From actuals to fictions: Four phases in Leibniz's early thought on infinitesimals

Richard T. W. Arthur
McMaster University
In this paper I attempt to trace the development of Gottfried Leibniz’s early thought on the status of the actually infinitely small in relation to the continuum. I argue that before he arrived at his mature interpretation of infinitesimals as fictions, he had advocated their existence as actually existing entities in the continuum. From among his early attempts on the continuum problem I distinguish four distinct phases in his interpretation of infinitesimals: (i) (1669) the continuum consists of assignable points separated by unassignable gaps; (ii) (1670-71) the continuum is composed of an infinity of indivisible points, or parts smaller than any assignable, with no gaps between them; (iii) (1672-75) a continuous line is composed not of points but of infinitely many infinitesimal lines, each of which is divisible and proportional to a generating motion at an instant (conatus); (iv) (1676 onward) infinitesimals are fictitious entities, which may be used as compendia loquendi to abbreviate mathematical reasonings; they are justifiable in terms of finite quantities taken as arbitrarily small, in such a way that the resulting error is smaller than any pre-assigned margin. Thus according to this analysis Leibniz arrived at his interpretation of infinitesimals as fictions already in 1676, and not in the 1700's in response to the controversy between Nieuwentijt and Varignon, as is often believed.
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