This story draft by @bertrandrussell has not been reviewed by an editor, YET.

# An essay on the Foundations of Geometry: Chapter III - Section B, Part I

An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, by Bertrand Russell is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. The Table of Links for this book can be found here. Chapter III - Section B, Part I: The Axiom of Free Mobility.

## I. The Axiom of Free Mobility

143. Metrical Geometry, to begin with, may be defined as the science which deals with the comparison and relations of spatial magnitudes. The conception of magnitude, therefore, is necessary from the start. Some of Euclid's axioms, accordingly, have been classed as arithmetical, and have been supposed to have nothing particular to do with space. Such are the axioms that equals added to or subtracted from equals give equals, and that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another. These axioms, it is said, are purely arithmetical, and do not, like the others, ascribe an adjective to space. As regards their use in arithmetic, this is of course true. But if an arithmetical axiom is to be applied to spatial magnitudes, it must have some spatial import, and thus even this class is not, in Geometry, merely arithmetical. Fortunately, the geometrical element is the same in all the axioms of this class—we can see at once, in fact, that it can amount to no more than a definition of spatial magnitude. Again, since the space with which Geometry deals is infinitely divisible, a definition of spatial magnitude reduces itself to a definition of spatial equality, for, as soon as we have this last, we can compare two spatial magnitudes by dividing each into a number of equal units, and counting the number of such units in each. The ratio of the number of units is, of course, the ratio of the two magnitudes.

144. We require, then, at the very outset, some criterion of spatial equality: without such a criterion metrical Geometry would become wholly impossible. It might appear, at first sight, as though this need not be an axiom, but might be a mere definition. In part this is true, but not wholly. The part which is merely a definition is given in Euclid's eighth axiom: "Magnitudes which exactly coincide are equal." But this gives a sufficient criterion only when the magnitudes to be compared already occupy the same position. When, as will normally be the case, the two spatial magnitudes are external to one another—as, indeed, must be the case, if they are distinct, and not whole and part—the two magnitudes can only be made to coincide by a motion of one or both of them. In order, therefore, that our definition of spatial magnitude may give unambiguous results, coincidence when superposed, if it can ever occur, must occur always, whatever path be pursued in bringing it about. Hence, if mere motion could alter shapes, our criterion of equality would break down. It follows that the application of the conception of magnitude to figures in space involves the following axiomSpatial magnitudes can be moved from place to place without distortion; or, as it may be put, Shapes do not in any way depend upon absolute position in space.

The above axiom is the axiom of Free Mobility. I propose to prove (1) that the denial of this axiom would involve logical and philosophical absurdities, so that it must be classed as wholly à priori; (2) that metrical Geometry, if it refused this axiom, would be unable, without a logical absurdity, to establish the notion of spatial magnitude at all. The conclusion will be, that the axiom cannot be proved or disproved by experience, but is an à priori condition of metrical Geometry. As I shall thus be maintaining a position which has been much controverted, especially by Helmholtz and Erdmann, I shall have to enter into the arguments at some length.

145. A. Philosophical Argument. The denial of the axiom involves absolute position, and an action of mere space, per se, on things. For the axiom does not assert that real bodies, as a matter of empirical fact, never change their shape in any way during their passage from place to place: on the contrary, we know that such changes do occur, sometimes in a very noticeable degree, and always to some extent. But such changes are attributed, not to the change of place as such, but to physical causes: changes of temperature, pressure, etc. What our axiom has to deal with is not actual material bodies, but geometrical figures, and it asserts that a figure which is possible in any one position in space is possible in every other. Its meaning will become clearer by reference to a case where it does not hold, say the space formed by the surface of an egg. Here, a triangle drawn near the equator cannot be moved without distortion to the point, as it would no longer fit the greater curvature of the new position: a triangle drawn near the point cannot be fitted on to the flatter end, and so on. Thus the method of superposition, such as Euclid employs in Book I. Prop. IV., becomes impossible; figures cannot be freely moved about, indeed, given any figure, we can determine a certain series of possible positions for it on the egg, outside which it becomes impossible. What I assert is, then, that there is a philosophic absurdity in supposing space in general to be of this nature. On the egg we have marked points, such as the two ends; the space formed by its surface is not homogeneous, and if things are moved about in it, it must of itself exercise a distorting effect upon them, quite independently of physical causes; if it did not exercise such an effect, the things could not be moved. Thus such a space would not be homogeneous, but would have marked points, by reference to which bodies would have absolute position, quite independently of any other bodies. Space would no longer be passive, but would exercise a definite effect upon things, and we should have to accommodate ourselves to the notion of marked points in empty space; these points being marked, not by the bodies which occupied them, but by their effects on any bodies which might from time to time occupy them. This want of homogeneity and passivity is, however, absurd; space must, since it is a form of externality, allow only of relative, not of absolute, position, and must be completely homogeneous throughout. To suppose it otherwise, is to give it a thinghood which no form of externality can possibly possess. We must, then, on purely philosophical grounds, admit that a geometrical figure which is possible anywhere is possible everywhere, which is the axiom of Free Mobility.

146. B. Geometrical Argument. Let us see next what sort of Geometry we could construct without this axiom. The ultimate standard of comparison of spatial magnitudes must, as we saw in introducing the axiom, be equality when superposed; but need we, from this equality, infer equality when separated? It has been urged by Erdmann that, for the more immediate purposes of Geometry, this would be unnecessary. We might construct a new Geometry, he thinks, in which sizes varied with motion on any definite law. Such a view, as I shall show below, involves a logical error as to the nature of magnitude. But before pointing this out, let us discuss the geometrical consequences of assuming its truth. Suppose the length of an infinitesimal arc in some standard position were ds; then in any other position p its length would be ds.f(p), where the form of the function f(p) must be supposed known.

But how are we to determine the position p? For this purpose, we require p's coordinates, i.e., some measurement of distance from the origin. But the distance from the origin could only be measured if we assumed our law f(p) to measure it by. For suppose the origin to be O, and Op to be a straight line whose length is required. If we have a measuring rod with which we travel along the line and measure successive infinitesimal arcs, the measuring rod will change its size as we move, so that an arc which appears by the measure to be ds will really be f(s).ds, where s is the previously traversed distance. If, on the other hand, we move our line Op slowly through the origin, and measure each piece as it passes through, our measure, it is true, will not alter, but now we have no means of discovering the law by which any element has changed its length in coming to the origin. Hence, until we assume our function f(p), we have no means of determining p, for we have just seen that distances from the origin can only be estimated by means of the law f(p). It follows that experience can neither prove nor disprove the constancy of shapes throughout motion, since, if shapes were not constant, we should have to assume a law of their variation before measurement became possible, and therefore measurement could not itself reveal that variation to us.

Nevertheless, such an arbitrarily assumed law does, at first sight, give a mathematically possible Geometry. The fundamental proposition, that two magnitudes which can be superposed in any one position can be superposed in any other, still holds. For two infinitesimal arcs, whose lengths in the standard position are ds1 and ds2, would, in any other position p, have lengths f(p).ds1 and f(p).ds2, so that their ratio would be unaltered. From this constancy of ratio, as we know through Riemann and Helmholtz, the above proposition follows. Hence all that Geometry requires, it would seem, as a basis for measurement, is an axiom that the alteration of shapes during motion follows a definite known law, such as that assumed above.

147. There is, however, in such a view, as I remarked above, a logical error as to the nature of magnitude. This error has been already pointed out in dealing with Erdmann, and need only be briefly repeated here. A judgment of magnitude is essentially a judgment of comparison: in unmeasured quantity, comparison as to the mere more or less, but in measured magnitude, comparison as to the precise how many times. To speak of differences of magnitude, therefore, in a case where comparison cannot reveal them, is logically absurd. Now in the case contemplated above, two magnitudes, which appear equal in one position, appear equal also when compared in another position. There is no sense, therefore, in supposing the two magnitudes unequal when separated, nor in supposing, consequently, that they have changed their magnitudes in motion. This senselessness of our hypothesis is the logical ground of the mathematical indeterminateness as to the law of variation. Since, then, there is no means of comparing two spatial figures, as regards magnitude, except superposition, the only logically possible axiom, if spatial magnitude is to be self-consistent, is the axiom of Free Mobility in the form first given above.

148. Although this axiom is à priori, its application to the measurement of actual bodies, as we found in discussing Helmholtz's views, always involves an empirical element. Our axiom, then, only supplies the à priori condition for carrying out an operation which, in the concrete, is empirical—just as arithmetic supplies the à priori condition for a census. As this topic has been discussed at length in Chapter II., I shall say no more about it here.

149. There remain, however, a few objections and difficulties to be discussed. First, how do we obtain equality in solids, and in Kant's cases of right and left hands, or of right and left-handed screws, where actual superposition is impossible? Secondly, how can we take congruence as the only possible basis of spatial measurement, when we have before us the case of time, where no such thing as congruence is conceivable? Thirdly, it might be urged that we can immediately estimate spatial equality by the eye, with more or less accuracy, and thus have a measure independent of congruence. Fourthly, how is metrical Geometry possible on non-congruent surfaces, if congruence be the basis of spatial measurement? I will discuss these objections successively.

150. (1) How do we measure the equality of solids? These could only be brought into actual congruence if we had a fourth dimension to operate in, and from what I have said before of the absolute necessity of this test, it might seem as though we should be left here in utter ignorance. Euclid is silent on the subject, and in all works on Geometry it is assumed as self-evident that two cubes of equal side are equal. This assumption suggests that we are not so badly off as we should have been without congruence, as a test of equality in one or two dimensions; for now we can at least be sure that two cubes have all their sides and all their faces equal. Two such cubes differ, then, in no sensible spatial quality save position, for volume, in this case at any rate, is not a sensible quality.

They are, therefore, as far as such qualities are concerned, indiscernible. If their places were interchanged, we might know the change by their colour, or by some other non-geometrical property; but so far as any property of which Geometry can take cognisance is concerned, everything would seem as before. To suppose a difference of volume, then, would be to ascribe an effect to mere position, which we saw to be inadmissible while discussing Free Mobility. Except as regards position, they are geometrically indiscernible, and we may call to our aid the Identity of Indiscernibles to establish their agreement in the one remaining geometrical property of volume. This may seem rather a strange principle to use in Mathematics, and for Geometry their equality is, perhaps, best regarded as a definition; but if we demand a philosophical ground for this definition, it is, I believe, only to be found in the Identity of Indiscernibles. We can, without error, make our definition of three-dimensional equality rest on two-dimensional congruence. For since direct comparison as to volume is impossible, we are at liberty to define two volumes as equal, when all their various lines, surfaces, angles and solid angles are congruent, since there remains, in such a case, no measurable difference between the figures composing the two volumes. Of course, as soon as we have established this one case of equality of volumes, the rest of the theory follows; as appears from the ordinary method of integrating volumes, by dividing them into small cubes.

Thus congruence helps to establish three-dimensional equality, though it cannot directly prove such equality; and the same philosophical principle, of the homogeneity of space, by which congruence was proved, comes to our rescue here. But how about right-handed and left-handed screws? Here we can no longer apply the Identity of Indiscernibles, for the two are very well discernible. But as with solids, so here, Free Mobility can help us much. It can enable us, by ordinary measurement, to show that the internal relations of both screws are the same, and that the difference lies only in their relation to other things in space. Knowing these internal relations, we can calculate, by the Geometry which Free Mobility has rendered possible, all the geometrical properties of these screws—radius, pitch, etc.—and can show them to be severally equal in both. But this is all we require. Mediate comparison is possible, though immediate comparison is not. Both can, for instance, be compared with the cylinder on which both would fit, and thus their equality can be proved. A precisely similar proof holds, of course, for the other cases, right and left hands, spherical triangles, etc. On the whole, these cases confirm my argument; for they show, as Kant intended them to show, the essential relativity of space.

151. (2) As regards time, no congruence is here conceivable, for to effect congruence requires always—as we saw in the case of solids—one more dimension than belongs to the magnitudes compared. No day can be brought into temporal coincidence with any other day, to show that the two exactly cover each other; we are therefore reduced to the arbitrary assumption that some motion or set of motions, given us in experience, is uniform. Fortunately, we have a large set of motions which all roughly agree; the swing of the pendulum, the rotation and revolution of the earth and the planets, etc. These do not exactly agree, but they lead us to the laws of motion, by which we are able, on our arbitrary hypothesis, to estimate their small departures from uniformity; just as the assumption of Free Mobility enabled us to measure the departures of actual bodies from rigidity.

But here, as there, another possibility is mathematically open to us, and can only be excluded by its philosophic absurdity; we might have assumed that the above set of approximately agreeing motions all had velocities which varied approximately as some arbitrarily assumed function of the time, f(t) say, measured from some arbitrary origin. Such an assumption would still keep them as nearly synchronous as before, and would give an equally possible, though more complex, system of Mechanics; instead of the first law of motion, we should have the following: A particle perseveres in its state of rest, or of rectilinear motion with velocity varying as f(t), except in so far as it is compelled to alter that state by the action of external forces. Such a hypothesis is mathematically possible, but, like the similar one for space, it is excluded logically by the comparative nature of the judgment of quantity, and philosophically by the fact that it involves absolute time, as a determining agent in change, whereas time can never, philosophically, be anything but a passive form, abstracted from change. I have introduced this parallel from time, not as directly bearing on the argument, but as a simpler case which may serve to illustrate my reasoning in the more complex case of space. For since time, in mathematics, is one-dimensional, the mathematical difficulties are simpler than in Geometry; and although nothing accurately corresponds to congruence, there is a very similar mixture of mathematical and philosophical necessity, giving, finally, a thoroughly definite axiom as the basis of time-measurement, corresponding to congruence as the basis of space-measurement

152. (3) The case of time-measurement suggests the third of the above objections to the absolute necessity of the axiom of Free Mobility. Psycho-physics has shown that we have an approximate power, by means of what may be called the sense of duration, of immediately estimating equal short times. This establishes a rough measure independent of any assumed uniform motion, and in space also, it may be said, we have a similar power of immediate comparison. We can see, by immediate inspection, that the sub-divisions on a foot rule are not grossly inaccurate; and so, it may be said, we both have a measure independent of congruence, and also could discover, by experience, any gross departure from Free Mobility. Against this view, however, there is at the outset a very fundamental psychological objection. It has been urged that all our comparison of spatial magnitudes proceeds by ideal superposition. Thus James says (Psychology, Vol. II. p. 152): "Even where we only feel one sub-division to be vaguely larger or less, the mind must pass rapidly between it and the other sub-division, and receive the immediate sensible shock of the more," and "so far as the sub-divisions of a sense-space are to be measured exactly against each other, objective forms occupying one sub-division must be directly or indirectly superposed upon the other."

Even if we waive this fundamental objection, however, others remain. To begin with, such judgments of equality are only very rough approximations, and cannot be applied to lines of more than a certain length, if only for the reason that such lines cannot well be seen together. Thus this method can only give us any security in our own immediate neighbourhood, and could in no wise warrant such operations as would be required for the construction of maps &c., much less the measurement of astronomical distances. They might just enable us to say that some lines were longer than others, but they would leave Geometry in a position no better than that of the Hedonical Calculus, in which we depend on a purely subjective measure. So inaccurate, in fact, is such a method acknowledged to be, that the foot-rule is as much a need of daily life as of science. Besides, no one would trust such immediate judgments, but for the fact that the stricter test of congruence to some extent confirms them; if we could not apply this test, we should have no ground for trusting them even as much as we do. Thus we should have, here, no real escape from our absolute dependence upon the axiom of Free Mobility.

153. (4) One last elucidatory remark is necessary before our proof of this axiom can be considered complete. We spoke above of the Geometry on an egg, where Free Mobility does not hold. What, I may be asked, is there about a thoroughly non-congruent Geometry, more impossible than this Geometry on the egg? The answer is obvious. The Geometry of non-congruent surfaces is only possible by the use of infinitesimals, and in the infinitesimal all surfaces become plane. The fundamental formula, that for the length of an infinitesimal arc, is only obtained on the assumption that such an arc may be treated as a straight line, and that Euclidean Plane Geometry may be applied in the immediate neighbourhood of any point. If we had not our Euclidean measure, which could be moved without distortion, we should have no method of comparing small arcs in different places, and the Geometry of non-congruent surfaces would break down. Thus the axiom of Free Mobility, as regards three-dimensional space, is necessarily implied and presupposed in the Geometry of non-congruent surfaces; the possibility of the latter, therefore, is a dependent and derivative possibility, and can form no argument against the à priori necessity of congruence as the test of equality.

154. It is to be observed that the axiom of Free Mobility, as I have enunciated it, includes also the axiom to which Helmholtz gives the name of Monodromy. This asserts that a body does not alter its dimensions in consequence of a complete revolution through four right angles, but occupies at the end the same position as at the beginning. The supposed mathematical necessity of making a separate axiom of this property of space has been disproved by Sophus Lie (v. Chap. I. § 45); philosophically, it is plainly a particular case of Free Mobility, and indeed a particularly obvious case, for a translation really does make some change in a body, namely, a change in position, but a rotation through four right angles may be supposed to have been performed any number of times without appearing in the result, and the absurdity of ascribing to space the power of making bodies grow in the process is palpable; everything that was said above on congruence in general applies with even greater evidence to this special case.

155. The axiom of Free Mobility involves, if it is to be true, the homogeneity of space, or the complete relativity of position. For if any shape, which is possible in one part of space, be always possible in another, it follows that all parts of space are qualitatively similar, and cannot, therefore, be distinguished by any intrinsic property. Hence positions in space, if our axiom be true, must be wholly defined by external relations, i.e. Position is not an intrinsic, but a purely relative, property of things in space. If there could be such a thing as absolute position, in short, metrical Geometry would be impossible. This relativity of position is the fundamental postulate of all Geometry, to which each of the necessary metrical axioms leads, and from which, conversely, each of these axioms can be deduced.

156. This converse deduction, as regards Free Mobility, is not very difficult, and follows from the argument of Section A, which I will briefly recapitulate. In the first place, externality is an essentially relative conception—nothing can be external to itself. To be external to something is to be an other with some relation to that thing. Hence, when we abstract a form of externality from all material content, and study it in isolation, position will appear of necessity as purely relative—it can have no intrinsic quality, for our form consists of pure externality, and externality contains no shadow or trace of an intrinsic quality. Hence we derive our fundamental postulate, the relativity of position. From this follows the homogeneity of our form, for any quality in one position, which marked out that position from another, would be necessarily more or less intrinsic, and would contradict the pure relativity. Finally Free Mobility follows from homogeneity, for our form would not be homogeneous unless it allowed, in every part, shapes or systems of relations, which it allowed in any other part. Free Mobility, therefore, is a necessary property of every possible form of externality.

157. In summing up the argument we have just concluded, we may exhibit it, in consequence of the two preceding paragraphs, in the form of a completed circle. Starting from the conditions of spatial measurement, we found that the comparison, required for measurement, could only be effected by superposition. But we found, further, that the result of such comparison will only be unambiguous, if spatial magnitudes and shapes are unaltered by motion in space, if, in other words, shapes do not depend upon absolute position in space. But this axiom can only be true if space is homogeneous and position merely relative. Conversely, if position is assumed to be merely relative, a change of magnitude in motion—involving as it does, the assertion of absolute position—is impossible, and our test of spatial equality is therefore adequate. But position in any form of externality must be purely relative, since externality cannot be an intrinsic property of anything. Our axiom, therefore, is à priori in a double sense. It is presupposed in all spatial measurement, and it is a necessary property of any form of externality. A similar double apriority, we shall see, appears in our other necessary axioms.

About HackerNoon Book Series: We bring you the most important technical, scientific, and insightful public domain books.

This book is part of the public domain. Bertrand Russell. (1897). AN ESSAY ON THE FOUNDATIONS OF GEOMETRY. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved June 2022, from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52091/52091-h/52091-h.htm#N143

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever.  You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org, located at https://www.gutenberg.org/policy/license.html.

L O A D I N G
. . . comments & more!