§13. Generalization and Abstraction

82. The most important operation of the mind is that of generalization. There are some exceedingly difficult questions of theoretical logic connected with generalization. On the other hand, there are some valuable lessons which evade those puzzles. If we look at any earlier work upon mathematics as compared with a later one upon the same subject, that which most astonishes us is to see the difficulty men had in first seizing upon general conceptions which after we become a little familiarized to them are quite matters of course. That an Egyptian should have been able to think of adding one-fifth and one-fifth, and yet should not have been content to call the sum two-fifths, but must call it one-third plus one-fifteenth, as if he could not conceive of a sum of fractions unless their denominators were different, seems perverse stupidity. That decimals should have been so slow in coming in, and that, when they did come, the so-called decimal point should be written as if the relation of units to tenths were somehow peculiar, while what was logically called for was simply some mark attached to the units place, so that instead of 3.14159 [what] should have been written [was]  314159, seems very surprising. That Descartes should have thought it necessary to work problems in analytical geometry four times over, according to the different quadrants between the axes of coördinates in which the point to be determined might occur, is astonishing. That which the early mathematicians failed to see in all these cases was that some feature which they were accustomed to insert into their theorems was quite irrelevant and could perfectly well be omitted without affecting in the slightest degree the cogency of any step of the demonstrations.

83. Another operation closely allied to generalization is abstraction; and the use of it is perhaps even more characteristic of mathematical reasoning than is generalization. This consists of seizing upon something which has been conceived as a {epos pteroen}, a meaning not dwelt upon but through which something else is discerned, and converting it into an {epos apteroen}, a meaning upon which we rest as the principal subject of discourse. Thus, the mathematician conceives an operation as something itself to be operated upon. He conceives the collection of places of a moving particle as itself a place which can at one instant be totally occupied by a filament, which can again move, and the aggregate of all its places, considered as possibly occupied in one instant, is a surface, and so forth.

84. The intimate connection between generalization and continuity is to be pointed out.1)

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