Mathematical Magnitude And Experiment Icon

February 18, 2022

Second Stage

We have only taken our first step. We have explained the origin of continuums of the first order; we must now see why this is not sufficient, and why the incommensurable numbers had to be invented.

If we try to imagine a line, it must have the characters of the physical continuum—that is to say, our representation must have a certain breadth. Two lines will therefore appear to us under the form of two narrow bands, and if we are content with this rough image, it is clear that where two lines cross they must have some common part.

But the pure geometer makes one further effort; without entirely renouncing the aid of his senses, he tries to imagine a line without breadth and a point without size.

This he can do only by imagining a line as the limit towards which tends a band that is growing thinner and thinner, and the point as the limit towards which is tending an area that is growing smaller and smaller. Our two bands, however narrow they may be, will always have a common area; the smaller they are the smaller it will be, and its limit is what the geometer calls a point.

This is why it is said that the two lines which cross must have a common point, and this truth seems intuitive. But a contradiction would be implied if we conceived of lines as continuums of the first order—i.e., the lines traced by the geometer should only give us points, the co-ordinates of which are rational numbers.

The contradiction would be manifest if we were, for instance, to assert the existence of lines and circles. It is clear, in fact, that if the points whose co-ordinates are commensurable were alone regarded as real, the in-circle of a square and the diagonal of the square would not intersect, since the co-ordinates of the point of intersection are incommensurable.

Even then we should have only certain incommensurable numbers, and not all these numbers.

But let us imagine a line divided into two half-rays (demi-droites). Each of these half-rays will appear to our minds as a band of a certain breadth; these bands will fit close together, because there must be no interval between them. The common part will appear to us to be a point which will still remain as we imagine the bands to become thinner and thinner, so that we admit as an intuitive truth that if a line be divided into two half-rays the common frontier of these half-rays is a point.

Here we recognise the conception of Kronecker, in which an incommensurable number was regarded as the common frontier of two classes of rational numbers. Such is the origin of the continuum of the second order, which is the mathematical continuum properly so called.


The mind has the faculty of creating symbols. This leads to a particular system of symbols which becomes the mathematical continuum.

The only limit to its power is the necessity of avoiding all contradiction; but the mind only makes use of it when experiment gives a reason for it.

In the case with which we are concerned, the reason is given by the idea of the physical continuum, drawn from the rough data of the senses. But this idea leads to a series of contradictions from each of which in turn we must be freed. In this way we are forced to imagine a more and more complicated system of symbols.

That on which we shall dwell is not merely exempt from internal contradiction,—it was so already at all the steps we have taken,—but it is no longer in contradiction with the various propositions which are called intuitive, and which are derived from more or less elaborate empirical notions.

Measurable Magnitude

So far we have not spoken of the measure of magnitudes; we can tell if any one ofscience and hypothesis

them is greater than any other, but we cannot say that it is two or three times as large.

So far, I have only considered the order in which the terms are arranged; but that is not sufficient for most applications.

We must learn how to compare the interval which separates any two terms. On this condition alone will the continuum become measurable, and the operations of arithmetic be applicable.

This can only be done by the aid of a new and special convention; and this convention is, that in such a case the interval between the terms A and B is equal to the interval which separates C and D.

For instance, we started with the integers, and between two consecutive sets we intercalated n intermediary sets; by convention we now assume these new sets to be equidistant.

This is one of the ways of defining the addition of two magnitudes; for if the interval AB is by definition equal to the interval CD, the interval AD will by definition be the sum of the intervals AB and AC.

This definition is very largely, but not altogether, arbitrary. It must satisfy certain conditions—the commuta- tive and associative laws of addition, for instance; but, provided the definition we choose satisfies these laws, the choice is indifferent, and we need not state it precisely.

  1. Is the creative power of the mind exhausted by the creation of the mathematical continuum?

No. This is shown in a very striking manner by the work of Du Bois Reymond.

We know that mathematicians distinguish between infinitesimals of different orders, and that infinitesimals of the second order are infinitely small, not only abso- lutely so, but also in relation to those of the first order.

It is not difficult to imagine infinitesimals of fractional or even of irrational order, and here once more we find the mathematical continuum which has been dealt with in the preceding pages. Further, there are infinitesimals which are infinitely small with reference to those of the first order, and infinitely large with respect to the order 1 + , however small may be.

Here, then, are new terms intercalated in our series; and if I may be permitted to revert to the terminology used in the preceding pages, a terminology which is very convenient, although it has not been consecrated by usage, I shall say that we have created a kind of continuum of the third order.

It is an easy matter to go further, but it is idle to do so, for we would only be imagining symbols without any possible application, and no one will dream of doing and hypothesis

This continuum of the third order, to which we are led by the consideration of the different orders of infinitesimals, is in itself of but little use and hardly worth quoting.

Geometers look on it as a mere curiosity. The mind only uses its creative faculty when experiment requires it.

  1. When we are once in possession of the conception of the mathematical continuum, are we protected from contradictions analogous to those which gave it birth?

No, and the following is an instance:

He is a savant indeed who will not take it as evident that every curve has a tangent; and, in fact, if we think of a curve and a straight line as two narrow bands, we can always arrange them in such a way that they have a common part without intersecting.

Suppose now that the breadth of the bands diminishes indefinitely: the common part will still remain, and in the limit, so to speak, the two lines will have a common point, although they do not intersect—i.e., they will touch.

The geometer who reasons in this way is only doing what we have done when we proved that two lines which intersect have a common point, and his intuition might also seem to be quite legitimate.

But this is not the case. We can show that there are curves which have no tangent, if we define such a curve as an analytical continuum of the second order.

No doubt some artifice analogous to those we have discussed above would enable us to get rid of this contradiction, but as the latter is only met with in very exceptional cases, we need not trouble to do so.

Instead of endeavouring to reconcile intuition and analysis, we are content to sacrifice one of them, and as analysis must be flawless, intuition must go to the wall.