Grassmann’s epistemology: multiplication and constructivism

In Hans-Joachim Petsche (ed.), From Past to Future: Graßmann's Work in Context (2010)
The paper aims to establish if Grassmann’s notion of an extensive form involved an epistemological change in the understanding of geometry and of mathematical knowledge. Firstly, it will examine if an ontological shift in geometry is determined by the vectorial representation of extended magnitudes. Giving up homogeneity, and considering geometry as an application of extension theory, Grassmann developed a different notion of a geometrical object, based on abstract constraints concerning the construction of forms rather than on the homogeneity conditions required by the modern version of the theory of proportions. Secondly, Grassmann’s conception of mathematical knowledge will be investigated. Parting from the traditional definition of mathematics as a science of magnitudes, Grassmann considered mathematical forms as particulars rather than universals: the classification of the branches of mathematics was thus based on different operational rules, rather than on empirical criteria of abstraction or on the distinction of different species belonging to a common genus. It will be argued that a different notion of generalization is thus involved, and that the knowledge of mathematical forms relies on the understanding of the rules of generation of the forms themselves. Finally, the paper will analyse if Grassmann’s approach in the first edition of the Ausdehnungslehre should be explained in terms of the notion of purity of method, and if it clashes with Grassmann’s later conventionalism. Although in the second edition the features of the operations are chosen by convention, as it is the case for the anti-commutative property of the multiplication, the choice is oriented by our understanding of the resulting forms: a simplification in the algebraic calculus need not correspond to a simplification in the ‘dimensional’ interpretation of the result of the multiplicative operation.
Keywords Epistemology  Grassmann, Hermann  Geometry  Vector Theory
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