Letters of Euler to a German Princess, Vol. II, Letter VII

This is the first of eleven Letters of Euler I will rewrite and post on the subject of infinitesmals (the infinitely small), an idea that is fundamental to a good understanding of calculus. I am rewriting them from a 1795 English translation, and will edit some of the awkward character usage (among other things, the first “s” used in any word actually looks like an “f”), but otherwise, for the most part, I will leave it unchanged. Additions and edits will be marked by braces, […].

Considered by scholars as the best mathematician in history, Euler’s influence is everywhere present in modern mathematics. Yet as smart as he was, he still took time to bring difficult concepts down to a level where a non-mathematician might learn some things. And, as you will see, defend the Christianity at the same time.

Although these posts from Letters of Euler are for students in my Shormann Calculus course(available Summer 2018), any curious prince or princess is welcome to read them, too! The idea Euler (and myself) is trying to convey is that any real object can be divided, and divided again. And again, until it is in such small parts (infinitesimals) we can’t see them. Nevertheless, they exist. But how? To understand that, let’s begin with Euler’s description of the properties of any real object, which he refers to as a body.  Enjoy!

Letter VII. The True Notion of Extension

I have already demonstrated, that the general notion of body necessarily comprehends these three qualities, extension, impenetrability, and inertia*, without which no being can be ranked in the class of bodies. Even the most scrupulous must allow the necessity of these three qualities, in order to constitute a body; but the doubt with some is, Are these three characters sufficient? Perhaps, say they, there may be several other characters, which are equally necessary to the essence of body.

*if a body has extension, that means you can measure it (length, mass, etc.); if it has impenetrability, that means you can feel it, which is possible with any solid, liquid or gas; if it has inertia that means it has the physical property of resisting a change in motion.

But I ask: were God to create a being divested of these other unknown characters, and that it possessed only the three above mentioned, would they hesitate to give the name of body to such a being? No, assuredly; for if they had the least doubt on the subject, they could not say with certainty, that the stones in the street are bodies, because they are not sure whether the pretended unknown characters are to be found in them or not.

Some imagine, that gravity is an essential property of all bodies, as all those which we know are heavy; but were God to divest them of gravity, would they therefore cease to be bodies? Let them consider the heavenly bodies, which do not fall downward; as must be the case, if they were heavy as the bodies which we touch, yet they give them the same name. And even on the supposition that all bodies were heavy, it would not follow that gravity is a property essential to them, for a body would still remain a body, though its gravity were to be destroyed by a miracle.

But this reasoning does not apply to the three essential properties mentioned. Were God to annihilate the extension of a body, it would certainly be no longer a body; and a body divested of impenetrability would no longer be a body; it would be a spectre, a phantom: the same holds as to inertia.

You know that extension is the proper object of geometry, which considers bodies only in so far as they are measurable. [Geometry does not consider impenetrability and inertia.] The object of geometry, therefore, is a notion much more general than that of body, as it comprehends not only bodies, but all beings simply extended without impenetrability, if any such there be. Hence it follows, that all the properties deduced in geometry from the notion of extension must likewise take place in bodies, in as much as they are extended; for whatever is applicable to a more general notion, to that of a tree, for example, must likewise be applicable to the notion of an oak, an ash, an elm, etc. And this principle is even the foundation of all the reasonings in virtue of which we always affirm and deny of the species,  and of individuals, every thing that we affirm and deny of the genus.

There are however, philosophers, particularly among our contemporaries, who boldly deny, that the properties applicable to extension, in general, that is, according as we consider them in geometry, take place in bodies really existing. They allege that geometrical extension is an abstract being, from the properties of which it is impossible to draw any conclusion, with respect to real objects: thus, when I have demonstrated that the three angles of a triangle are together equal to two right angles, this is a property belonging only to an abstract triangle, and not at all to one really existing.

But these philosophers are not aware of the perplexing consequences which naturally result from the difference which they establish between objects formed by abstraction, and real objects; and if it were not permitted to conclude from the first to the last, no conclusion, and no reasoning whatever could subsist, as we always conclude from general notions to particular.

Now all general notions are as much abstract beings as geometrical extension; and a tree, in general, or the general notion of trees, is formed only by abstraction, and no more exists out of our mind than geometrical extension does. The notion of man in general is of the same kind, and man in general no where exists: all men who exist are individual beings, and correspond to individual notions. The general idea which comprehends all, is formed only by abstraction.

The fault which these philosophers are ever finding with geometricians, for employing themselves about abstractions merely, is therefor groundless, as all other sciences principally turn on general notions, which are no more real than the objects of geometry. The patient, in general, who the physician has in view, and the idea of whom contains all patients really existing, is only an abstract idea; nay the very merit of each science is so much the greater, as it extends to notions more general, that is to say, more abstract.

I shall endeavor, by next post, to point out the tendency of the censures pronounced by these philosophers upon geometricians; and the reasons why they are unwilling that we should ascribe to real, [measurable] beings, that is, to existing bodies, the properties applicable to [measurement] in general, or to abstracted [measurement]. They are afraid lest their metaphysical principles should suffer in the cause.

25th April, 1761.

 

Explore posts in the same categories: Shormann Math, Teaching Mathematics

Tags: , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: