Where the appearance of disorder reigned

Poincaré, “The Future of Mathematics,” 1908, in Science and Method, translated by Francis Maitland:

The importance of a fact is measured by the return it gives—that is, by the amount of thought it enables us to economize.

In physics, the facts which give a large return are those which take their place in a very general law, because they enable us to foresee a very large number of others, and it is exactly the same in mathematics. Suppose I apply myself to a complicated calculation and with much difficulty arrive at a result, I shall have gained nothing by my trouble if it has not enabled me to foresee the results of other analogous calculations, and to direct them with certainty, avoiding the blind groping with which I had to be contented the first time. On the contrary, my time will not have been lost if this very groping has succeeded in revealing to me the profound analogy between the problem just dealt with and a much more extensive class of other problems; if it has shown me at once their resemblances and their differences; if, in a word, it has enabled me to perceive the possibility of a generalization. Then it will not be merely a new result that I have acquired, but a new force.

An algebraical formula which gives us the solution of a type of numerical problems, if we finally replace the letters by numbers, is the simple example which occurs to one’s mind at once. Thanks to the formula, a single algebraical calculation saves us the trouble of a constant repetition of numerical calculations. But this is only a rough example; every one feels that there are analogies which cannot be expressed by a formula, and that they are the most valuable.

If a new result is to have any value, it must unite elements long since known, but till then scattered and seemingly foreign to each other, and suddenly introduce order where the appearance of disorder reigned. Then it enables us to see at a glance each of these elements in the place it occupies in the whole. Not only is the new fact valuable on its own account, but it alone gives a value to the old facts it unites. Our mind is frail as our senses are; it would lose itself in the complexity of the world if that complexity were not harmonious; like the short-sighted, it would only see the details, and would be obliged to forget each of these details before examining the next, because it would be incapable of taking in the whole. The only facts worthy of our attention are those which introduce order into this complexity and so make it accessible to us.

Mathematicians attach a great importance to the elegance of their methods and of their results, and this is not mere dilettantism. What is it that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution or a demonstration? It is the harmony of the different parts, their symmetry, and their happy adjustment; it is, in a word, all that introduces order, all that gives them unity, that enables us to obtain a clear comprehension of the whole as well as of the parts. But that is also precisely what causes it to give a large return; and in fact the more we see this whole clearly and at a single glance, the better we shall perceive the analogies with other neighbouring objects, and consequently the better chance we shall have of guessing the possible generalizations. Elegance may result from the feeling of surprise caused by the un-looked-for occurrence together of objects not habitually associated. In this, again, it is fruitful, since it thus discloses relations till then unrecognized. It is also fruitful even when it only results from the contrast between the simplicity of the means and the complexity of the problem presented, for it then causes us to reflect on the reason for this contrast, and generally shows us that this reason is not chance, but is to be found in some unsuspected law. Briefly stated, the sentiment of mathematical elegance is nothing but the satisfaction due to some conformity between the solution we wish to discover and the necessities of our mind, and it is on account of this very conformity that the solution can be an instrument for us. This aesthetic satisfaction is consequently connected with the economy of thought. Again the comparison with the Erechtheum occurs to me, but I do not wish to serve it up too often.

It is for the same reason that, when a somewhat lengthy calculation has conducted us to some simple and striking result, we are not satisfied until we have shown that we might have foreseen, if not the whole result, at least its most characteristic features. Why is this? What is it that prevents our being contented with a calculation which has taught us apparently all that we wished to know? The reason is that, in analogous cases, the lengthy calculation might not be able to be used again, while this is not true of the reasoning, often semi-intuitive, which might have enabled us to foresee the result. This reasoning being short, we can see all the parts at a single glance, so that we perceive immediately what must be changed to adapt it to all the problems of a similar nature that may be presented. And since it enables us to foresee whether the solution of these problems will be simple, it shows us at least whether the calculation is worth undertaking.

What I have just said is sufficient to show how vain it would be to attempt to replace the mathematician’s free initiative by a mechanical process of any kind. In order to obtain a result having any real value, it is not enough to grind out calculations, or to have a machine for putting things in order: it is not order only, but unexpected order, that has a value. A machine can take hold of the bare fact, but the soul of the fact will always escape it.

Since the middle of last century, mathematicians have become more and more anxious to attain to absolute exactness. They are quite right, and this tendency will become more and more marked. In mathematics, exactness is not everything, but without it there is nothing: a demonstration which lacks exactness is nothing at all. This is a truth that I think no one will dispute, but if it is taken too literally it leads us to the conclusion that before 1820, for instance, there was no such thing as mathematics, and this is clearly an exaggeration. The geometricians of that day were willing to assume what we explain by prolix dissertations. This does not mean that they did not see it at all, but they passed it over too hastily, and, in order to see it clearly, they would have had to take the trouble to state it.

Only, is it always necessary to state it so many times? Those who were the first to pay special attention to exactness have given us reasonings that we may attempt to imitate; but if the demonstrations of the future are to be constructed on this model, mathematical works will become exceedingly long, and if I dread length, it is not only because I am afraid of the congestion of our libraries, but because I fear that as they grow in length our demonstrations will lose that appearance of harmony which plays such a useful part, as I have just explained.

It is economy of thought that we should aim at, and therefore it is not sufficient to give models to be copied. We must enable those that come after us to do without the models, and not to repeat a previous reasoning, but summarize it in a few lines. And this has already been done successfully in certain cases. For instance, there was a whole class of reasonings that resembled each other, and were found everywhere; they were perfectly exact, but they were long. One day some one thought of the term “uniformity of convergence,” and this term alone made them useless; it was no longer necessary to repeat them, since they could now be assumed. Thus the hair-splitters can render us a double service, first by teaching us to do as they do if necessary, but more especially by enabling us as often as possible not to do as they do, and yet make no sacrifice of exactness.

One example has just shown us the importance of terms in mathematics; but I could quote many others. It is hardly possible to believe what economy of thought, as Mach used to say, can be effected by a well-chosen term. I think I have already said somewhere that mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things. It is enough that these things, though differing in matter, should be similar in form, to permit of their being, so to speak, run in the same mould. When language has been well chosen, one is astonished to find that all demonstrations made for a known object apply immediately to many new objects: nothing requires to be changed, not even the terms, since the names have become the same.

A well-chosen term is very often sufficient to remove the exceptions permitted by the rules as stated in the old phraseology. This accounts for the invention of negative quantities, imaginary quantities, decimals to infinity, and I know not what else. And we must never forget that exceptions are pernicious, because they conceal laws.

This is one of the characteristics by which we recognize facts which give a great return: they are the facts which permit of these happy innovations of language. The bare fact, then, has sometimes no great interest: it may have been noted many times without rendering any great service to science; it only acquires a value when some more careful thinker perceives the connexion it brings out, and symbolizes it by a term.

in notebook

The most vigorous exercise

C. S. Peirce, §10. Kinds of Reasoning, in Chapter 2, Lessons from the History of Science, Principles of Philosophy:

The methods of reasoning of science have been studied in various ways
and with results which disagree in important particulars. The followers of Laplace treat the subject from the point of view of the theory of probabilities. After corrections due to Boole and others, that method yields substantially the results stated above. Whewell described the reasoning just as it appeared to a man deeply conversant with several branches of science as only a genuine researcher can know them, and adding to that knowledge a full acquaintance with the history of science. These results, as might be expected, are of the highest value, although there are important distinctions and reasons which he overlooked. John Stuart Mill endeavored to explain the reasonings of science by the nominalistic metaphysics of his father. The superficial perspicuity of that kind of metaphysics rendered his logic extremely popular with those who think, but do not think profoundly; who know something of science, but more from the outside than the inside, and who for one reason or another delight in the simplest theories even if they fail to cover the facts.

Mill denies that there was any reasoning in Kepler’s procedure. He says it is merely a description of the facts. He seems to imagine that Kepler had all the places of Mars in space given him by Tycho’s observations; and that all he did was to generalize and so obtain a general expression for them. Even had that been all, it would certainly have been inference. Had Mill had even so much practical acquaintance with astronomy as to have practised discussions of the motions of double stars, he would have seen that. But so to characterize Kepler’s work is to betray total ignorance of it. Mill certainly never read the De Motu [Motibus] Stellae Martis, which is not easy reading. The reason it is not easy is that it calls for the most vigorous exercise of all the powers of reasoning from beginning to end.

Rigidity and continuity

John von Neumann, “The General and Logical Theory of Automata,” 1948:

There exists today a very elaborate system of formal logic, and, specifically, of logic as applied to mathematics. This is a discipline with many good sides, but also with certain serious weaknesses. This is not the occasion to enlarge upon the good sides, which I have certainly no intention to belittle. About the inadequacies, however, this may be said: Everybody who has worked in formal logic will confirm that it is one of the technically most refractory parts of mathematics. The reason for this is that it deals with rigid, all-or-none concepts, and has very little contact with the continuous concept of the real or of the complex number, that is, with mathematical analysis. Yet analysis is the technically most successful and best-elaborated part of mathematics. Thus formal logic is, by the nature of its approach, cut off from the best cultivated portions of mathematics, and forced onto the most difficult part of the mathematical terrain, into combinatorics.

The theory of automata, of the digital, all-or-none type, as discussed up to now, is certainly a chapter in formal logic. It would, therefore, seem that it will have to share this unattractive property of formal logic. It will have to be, from the mathematical point of view, combinatorial rather than analytical.

Inevitably irritated into writing it

The preface to T. E. Hulme’s posthumously published collection of meditations on language and philosophy, “Cinders”:

The history of philosophers we know, but who will write the history of the philosophic amateurs and readers? Who will tell us of the circulation of Descartes, who read the book and who understood it? Or do philosophers, like the mythical people on the island, take in each other’s washing? For I take it, a man who understands philosophy is inevitably irritated into writing it. The few who have learnt the jargon must repay themselves by employing it. A new philosophy is not like a new religion, a thing to be merely thankful for and accepted mutely by the faithful. It is more of the nature of food thrown to the lions; the pleasure lies in the fact that it can be devoured. It is food for the critics, and all readers of philosophy, I suppose, are critics, and not faithful ones waiting for the new gospel.

With this preface I offer my new kind of food to tickle the palate of the connoisseurs.

in notebook

Friends of lento

from Nietzsche’s 1886 preface to Daybreak, translated by R. J. Hollingdale:

A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading:—in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste—a malicious taste, perhaps?—no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento.

in notebook

Dense mists of language

William Blake’s Laocoön, circa 1817:

Wittgenstein, from “Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data'” (circa 1934–1936):

Die Atmosphäre, die dieses Problem umgibt, ist schrecklich. Dichte Nebel der Sprache sind um den problematischen Punkt gelagert. Es ist beinahe unmöglich, zu ihm vorzudringen.

translated by Rush Rhees:

The atmosphere surrounding the problem is terrible. Dense mists of language are situated about the crucial point. It is almost impossible to get through to it.

Arithmetical and algebraic intellects

I was just going to say, when I was interrupted, that one of the many ways of classifying minds is under the heads of arithmetical and algebraical intellects. All economical and practical wisdom is an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula: 2+2=4. Every philosophical proposition has the more general character of the expression a+b=c. We are mere operatives, empirics, and egotists, until we learn to think in letters instead of figures.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table