Etymology & Definition of Mathematics

Etymology

The word mathematics comes from the Greek μάθημα (máthēma), which, in the ancient Greek language, means “what one learns”, “what one gets to know”, hence also “study” and “science”, and in modern Greek just “lesson”. The word máthēma is derived from μανθάνω (manthano), while the modern Greek equivalent is μαθαίνω (mathaino), both of which mean “to learn”. In Greece, the word for “mathematics” came to have the narrower and more technical meaning “mathematical study”, even in Classical times. Its adjective is μαθηματικός (mathēmatikós), meaning “related to learning” or “studious”, which likewise further came to mean “mathematical”. In particular, μαθηματικὴ τέχνη (mathēmatikḗ tékhnē), Latin: ars mathematica, meant “the mathematical art”.

In Latin, and in English until around 1700, the term mathematics more commonly meant “astrology” (or sometimes “astronomy”) rather than “mathematics”; the meaning gradually changed to its present one from about 1500 to 1800. This has resulted in several mistranslations: a particularly notorious one is Saint Augustine’s warning that Christians should beware of mathematici meaning astrologers, which is sometimes mistranslated as a condemnation of mathematicians.

The apparent plural form in English, like the French plural form les mathématiques (and the less commonly used singular derivative la mathématique), goes back to the Latin neuter pluralmathematica (Cicero), based on the Greek plural τα μαθηματικά (ta mathēmatiká), used by Aristotle (384–322 BC), and meaning roughly “all things mathematical”; although it is plausible that English borrowed only the adjective mathematic(al) and formed the noun mathematics anew, after the pattern of physics and metaphysics, which were inherited from the Greek. In English, the noun mathematics takes singular verb forms. It is often shortened to maths or, in English-speaking North America, math.

Definitions of mathematics

Main article: Definitions of mathematics

Aristotle defined mathematics as “the science of quantity”, and this definition prevailed until the 18th century. Starting in the 19th century, when the study of mathematics increased in rigor and began to address abstract topics such as group theory and projective geometry, which have no clear-cut relation to quantity and measurement, mathematicians and philosophers began to propose a variety of new definitions. Some of these definitions emphasize the deductive character of much of mathematics, some emphasize its abstractness, some emphasize certain topics within mathematics. Today, no consensus on the definition of mathematics prevails, even among professionals. There is not even consensus on whether mathematics is an art or a science. A great many professional mathematicians take no interest in a definition of mathematics, or consider it undefinable. Some just say, “Mathematics is what mathematicians do.”

Three leading types of definition of mathematics are called logicistintuitionist, and formalist, each reflecting a different philosophical school of thought. All have severe problems, none has widespread acceptance, and no reconciliation seems possible.

An early definition of mathematics in terms of logic was Benjamin Peirce’s “the science that draws necessary conclusions” (1870). In the Principia Mathematica, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead advanced the philosophical program known as logicism, and attempted to prove that all mathematical concepts, statements, and principles can be defined and proven entirely in terms of symbolic logic. A logicist definition of mathematics is Russell’s “All Mathematics is Symbolic Logic” (1903).

Intuitionist definitions, developing from the philosophy of mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer, identify mathematics with certain mental phenomena. An example of an intuitionist definition is “Mathematics is the mental activity which consists in carrying out constructs one after the other.”  A peculiarity of intuitionism is that it rejects some mathematical ideas considered valid according to other definitions. In particular, while other philosophies of mathematics allow objects that can be proven to exist even though they cannot be constructed, intuitionism allows only mathematical objects that one can actually construct.

Formalist definitions identify mathematics with its symbols and the rules for operating on them. Haskell Curry defined mathematics simply as “the science of formal systems”. A formal system is a set of symbols, or tokens, and some rules telling how the tokens may be combined into formulas. In formal systems, the word axiom has a special meaning, different from the ordinary meaning of “a self-evident truth”. In formal systems, an axiom is a combination of tokens that is included in a given formal system without needing to be derived using the rules of the system.

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