Ernest Hobson addresses the British Association in 1910, Part 3

Ernest Hobson was President of Section A of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1910. The Association met in Sheffield, in September and Hobson addressed Section A - Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Below is the third part of his lecture.

To read the first part of Hobson's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1910, Part 1

To read the second part of Hobson's lecture, follow the link: British Association 1910, Part 2

Ernest Hobson, the President, continued his Address:-

The school of thought which has most emphasised the purely logical aspect of Mathematics is that which is represented in this country by Mr Bertrand Russell and Dr Whitehead, and which has distinguished adherents both in Europe and in America. The ideal of this school is a presentation of the whole of Mathematics as a deductive scheme in which are employed a certain limited number of indefinables and unprovable axioms, by means of a procedure in which all possibility of the illicit intrusion of extraneous elements into the deduction is excluded by the employment of a symbolism in which each symbol expresses a certain logical relation. This school receives its inspiration from a peculiar form of philosophic realism which, in its revolt from idealism, produces in the adherents of the school a strong tendency to ignore altogether the psychological implications in the movements of mathematical thought. This is carried so far that in their writings no explicit recognition is made of any psychological factors in the selection of the indefinables and in the formulation of the axioms upon which the whole structure of Mathematics is to be based. The actually worked-out part of their scheme has as yet reached only the mere fringe of modern Mathematics as a great detailed body of doctrine; but to any objection to the method on the ground of the prolixity of the treatment which would be necessary to carry it out far enough to enable it to embrace the various branches of Mathematics in all the wealth of their present development, it would probably be replied that the main point of interest is to establish in principle the possibility only of subsuming Pure Mathematics under a scheme of logistic. It is quite impossible for me here to attempt to discuss, even in outline, the tenets of this school, or even to deal with the interesting question of the possibility of setting up a final system of indefinables and axioms which shall suffice for all present and future developments of Mathematics.

I am very far from wishing to minimise the high philosophic interest of the attempt made by the Peano-Russell school to exhibit Mathematics as a scheme of deductive logic. I have myself emphasised above the necessity and importance of fitting the results of mathematical research in their final form into a framework of deduction, for the purpose of ensuring the complete precision and the verification of the various mathematical theories. At the same time it must be recognised that the purely deductive method is wholly inadequate as an instrument of research. Whatever view may be held as regards the place of psychological implications in a completed body of mathematical doctrine, in research the psychological factor is of paramount importance. The slightest acquaintance with the history of Mathematics establishes the fact that discoveries have seldom, or never, been made by purely deductive processes. The results are thrown into a purely deductive form after, and often long after, their discovery. In many cases the purely deductive form, in the full sense, is quite modern. The possession of a body of indefinables, axioms, or postulates, and symbols denoting logical relation, would, taken by itself, be wholly insufficient for the development of a mathematical theory. With these alone the mathematician would be unable to move a step. In face of an unlimited number of possible combinations a principle of selection of such as are of interest, a purposive element, and a perceptive faculty are essential for the development of anything new. In the process of discovery the chains in a sequence of logical deduction do not at first arise in their final order in the mind of the mathematical discoverer. He divines the results before they are established; he has an intuitive grasp of the general line of a demonstration long before he has filled in the details. A developed theory, or even a demonstration of a single theorem, is no more identical with a mere complex of syllogisms than a melody is identical with the mere sum of the musical notes employed in its composition. In each case the whole is something more than merely the sum of its parts; it has a unity of its own, and that unity must be, in some measure at least, discerned by its creator before the parts fall completely into their places. Logic is, so to speak, the grammar of Mathematics; but a knowledge of the rules of grammar and the letters of the alphabet would not be sufficient equipment to enable a man to write a book. There is much room for individuality in the modes of mathematical discovery. Some great mathematicians have employed largely images derived from spatial intuition as a guide to their results; others appear wholly to have discarded such aids, and were led by a fine feeling for algebraic and other species of mathematical form. A certain tentative process is common, in which, by the aid of results known or obtained in special cases, generalisations are perceived and afterwards established, which take up into themselves all the special cases so employed. Most mathematicians leave some traces, in the final presentation of their work, of the scaffolding they have employed in building their edifices: some much more than others.

The difference between a mathematical theory in the making and as a finished product is, perhaps, most strikingly illustrated by the case of geometry, as presented in its most approved modern shape. It is not too much to say that geometry, reduced to a purely deductive form - as presented, for example, by Hilbert, or by some of the modern Italian school - has no necessary connection with space. The words 'point,' 'line,' 'plane' are employed to denote any entities whatever which satisfy certain prescribed conditions of relationship. Various premisses are postulated that would appear to be, of a perfectly arbitrary nature, if we did not know how they had been suggested. In that division of the subject known as metric geometry, for example, axioms of congruency are assumed which, by their purely abstract character, avoid the very real difficulties that arise in this regard in reducing perceptual space-relations of measurements to a purely conceptual form. Such schemes, triumphs of constructive thought at its highest and most abstract level as they are, could never have been constructed apart from the space-perceptions that suggested them, although the concepts of spatial origin are transformed almost out of recognition. But what I want to call attention to here is that, apart from the basis of this geometry, mathematicians would never have been able to find their way through the details of the deductions without having continual recourse to the guidance given them by spatial intuition. If one attempts to follow one of the demonstrations of a particular theorem in the work of writers of this school, one would find it quite impossible to retain the steps of the process long enough to master the whole, without the aid of the very spatial suggestions which have been abstracted. This is perhaps sufficiently warranted by the fact that writers of this school find it necessary to provide their readers with figures, in order to avoid complete bewilderment in following the demonstrations, although the processes, being purely logical deductions from premisses of the nature I have described, deal only with entities which have no necessary similarity to anything indicated by the figures.

A most interesting account has been written by one of the greatest mathematicians of our time, M Henri Poincaré, of the way in which he was led to some of his most important mathematical discoveries. He describes the process of discovery as consisting of three stages: the first of these consists of a long effort of concentrated attention upon the problem in hand in all its bearings; during the second stage he is not consciously occupied with the subject at all, but at some quite unexpected moment the central idea which enables him to surmount the difficulties, the nature of which he had made clear to himself during the first stage, flashes suddenly into his consciousness. The third stage consists of the work of carrying out in detail and reducing to a connected form the results to which he is led by the light of his central idea; this stage, like the first, is one requiring conscious effort. This is, I think, clearly not a description of a purely deductive process; it is assuredly more interesting to the psychologist than to the logician. We have here the account of a complex of mental processes in which it is certain that the reduction to a scheme of precise logical deduction is the latest stage. After all, a mathematician is a human being, not a logic-engine. Who that has studied the works of such men as Euler, Lagrange, Cauchy, Riemann, Sophus Lie, and Weierstrass, can doubt that a great mathematician is a great artist? The faculties possessed by such men, varying greatly in kind and degree with the individual, are analogous to those requisite for constructive art. Not every great mathematician possesses in a specially high degree that critical faculty which finds its employment in the perfection of form, in conformity with the ideal of logical completeness; but every great mathematician possesses the rarer faculty of constructive imagination.

The actual evolution of mathematical theories proceeds by a process of induction strictly analogous to the method of induction employed in building up the physical sciences; observation, comparison, classification, trial, and generalisation are essential in both cases. Not only are special results, obtained independently of one another, frequently seen to be really included in some generalisation, but branches of the subject which have been developed quite independently of one another are sometimes found to have connections which enable them to be synthesised in one single body of doctrine. The essential nature of mathematical thought manifests itself in the discernment of fundamental identity in the mathematical aspects of what are superficially very different domains. A striking example of this species of immanent identity of mathematical form was exhibited by the discovery of that distinguished mathematician, our General Secretary, Major MacMahon, that all possible Latin squares are capable of enumeration by the consideration of certain differential operators. Here we have a case in which an enumeration, which appears to be not amenable to direct treatment, can actually be carried out in a simple manner when the underlying identity of the operation is recognised with that involved in certain operations due to differential operators, the calculus of which belongs superficially to a wholly different region of thought from that relating to Latin squares. The modern abstract theory of groups affords a very important illustration of this point; all sets of operations, whatever be their concrete character, which have the same group, are from the point of view of the abstract theory identical, and an analysis of the properties of the abstract group gives results which are applicable to all the actual sets of operations, however diverse their character, which are dominated by the one group. The characteristic feature of any special geometrical scheme is known when the group of transformations which leave unaltered certain relations of figures has been assigned. Two schemes in which the space elements may be quite different have this fundamental identity, provided they have the same group; every special theorem is then capable of interpretation as a property of figures either in the one or in the other geometry. The mathematical physicist is familiar with the fact that a single mathematical theory is often capable of interpretation in relation to a variety of physical phenomena. In some instances a mathematical formulation, as in some fashion representing observed facts, has survived the physical theory it was originally devised to represent. In the case of electromagnetic and optical theory, there appears to be reason for trusting the equations, even when the proper physical interpretation of some of the vectors appearing in them is a matter of uncertainty and gives rise to much difference of opinion; another instance of the fundamental nature of mathematical form.

One of the most general mathematical conceptions is that of functional relationship, or 'functionality.' Starting originally from simple cases such as a function represented by a power of a variable, this conception has, under the pressure of the needs of expanding mathematical theories, gradually attained the completeness of generality which, it possesses at the present time. The opinion appears to be gaining ground that this very general conception of functionality, born on mathematical ground, is destined to supersede the narrower notion of causation, traditional in connection with the natural sciences. As an abstract formulation of the idea of determination in its most general sense, the notion of functionality includes and transcends the more special notion of causation as a one-sided determination of future phenomena by means of present conditions; it can be used to express the fact of the subsumption under a general law of past, present, and future alike, in a sequence of phenomena. From this point of view the remark of Huxley that Mathematics 'knows nothing of causation' could only be taken to express the whole truth, if by the term 'causation' is understood 'efficient causation.' The latter notion has, however, in recent times been to an increasing extent regarded as just as irrelevant in the natural sciences as it is in Mathematics; the idea of thorough-going determinancy, in accordance with formal law, being thought to be alone, significant in either domain.

The observations I have made in the present address have, in the main, had reference to Mathematics as a living and growing science related to and permeating other great departments of knowledge. The small remaining space at my disposal I propose to devote to a few words about some matters connected with the teaching of the more elementary parts of Mathematics. Of late years a new spirit has come over the mathematical teaching in many of our institutions, due in no small measure to the reforming zeal of our General Treasurer, Professor John Perry. The changes that have been made followed a recognition of the fact that the abstract mode of treatment of the subject that had been traditional was not only wholly unsuitable as a training for physicists and engineers, but was also to a large extent a failure in relation to general education, because it neglected to bring out clearly the bearing of the subject on the concrete side of things. With the general principle that a much less abstract mode of treatment than was formerly customary is desirable for a variety of reasons, I am in complete accord. It is a sound educational principle that instruction should begin with the concrete side, and should only gradually introduce the more general and abstract aspects of the subject; an abstract treatment on a purely logical basis being reserved only for that highest and. latest stage which will be reached only by a small minority of students. At the same time I think there are some serious dangers connected with the movement towards making the teaching of Mathematics more practical than formerly, and I do not think that, in making the recent changes in the modes of teaching, these dangers have always been successfully avoided.

Geometry and mechanics are both subjects with two sides: on the one side, the observational, they are physical sciences; on the other side, the abstract and deductive, they are branches of Pure Mathematics. The older traditional treatment of these subjects has been of a mixed character, in which deduction and induction occurred side by side throughout, but far too much stress was laid upon the deductive side, especially in the earlier stages of instruction. It is the proportion of the two elements in the mixture that has been altered by the changed methods of instruction of the newer school of teachers. In the earliest teaching of the subjects they should, I believe, be treated wholly as observational studies. At a later stage a mixed treatment must be employed, observation and deduction going hand in hand, more stress being, however, laid on the observational side than was formerly customary. This mixed treatment leaves much opening for variety of method; its character must depend to a large extent on the age and general mental development of the pupils; it should allow free scope for the individual methods of various teachers as suggested to those teachers by experience. Attempts to fix too rigidly any particular order of treatment of these subjects are much to be deprecated, and, unfortunately, such attempts are now being made. To have escaped from the thraldom of Euclid will avail little if the study of geometry in all the schools is to fall under the domination of some other rigidly prescribed scheme.

There are at the present time some signs of reaction against the recent movement of reform in the teaching of geometry. It is found that the lack of a regular order in the sequence of propositions increases the difficulty of the examiner in appraising the performance of the candidates, and in standardising the results of examinations. That this is true may well be believed, and it was indeed foreseen by many of those who took part in bringing about the dethronement of Euclid as a text-book. From the point of view of the examiner it is without doubt an enormous simplification if all the students have learned the subject in the same order, and have studied the same text-book. But, admitting this fact, ought decisive weight to be allowed to it? I am decidedly of opinion that it ought not. I think the convenience of the examiner, and even precision in the results of examinations, ought unhesitatingly to be sacrificed when they are in conflict - as I believe they are in this case - with the vastly more important interests of education. Of the many evils which our examination system has inflicted upon us, the central one has consisted in forcing our school and university teaching into moulds determined not by the true interests of education, but by the mechanical exigencies of the examination syllabus. The examiner has thus exercised a potent influence in discouraging initiative and individuality of method on the part of the teacher; he has robbed the teacher of that freedom which is essential for any high degree of efficiency. An objection of a different character to the newer modes of teaching geometry has been frequently made of late. It is said that the students are induced to accept and reproduce, as proofs of theorems, arguments which are not really proofs, and thus that the logical training which should be imparted by a study of geometry is vitiated. If this objection really implies a demand for a purely deductive treatment of the subject, I think some of those who raise it hardly realise all that would be involved in the complete satisfaction of their requirement. I have already remarked that Euclid's treatment of the subject is not rigorous as regards logic. Owing to the recent exploration of the foundations of geometry we possess at the present time tolerably satisfactory methods of purely deductive treatment of the subject; in regard to mechanics, notwithstanding the valuable work of Mach, Herz, and others, this is not yet the case. But, in the schemes of purely deductive geometry, the systems of axioms and postulates are far from being of a very simple character; their real nature, and the necessity for many of them, can only be appreciated at a much later stage in mathematical education than the one of which I am speaking. A purely logical treatment is the highest stage in the training of the mathematician, and is wholly unsuitable - and, indeed, quite impossible - in those stages beyond which the great majority of students never pass. It can then, in the case of all students, except a few advanced ones in the universities, only be a question of degree how far the purely logical factor in the proofs of propositions shall be modified by the introduction of elements derived from observation or spatial intuition. If the freedom of teaching which I have advocated be allowed, it will be open to those teachers who find it advisable in the interests of their students to emphasise the logical side of their teaching to do so; and it is certainly of value in all cases to draw the attention of students to those points in a proof where the intuitional element enters. I draw, then, the conclusion that a mixed treatment of geometry, as of mechanics, must prevail in the future, as it has done in the past, but that the proportion of the observational or intuitional factor to the logical one must vary in accordance with the needs and intellectual attainments of the students, and that a large measure of freedom of judgment in this regard should be left to the teacher.

The great and increasing importance of a knowledge of the differential and integral calculus for students of engineering and other branches of physical science has led to the publication during the last few years of a considerable number of text-books on this subject intended for the use of such students. Some of these text-books are excellent, and their authors, by a skilful insistence on the principles of the subject, have done their utmost to guard against the very real dangers which attend attempts to adapt such a subject to the practical needs of engineers and others. It is quite true that a great mass of detail which has gradually come to form part-often much too large a part-of the material of the student of Mathematics, may with great advantage be ignored by those whose main study is to be engineering science or physics. Yet it cannot be too strongly insisted on that a firm grasp of the principles, as distinct from the mere processes of calculation, is essential if Mathematics is to be a tool really useful to the engineer and the physicist. There is a danger, which experience has shown to be only too real, that such students may learn to regard Mathematics as consisting merely of formulas and of rules which provide the means of performing the, numerical computations necessary for solving certain categories of problems which occur in the practical sciences. Apart from the deplorable effect, on the educational side, of degrading Mathematics to this level, the practical effect of reducing it to a number of rule-of-thumb processes can only be to make those who learn it in so unintelligent a manner incapable of applying mathematical methods to any practical problem in which the data differ even slightly from those in the model problems which they have studied. Only a firm grasp of the principles will give the necessary freedom in handling the methods of Mathematics required for the various practical problems in the solution of which they are essential.

Last Updated April 2007