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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Group Theory and Philosophy

Filed under: General,Geometry — Tags: — m759 @ 5:01 PM

Excerpts from "The Concept of Group and the Theory of Perception,"
by Ernst Cassirer, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research,
Volume V, Number 1, September, 1944.
(Published in French in the Journal de Psychologie, 1938, pp. 368-414.)

The group-theoretical interpretation of the fundaments of geometry is,
from the standpoint of pure logic, of great importance, since it enables us to
state the problem of the "universality" of mathematical concepts in simple
and precise form and thus to disentangle it from the difficulties and ambigui-
ties with which it is beset in its usual formulation. Since the times of the
great controversies about the status of universals in the Middle Ages, logic
and psychology have always been troubled with these ambiguities….

Our foregoing reflections on the concept of group  permit us to define more
precisely what is involved in, and meant by, that "rule" which renders both
geometrical and perceptual concepts universal. The rule may, in simple
and exact terms, be defined as that group of transformations  with regard to
which the variation of the particular image is considered. We have seen
above that this conception operates as the constitutive principle in the con-
struction of the universe of mathematical concepts….

                                                              …Within Euclidean geometry,
a "triangle" is conceived of as a pure geometrical "essence," and this
essence is regarded as invariant with respect to that "principal group" of
spatial transformations to which Euclidean geometry refers, viz., displace-
ments, transformations by similarity. But it must always be possible to
exhibit any particular figure, chosen from this infinite class, as a concrete
and intuitively representable object. Greek mathematics could not
dispense with this requirement which is rooted in a fundamental principle
of Greek philosophy, the principle of the correlatedness of "logos" and
"eidos." It is, however, characteristic of the modern development of
mathematics, that this bond between "logos" and "eidos," which was indis-
soluble for Greek thought, has been loosened more and more, to be, in the
end, completely broken….

                                                            …This process has come to its logical
conclusion and systematic completion in the development of modern group-
theory. Geometrical figures  are no longer regarded as fundamental, as
date of perception or immediate intuition. The "nature" or "essence" of a
figure is defined in terms of the operations  which may be said to
generate the figure.
The operations in question are, in turn, subject to
certain group conditions….

                                                                                                    …What we
find in both cases are invariances with respect to variations undergone by
the primitive elements out of which a form is constructed. The peculiar
kind of "identity" that is attributed to apparently altogether heterogen-
eous figures in virtue of their being transformable into one another by means
of certain operations defining a group, is thus seen to exist also in the
domain of perception. This identity permits us not only to single out ele-
ments but also to grasp "structures" in perception. To the mathematical
concept of "transformability" there corresponds, in the domain of per-
ception, the concept of "transposability." The theory  of the latter con-
cept has been worked out step by step and its development has gone through
various stages….
                                                                                 …By the acceptance of
"form" as a primitive concept, psychological theory has freed it from the
character of contingency  which it possessed for its first founders. The inter-
pretation of perception as a mere mosaic of sensations, a "bundle" of simple
sense-impressions has proved untenable…. 

                             …In the domain of mathematics this state of affairs mani-
fests itself in the impossibility of searching for invariant properties of a
figure except with reference to a group. As long as there existed but one
form of geometry, i.e., as long as Euclidean geometry was considered as the
geometry kat' exochen  this fact was somehow concealed. It was possible
to assume implicitly  the principal group of spatial transformations that lies
at the basis of Euclidean geometry. With the advent of non-Euclidean
geometries, however, it became indispensable to have a complete and sys-
tematic survey of the different "geometries," i.e., the different theories of
invariancy that result from the choice of certain groups of transformation.
This is the task which F. Klein set to himself and which he brought to a
certain logical fulfillment in his Vergleichende Untersuchungen ueber neuere
geometrische Forschungen
….

                                                          …Without discrimination between the
accidental and the substantial, the transitory and the permanent, there
would be no constitution of an objective reality.

This process, unceasingly operative in perception and, so to speak, ex-
pressing the inner dynamics of the latter, seems to have come to final per-
fection, when we go beyond perception to enter into the domain of pure
thought. For the logical advantage and peculiar privilege of the pure con –
cept seems to consist in the replacement of fluctuating perception by some-
thing precise and exactly determined. The pure concept does not lose
itself in the flux of appearances; it tends from "becoming" toward "being,"
from dynamics toward statics. In this achievement philosophers have
ever seen the genuine meaning and value of geometry. When Plato re-
gards geometry as the prerequisite to philosophical knowledge, it is because
geometry alone renders accessible the realm of things eternal; tou gar aei
ontos he geometrike gnosis estin
. Can there be degrees or levels of objec-
tive knowledge in this realm of eternal being, or does not rather knowledge
attain here an absolute maximum? Ancient geometry cannot but answer
in the affirmative to this question. For ancient geometry, in the classical
form it received from Euclid, there was such a maximum, a non plus ultra.
But modern group theory thinking has brought about a remarkable change
In this matter. Group theory is far from challenging the truth of Euclidean
metrical geometry, but it does challenge its claim to definitiveness. Each
geometry is considered as a theory of invariants of a certain group; the
groups themselves may be classified in the order of increasing generality.
The "principal group" of transformations which underlies Euclidean geome-
try permits us to establish a number of properties that are invariant with
respect to the transformations in question. But when we pass from this
"principal group" to another, by including, for example, affinitive and pro-
jective transformations, all that we had established thus far and which,
from the point of view of Euclidean geometry, looked like a definitive result
and a consolidated achievement, becomes fluctuating again. With every
extension of the principal group, some of the properties that we had taken
for invariant are lost. We come to other properties that may be hierar-
chically arranged. Many differences that are considered as essential
within ordinary metrical geometry, may now prove "accidental." With
reference to the new group-principle they appear as "unessential" modifica-
tions….

                 … From the point of view of modern geometrical systematization,
geometrical judgments, however "true" in themselves, are nevertheless not
all of them equally "essential" and necessary. Modern geometry
endeavors to attain progressively to more and more fundamental strata of
spatial determination. The depth of these strata depends upon the com-
prehensiveness of the concept of group; it is proportional to the strictness of
the conditions that must be satisfied by the invariance that is a universal
postulate with respect to geometrical entities. Thus the objective truth
and structure of space cannot be apprehended at a single glance, but have to
be progressively  discovered and established. If geometrical thought is to
achieve this discovery, the conceptual means that it employs must become
more and more universal….

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