§4. Mathematics


52. The first questions which men ask about the universe are naturally the most general and abstract ones. Nor is it true, as has so often been asserted, that these are the most difficult questions to answer. Francis Bacon is largely responsible for this error, he having represented — having nothing but his imagination and no acquaintance with actual science to draw upon — that the most general inductions must be reached by successive steps. History does not at all bear out that theory. The errors about very general questions have been due to a circumstance which I proceed to set forth.

53. The most abstract of all the sciences is mathematics. That this is so, has been made manifest in our day; because all mathematicians now see clearly that mathematics is only busied about purely hypothetical questions. As for what the truth of existence may be the mathematician does not (qua mathematician) care a straw. It is true that early mathematicians could not clearly see that this was so. But for all their not seeing it, it was just as true of the mathematics of early days as of our own. The early mathematician might perhaps be more inclined to assert roundly that two straight lines in a plane cut by a third so as to make the sum of the internal angles on one side less than two right angles would meet at some finite distance on that side if sufficiently produced; although, as a matter of fact, we observe no such tendency in Euclid. But however that may have been, the early mathematician had certainly no more tendency than the modern to inquire into the truth of that postulate; but quite the reverse. What he really did, therefore, was merely to deduce consequences of unsupported assumptions, whether he recognized that this was the nature of his business or not. Mathematics, then, really was, for him as for us, the most abstract of the sciences, cut off from all inquiry into existential truth. Consequently, the tendency to attack the most abstract problems first, not because they were recognized as such, but because such they were, led to mathematics being the earliest field of inquiry.

54. We find some peoples drawn more toward arithmetic; others more toward geometry. But in either case, a correct method of reasoning was sure to be reached before many centuries of real inquiry had elapsed. The reasoning would be at first awkward, and one case would be needlessly split up into several. But still all influences were pressing the reasoner to make use of a diagram, and as soon as he did that he was pursuing the correct method. For mathematical reasoning consists in constructing a diagram according to a general precept, in observing certain relations between parts of that diagram not explicitly required by the precept, showing that these relations will hold for all such diagrams, and in formulating this conclusion in general terms. All valid necessary reasoning is in fact thus diagrammatic.1) This, however, is far from being obviously true. There was nothing to draw the attention of the early reasoners to the need of a diagram in such reasoning. Finding that by their inward meditations they could deduce the truth concerning, for example, the height of an inaccessible pillar, they naturally concluded the same method could be applied to positive inquiries.

In this way, early success in mathematics would naturally lead to bad methods in the positive sciences, and especially in metaphysics.


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