Pure Mathematics - Generality and Abstraction

Generality and Abstraction

One central concept in pure mathematics is the idea of generality; pure mathematics often exhibits a trend towards increased generality.

  • Generalizing theorems or mathematical structures can lead to deeper understanding of the original theorems or structures
  • Generality can simplify the presentation of material, resulting in shorter proofs or arguments that are easier to follow.
  • One can use generality to avoid duplication of effort, proving a general result instead of having to prove separate cases independently, or using results from other areas of mathematics.
  • Generality can facilitate connections between different branches of mathematics. Category theory is one area of mathematics dedicated to exploring this commonality of structure as it plays out in some areas of math.

Generality's impact on intuition is both dependent on the subject and a matter of personal preference or learning style. Often generality is seen as a hindrance to intuition, although it can certainly function as an aid to it, especially when it provides analogies to material for which one already has good intuition.

As a prime example of generality, the Erlangen program involved an expansion of geometry to accommodate non-Euclidean geometries as well as the field of topology, and other forms of geometry, by viewing geometry as the study of a space together with a group of transformations. The study of numbers, called algebra at the beginning undergraduate level, extends to abstract algebra at a more advanced level; and the study of functions, called calculus at the college freshman level becomes mathematical analysis and functional analysis at a more advanced level. Each of these branches of more abstract mathematics have many sub-specialties, and there are in fact many connections between pure mathematics and applied mathematics disciplines. A steep rise in abstraction was seen mid 20th century.

In practice, however, these developments led to a sharp divergence from physics, particularly from 1950 to 1980. Later this was criticised, for example by Vladimir Arnold, as too much Hilbert, not enough Poincaré. The point does not yet seem to be settled (unlike the foundational controversies over set theory), in that string theory pulls one way, while discrete mathematics pulls back towards proof as central.

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