this book to explain mathematical philosophy simply and untechnically, without enlarging upon those portions which are so doubtful or difficult that an elementary treatment is scarcely possible. A full treatment will be found in Principia Mathematica ;1 the treatment in the present volume is intended merely as an introduction.

To the average educated person of the present day, the obvious starting-point of mathematics would be the series of whole numbers,

1, 2, 3, 4, ... etc.

1 Cambridge University Press, vol. i., 191o; vol. ii., 1911 ; vol. iii., 1913. By Whitehead and Russell.

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