Infinitesimals

Synthese 75 (3):285 - 315 (1988)
Abstract
The infinitesimal methods commonly used in the 17th and 18th centuries to solve analytical problems had a great deal of elegance and intuitive appeal. But the notion of infinitesimal itself was flawed by contradictions. These arose as a result of attempting to representchange in terms ofstatic conceptions. Now, one may regard infinitesimals as the residual traces of change after the process of change has been terminated. The difficulty was that these residual traces could not logically coexist with the static quantities traditionally employed by mathematics. The solution to this difficulty, as it turns out, is to regard these quantities asalso being subject to (a form of) change, for then they will have the same nature as the infinitesimals representing the residual traces of change, and will become,ipso facto, compatible with these latter.In fact, the category-theoretic models which realize the Principle of Infinitesimal Linearity may themselves be regarded as representations of a general concept of variation (cf. Bell (1986)). While the static set-theoretical models represent change or motion by making a detour through the actual (but static) infinite, the varying category-theoretic models enable such change to be representeddirectly, thus permitting the introduction of geometric infinitesimals and, as we have attempted to demonstrate in this paper, the virtually complete incorporation of the methods of the early calculus.It is surely a remarkable — even an ironic — fact that the contradiction between the flux of the objective world and the stasis of mathematical entities has found its resolution in category theory, a branch of mathematics commonly, and, as one now sees, mistakenly, regarded as the summit of gratuitous abstraction
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