The Essential Nature of Arithmetic

mathematics its content, methods, and meaning

Since the birth of theoretical arithmetic is part of the birth of mathematics, we may reasonably expect the our conclusion about arithmetic will throw light on our earlier questions concerning mathematics in general. Let us recall these questions, particularly in their application to arithmetic.

  • How did the abstract concepts of arithmetic arise and what do they reflect in the actual world?

This question is answered by the earlier remarks about the birth of arithmetic. Its concepts correspond to the quantitative relations of collections of objects. These concepts arose by way of abstraction, as a result of the analysis and generalization of an immense amount of practical experience. They arose gradually; first came numbers connected with concrete objects, then abstract numbers, and finally the concept of number in general, of any possible number. Each of these concepts was made possible by a combination of practical experience and preceding abstract concepts. This, by the way, is one of the fundamental laws of formation of mathematical concepts. They are brought into being by a series of successive abstraction and generalizations, each resting on a combination of experience with preceding abstract concepts. The history of the concepts of arithmetic shows how mistaken is the idealistic view that they arose from “pure thought,” from “innate intuition,” from “contemplation of a priori forms,” or the like.

  • Why are the conclusions of arithmetic so convincing and unalterable?

History answers this question too for us. We see that the conclusions of arithmetic have been worked out slowly and gradually; they reflect experience accumulated in the course of unimaginably many generations and have in this way fixed themselves firmly in the mind of man. They have also fixed themselves in language: in the names for the numbers, in their symbols, in the constant repetition of the same operations with numbers, in their constant application to daily life. It is in this way that they have gained clarity and certainty. The methods of logical reasoning also have the same source. What is essential here is not only the fact that they can be repeated at will but their soundness and perspicuity, which they posses in common with the relations among things in the actual world, relations which are reflected in the concepts of arithmetic and in the rules for logical deduction.

This is the reason why the results of arithmetic are so convincing; its conclusions flow logically from its basic concepts, and both of them, the methods of logic and the concepts of arithmetic, were worked out and firmly fixed in our consciousness by three thousand years of practical experience, on the basis of objective uniformities in the world around us.

  • Why does arithmetic have such wide application is spite of the abstractness of its concepts?

The answer is simple. The concepts and conclusions of arithmetic, which generalize an enormous amount of experience, reflect in abstract form those relationships in the actual world that are met with constantly and everywhere. It is possible to count the objects in a room, the stars, people, atoms, and so forth. Arithmetic considers certain of their general properties, in abstraction from everything particular and concrete, and it is precisely because it considers only these general properties that its conclusions are applicable to so many cases. The possibility of wide application is guaranteed by the very abstraction of arithmetic, although it is important here that this abstraction is not an empty one but is derived from long practical experience. The same is true for all mathematics, and for any abstract concept or theory. The possibilities for application of a theory on the breadth of the original material which it generalizes…

  • Finally, the last question we raised had to do with forces that led to the development of mathematics.

For arithmetic the answer to this question also is clear from its history. We saw how people in the actual world learned to count and to work out the concept of number, and how practical life, by posing more difficult problems, necessitated symbols for the numbers. In a word, the forces that led to the development of arithmetic were the practical needs of social life. These practical needs and the abstract thought arising from them exercise on each other a constant interaction. The abstract concepts provide in themselves a valuable tool for practical life and are constantly improved by their very application. Abstraction from all nonessentials uncovers the kernel of the matter and guarantees success in those cases where a decisive role is played by the properties and relations picked out and preserved by abstraction; namely, in the case of arithmetic, by the quantitative relations.

Moreover, abstract reflection often goes father than the immediate demands of a practical problem. Thus the concept of such large numbers as a million or a billion arose on the basis of practical calculations but arose earlier than the practical need to make use of them. There are many such example in the history of science; it is enough to recall the imaginary number mentioned earlier. This is just a particular case of a phenomenon known to everyone, namely the interaction of experience and abstract though, of practice and theory.


1. Aleksandrov, A. D. Mathematics, Its Content, Methods, and Meaning. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T., 1964. Print.



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