Philosophia Mathematica 14 (3):394-400 (2006)

Jean-Pierre Marquis
Université de Montréal
Some concepts that are now part and parcel of mathematics used to be, at least until the beginning of the twentieth century, a central preoccupation of mathematicians and philosophers. The concept of continuity, or the continuous, is one of them. Nowadays, many philosophers of mathematics take it for granted that mathematicians of the last quarter of the nineteenth century found an adequate conceptual analysis of the continuous in terms of limits and that serious philosophical thinking is no longer required, except perhaps when the question of the continuum is transferred to the arena of set theory where it takes the form of the infamous continuum hypothesis. As Philip Ehrlich has recently shown, this conviction goes back to the early writings of Russell who, in 1903 and then again in later writings, forcefully and eloquently pushed the view that mathematicians had given the final answer to immemorial conundrums arising from the continuous and infinitesimals . This proclamation of victory came with what was announced as the necessary defeat of the notion of the infinitesimal, despite the fact that mathematicians like Thomae, Du Bois-Reymond, Stolz, Bettazi, Veronese, Levi-Civita, and Hahn were investigating mathematical structures containing infinitesimals in a mathematically rigorous and logically consistent manner. In this respect Russell was merely walking in the footsteps of Cantor, and many of Russell's contemporaries were only too keen to keep infinitesimals out of Cantor's paradise. However, although Cantor certainly wanted to send the notion of infinitesimal to Hell, the notion kept a low profile in the mathematical purgatory, making its way in the study of non-Archimedean ordered algebraic systems. Of course, nowadays everyone has heard of Robinson's attempt at resurrecting infinitesimals in analysis in the form of non-standard analysis, but Robinson's work, despite the fact that it had, in …
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DOI 10.1093/philmat/nkl007
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