Science and Hypothesis/PART II

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Science and Hypothesis by Henri Poincaré
Part II: Space





Every conclusion presumes premisses. These premisses are either self-evident and need no demonstration, or can be established only if based on other propositions; and, as we cannot go back in this way to infinity, every deductive science, and geometry in particular, must rest upon a certain number of indemonstrable axioms. All treatises of geometry begin therefore with the enunciation of these axioms. But there is a distinction to be drawn between them. Some of these, for example, "Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another," are not propositions in geometry but propositions in analysis. I look upon them as analytical à priori intuitions, and they concern me no further. But I must insist on other axioms which are special to geometry. Of these most treatises explicitly enunciate three: — (1) Only one line can pass through two points; (2) a straight line is the shortest distance between two points; (3) through one point only one parallel can be drawn to a given straight line. Although we generally dispense with proving the second of these axioms, it would be possible to deduce it from the other two, and from those much more numerous axioms which are implicitly admitted without enunciation, as I shall explain further on. For a long time a proof of the third axiom known as Euclid's postulate was sought in vain. It is impossible to imagine the efforts that have been spent in pursuit of this chimera. Finally, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and almost simultaneously, two scientists, a Russian and a Bulgarian, Lobatschewsky and Bolyai, showed irrefutably that this proof is impossible. They have nearly rid us of inventors of geometries without a postulate, and ever since the Académie des Sciences receives only about one or two new demonstrations a year. But the question was not exhausted, and it was not long before a great step was taken by the celebrated memoir of Riemann, entitled: Ueber die Hypothesen welche der Geometrie zum Grunde liegen. This little work has inspired most of the recent treatises to which I shall later on refer, and among which I may mention those of Beltrami and Helmholtz.

The Geometry of Lobatschewsky. — If it were possible to deduce Euclid's postulate from the several axioms, it is evident that by rejecting the postulate and retaining the other axioms we should be led to contradictory consequences. It would be, therefore, impossible to found on those premisses a coherent geometry. Now, this is precisely what Lobatschewsky has done. He assumes at the outset that several parallels may be drawn through a point to a given straight line, and he retains all the other axioms of Euclid. From these hypotheses he deduces a series of theorems between which it is impossible to find any contradiction, and he constructs a geometry as impeccable in its logic as Euclidean geometry. The theorems are very different, however, from those to which we are accustomed, and at first will be found a little disconcerting. For instance, the sum of the angles of a triangle is always less than two right angles, and the difference between that sum and two right angles is proportional to the area of the triangle. It is impossible to construct a figure similar to a given figure but of different dimensions. If the circumference of a circle be divided into n equal parts, and tangents be drawn at the points of intersection, the n tangents will form a polygon if the radius of the circle is small enough, but if the radius is large enough they will never meet. We need not multiply these examples. Lobatschewsky's propositions have no relation to those of Euclid, but they are none the less logically interconnected.

Riemann's Geometry. — Let us imagine to ourselves a world only peopled with beings of no thickness, and suppose these "infinitely flat" animals are all in one and the same plane, from which they cannot emerge. Let us further admit that this world is sufficiently distant from other worlds to be withdrawn from their influence, and while we are making these hypotheses it will not cost us much to endow these beings with reasoning power, and to believe them capable of making a geometry. In that case they will certainly attribute to space only two dimensions. But now suppose that these imaginary animals, while remaining without thickness, have the form of a spherical, and not of a plane figure, and are all on the same sphere, from which they cannot escape. What kind of a geometry will they construct? In the first place, it is clear that they will attribute to space only two dimensions. The straight line to them will be the shortest distance from one point on the sphere to another — that is to say, an arc of a great circle. In a word, their geometry will be spherical geometry. What they will call space will be the sphere on which they are confined, and on which take place all the phenomena with which they are acquainted. Their space will therefore be unbounded, since on a sphere one may always walk forward without ever being brought to a stop, and yet it will be finite; the end will never be found, but the complete tour can be made. Well, Riemann's geometry is spherical geometry extended to three dimensions. To construct it, the German mathematician had first of all to throw overboard, not only Euclid's postulate but also the first axiom that only one line can pass through two points. On a sphere, through two given points, we can in general draw only one great circle which, as we have just seen, would be to our imaginary beings a straight line. But there was one exception. If the two given points are at the ends of a diameter, an infinite number of great circles can be drawn through them. In the same way, in Riemann's geometry — at least in one of its forms — through two points only one straight line can in general be drawn, but there are exceptional cases in which through two points an infinite number of straight lines can be drawn. So there is a kind of opposition between the geometries of Riemann and Lobatschewsky. For instance, the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles in Euclid's geometry, less than two right angles in that of Lobatschewsky, and greater than two right angles in that of Riemann. The number of parallel lines that can be drawn through a given point to a given line is one in Euclid's geometry, none in Riemann's, and an infinite number in the geometry of Lobatschewsky. Let us add that Riemann's space is finite, although unbounded in the sense which we have above attached to these words.

Surfaces with Constant Curvature. — One objection, however, remains possible. There is no contradiction between the theorems of Lobatschewsky and Riemann; but however numerous are the other consequences that these geometers have deduced from their hypotheses, they had to arrest their course before they exhausted them all, for the number would be infinite; and who can say that if they had carried their deductions further they would not have eventually reached some contradiction? This difficulty does not exist for Riemann's geometry, provided it is limited to two dimensions. As we have seen, the two-dimensional geometry of Riemann, in fact, does not differ from spherical geometry, which is only a branch of ordinary geometry, and is therefore outside all contradiction. Beltrami, by showing that Lobatschewsky's two-dimensional geometry was only a branch of ordinary geometry, has equally refuted the objection as far as it is concerned. This is the course of his argument: Let us consider any figure whatever on a surface. Imagine this figure to be traced on a flexible and inextensible canvas applied to the surface, in such a way that when the canvas is displaced and deformed the different lines of the figure change their form without changing their length. As a rule, this flexible and inextensible figure cannot be displaced without leaving the surface. But there are certain surfaces for which such a movement would be possible. They are surfaces of constant curvature. If we resume the comparison that we made just now, and imagine beings without thickness living on one of these surfaces, they will regard as possible the motion of a figure all the lines of which remain of a constant length. Such a movement would appear absurd, on the other hand, to animals without thickness living on a surface of variable curvature. These surfaces of constant curvature are of two kinds. The curvature of some is positive, and they may be deformed so as to be applied to a sphere. The geometry of these surfaces is therefore reduced to spherical geometry — namely, Riemann's. The curvature of others is negative. Beltrami has shown that the geometry of these surfaces is identical with that of Lobatschewsky. Thus the two-dimensional geometries of Riemann and Lobatschewsky are connected with Euclidean geometry.

Interpretation of Non-Euclidean Geometries. — Thus vanishes the objection so far as two-dimensional geometries are concerned. It would be easy to extend Beltrami's reasoning to three-dimensional geometries, and minds which do not recoil before space of four dimensions will see no difficulty in it; but such minds are few in number. I prefer, then, to proceed otherwise. Let us consider a certain plane, which I shall call the fundamental plane, and let us construct a kind of dictionary by making a double series of terms written in two columns, and corresponding each to each, just as in ordinary dictionaries the words in two languages which have the same signification correspond to one another: —

Space ... ... ... The portion of space situated above the fundamental plane.

Plane ... ... ... Sphere cutting orthogonally the fundamental plane.
Line ... ... ... Circle cutting orthogonally the fundamental plane.
Sphere ... ... ... Sphere.
Circle ... ... ... Circle.
Angle ... ... ... Angle.
Distance between  
   two points ... Logarithm of the anharmonic ratio of these two points and of the intersection of the fundamental plane with the circle passing through these two points and cutting it orthogonally.
Etc. Etc.

Let us now take Lobatschewsky's theorems and translate them by the aid of this dictionary, as we would translate a German text with the aid of a German - French dictionary. We shall then obtain the theorems of ordinary geometry. For instance, Lobatschewsky's theorem: "The sum of the angles of a triangle is less than two right angles," may be translated thus: "If a curvilinear triangle has for its sides arcs of circles which if produced would cut orthogonally the fundamental plane, the sum of the angles of this curvilinear triangle will be less than two right angles." Thus, however far the consequences of Lobatschewsky's hypotheses are carried, they will never lead to a contradiction; in fact, if two of Lobatschewsky's theorems were contradictory, the translations of these two theorems made by the aid of our dictionary would be contradictory also. But these translations are theorems of ordinary geometry, and no one doubts that ordinary geometry is exempt from contradiction. Whence is the certainty derived, and how far is it justified? That is a question upon which I cannot enter here, but it is a very interesting question, and I think not insoluble. Nothing, therefore, is left of the objection I formulated above. But this is not all. Lobatschewsky's geometry being susceptible of a concrete interpretation, ceases to be a useless logical exercise, and may be applied. I have no time here to deal with these applications, nor with what Herr Klein and myself have done by using them in the integration of linear equations. Further, this interpretation is not unique, and several dictionaries may be constructed analogous to that above, which will enable us by a simple translation to convert Lobatschewsky's theorems into the theorems of ordinary geometry.

Implicit Axioms. — Are the axioms implicitly enunciated in our text-books the only foundation of geometry? We may be assured of the contrary when we see that, when they are abandoned one after another, there are still left standing some propositions which are common to the geometries of Euclid, Lobatschewsky, and Riemann. These propositions must be based on premisses that geometers admit without enunciation. It is interesting to try and extract them from the classical proofs.

John Stuart Mill asserted[1] that every definition contains an axiom, because by defining we implicitly affirm the existence of the object defined. That is going rather too far. It is but rarely in mathematics that a definition is given without following it up by the proof of the existence of the object defined, and when this is not done it is generally because the reader can easily supply it; and it must not be forgotten that the word "existence" has not the same meaning when it refers to a mathematical entity as when it refers to a material object.

A mathematical entity exists provided there is no contradiction implied in its definition, either in itself, or with the propositions previously admitted. But if the observation of John Stuart Mill cannot be applied to all definitions, it is none the less true for some of them. A plane is sometimes defined in the following manner: — The plane is a surface such that the line which joins any two points upon it lies wholly on that surface. Now, there is obviously a new axiom concealed in this definition. It is true we might change it, and that would be preferable, but then we should have to enunciate the axiom explicitly. Other definitions may give rise to no less important reflections, such as, for example, that of the equality of two figures. Two figures are equal when they can be superposed. To superpose them, one of them must be displaced until it coincides with the other. But how must it be displaced? If we asked that question, no doubt we should be told that it ought to be done without deforming it, and as an invariable solid is displaced. The vicious circle would then be evident. As a matter of fact, this definition defines nothing. It has no meaning to a being living in a world in which there are only fluids. If it seems clear to us, it is because we are accustomed to the properties of natural solids which do not much differ from those of the ideal solids, all of whose dimensions are invariable. However, imperfect as it may be, this definition implies an axiom. The possibility of the motion of an invariable figure is not a self-evident truth. At least it is only so in the application to Euclid's postulate, and not as an analytical à priori intuition would be. Moreover, when we study the definitions and the proofs of geometry, we see that we are compelled to admit without proof not only the possibility of this motion, but also some of its properties. This first arises in the definition of the straight line. Many defective definitions have been given, but the true one is that which is understood in all the proofs in which the straight line intervenes. "It may happen that the motion of an invariable figure may be such that all the points of a line belonging to the figure are motionless, while all the points situate outside that line are in motion. Such a line would be called a straight line." We have deliberately in this enunciation separated the definition from the axiom which it implies. Many proofs such as those of the cases of the equality of triangles, of the possibility of drawing a perpendicular from a point to a straight line, assume propositions the enunciations of which are dispensed with, for they necessarily imply that it is possible to move a figure in space in a certain way.

The Fourth Geometry. — Among these explicit axioms there is one which seems to me to deserve some attention, because when we abandon it we can construct a fourth geometry as coherent as those of Euclid, Lobatschewsky, and Riemann. To prove that we can always draw a perpendicular at a point A to a straight line A B, we consider a straight line A C movable about the point A, and initially identical with the fixed straight line A B. We then can make it turn about the point A until it lies in A B produced. Thus we assume two propositions — first, that such a rotation is possible, and then that it may continue until the two lines lie the one in the other produced. If the first point is conceded and the second rejected, we are led to a series of theorems even stranger than those of Lobatschewsky and Riemann, but equally free from contradiction. I shall give only one of these theorems, and I shall not choose the least remarkable of them. A real straight line may be perpendicular to itself.

Lie's Theorem. — The number of axioms implicitly introduced into classical proofs is greater than necessary, and it would be interesting to reduce them to a minimum. It may be asked, in the first place, if this reduction is possible — if the number of necessary axioms and that of imaginable geometries is not infinite? A theorem due to Sophus Lie is of weighty importance in this discussion. It may be enunciated in the following manner: — Suppose the following premisses are admitted: (1) space has n dimensions; (2) the movement of an invariable figure is possible; (3) p conditions are necessary to determine the position of this figure in space.

The number of geometries compatible with these premisses will be limited. I may even add that if n is given, a superior limit can be assigned to p. If, therefore, the possibility of the movement is granted, we can only invent a finite and even a rather restricted number of three-dimensional geometries.

Riemann's Geometries. — However, this result seems contradicted by Riemann, for that scientist constructs an infinite number of geometries, and that to which his name is usually attached is only a particular case of them. All depends, he says, on the manner in which the length of a curve is defined. Now, there is an infinite number of ways of defining this length, and each of them may be the starting-point of a new geometry. That is perfectly true, but most of these definitions are incompatible with the movement of a variable figure such as we assume to be possible in Lie's theorem. These geometries of Riemann, so interesting on various grounds, can never be, therefore, purely analytical, and would not lend themselves to proofs analogous to those of Euclid.

On the Nature of Axioms. — Most mathematicians regard Lobatschewsky's geometry as a mere logical curiosity. Some of them have, however, gone further. If several geometries are possible, they say, is it certain that our geometry is the one that is true? Experiment no doubt teaches us that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles, but this is because the triangles we deal with are too small. According to Lobatschewsky, the difference is proportional to the area of the triangle, and will not this become sensible when we operate on much larger triangles, and when our measurements become more accurate? Euclid's geometry would thus be a provisory geometry. Now, to discuss this view we must first of all ask ourselves, what is the nature of geometrical axioms? Are they synthetic à priori intuitions, as Kant affirmed? They would then be imposed upon us with such a force that we could not conceive of the contrary proposition, nor could we build upon it a theoretical edifice. There would be no non-Euclidean geometry. To convince ourselves of this, let us take a true synthetic à priori intuition — the following, for instance, which played an important part in the first chapter: — If a theorem is true for the number 1, and if it has been proved that it is true of n + 1, provided it is true of n, it will be true for all positive integers. Let us next try to get rid of this, and while rejecting this proposition let us construct a false arithmetic analogous to non-Euclidean geometry. We shall not be able to do it. We shall be even tempted at the outset to look upon these intuitions as analytical. Besides, to take up again our fiction of animals without thickness, we can scarcely admit that these beings, if their minds are like ours, would adopt the Euclidean geometry, which would be contradicted by all their experience. Ought we, then, to conclude that the axioms of geometry are experimental truths? But we do not make experiments on ideal lines or ideal circles; we can only make them on material objects. On what, therefore, would experiments serving as a foundation for geometry be based? The answer is easy. We have seen above that we constantly reason as if the geometrical figures behaved like solids. What geometry would borrow from experiment would be therefore the properties of these bodies. The properties of light and its propagation in a straight line have also given rise to some of the propositions of geometry, and in particular to those of projective geometry, so that from that point of view one would be tempted to say that metrical geometry is the study of solids, and projective geometry that of light. But a difficulty remains, and is unsurmountable. If geometry were an experimental science, it would not be an exact science. It would be subjected to continual revision. Nay, it would from that day forth be proved to be erroneous, for we know that no rigorously invariable solid exists. The geometrical axioms are therefore neither synthetic à priori intuitions nor experimental facts. They are conventions. Our choice among all possible conventions is guided by experimental facts; but it remains free, and is only limited by the necessity of avoiding every contradiction, and thus it is that postulates may remain rigorously true even when the experimental laws which have determined their adoption are only approximate. In other words, the axioms of geometry (I do not speak of those of arithmetic) are only definitions in disguise. What, then, are we to think of the question: Is Euclidean geometry true? It has no meaning. We might as well ask if the metric system is true, and if the old weights and measures are false; if Cartesian co-ordinates are true and polar co-ordinates false. One geometry cannot be more true than another; it can only be more convenient. Now, Euclidean geometry is, and will remain, the most convenient: 1st, because it is the simplest, and it is not so only because of our mental habits or because of the kind of direct intuition that we have of Euclidean space; it is the simplest in itself, just as a polynomial of the first degree is simpler than a polynomial of the second degree; 2nd, because it sufficiently agrees with the properties of natural solids, those bodies which we can compare and measure by means of our senses.



Let us begin with a little paradox. Beings whose minds were made as ours, and with senses like ours, but without any preliminary education, might receive from a suitably-chosen external world impressions which would lead them to construct a geometry other than that of Euclid, and to localise the phenomena of this external world in a non-Euclidean space, or even in space of four dimensions. As for us, whose education has been made by our actual world, if we were suddenly transported into this new world, we should have no difficulty in referring phenomena to our Euclidean space. Perhaps somebody may appear on the scene some day who will devote his life to it, and be able to represent to himself the fourth dimension.

Geometrical Space and Representative Space. — It is often said that the images we form of external objects are localised in space, and even that they can only be formed on this condition. It is also said that this space, which thus serves as a kind of framework ready prepared for our sensations and representations, is identical with the space of the

geometers, having all the properties of that space. To all clear-headed men who think in this way, the preceding statement might well appear extraordinary; but it is as well to see if they are not the victims of some illusion which closer analysis may be able to dissipate. In the first place, what are the properties of space properly so called? I mean of that space which is the object of geometry, and which I shall call geometrical space. The following are some of the more essential:—

1st, it is continuous; 2nd, it is infinite; 3rd, it is of three dimensions; 4th, it is homogeneous — that is to say, all its points are identical one with another; 5th, it is isotropic. Compare this now with the framework of our representations and sensations, which I may call representative space.

Visual Space. — First of all let us consider a purely visual impression, due to an image formed on the back of the retina. A cursory analysis shows us this image as continuous, but as possessing only two dimensions, which already distinguishes purely visual from what may be called geometrical space. On the other hand, the image is enclosed within a limited framework; and there is a no less important difference: this pure visual space is not homogeneous. All the points on the retina, apart from the images which may be formed, do not play the same role. The yellow spot can in no way be regarded as identical with a point on the edge of the retina. Not only does the same object produce on it much brighter impressions, but in the whole of the limited framework the point which occupies the centre will not appear identical with a point near one of the edges. Closer analysis no doubt would show us that this continuity of visual space and its two dimensions are but an illusion. It would make visual space even more different than before from geometrical space, but we may treat this remark as incidental.

However, sight enables us to appreciate distance, and therefore to perceive a third dimension. But every one knows that this perception of the third dimension reduces to a sense of the effort of accommodation which must be made, and to a sense of the convergence of the two eyes, that must take place in order to perceive an object distinctly. These are muscular sensations quite different from the visual sensations which have given us the concept of the two first dimensions. The third dimension will therefore not appear to us as playing the same rôle as the two others. What may be called complete visual space is not therefore an isotropic space. It has, it is true, exactly three dimensions; which means that the elements of our visual sensations (those at least which concur in forming the concept of extension) will be completely defined if we know three of them; or, in mathematical language, they will be functions of three independent variables. But let us look at the matter a little closer. The third dimension is revealed to us in two different ways: by the effort of accommodation, and by the convergence of the eyes. No doubt these two indications are always in harmony; there is between them a constant relation; or, in mathematical language, the two variables which measure these two muscular sensations do not appear to us as independent. Or, again, to avoid an appeal to mathematical ideas which are already rather too refined, we may go back to the language of the preceding chapter and enunciate the same fact as follows: — If two sensations of convergence A and B are indistinguishable, the two sensations of accommodation A′ and B′ which accompany them respectively will also be indistinguishable. But that is, so to speak, an experimental fact. Nothing prevents us à priori from assuming the contrary, and if the contrary takes place, if these two muscular sensations both vary independently, we must take into account one more independent variable, and complete visual space will appear to us as a physical continuum of four dimensions. And so in this there is also a fact of external experiment. Nothing prevents us from assuming that a being with a mind like ours, with the same sense-organs as ourselves, may be placed in a world in which light would only reach him after being passed through refracting media of complicated form. The two indications which enable us to appreciate distances would cease to be connected by a constant relation. A being educating his senses in such a world would no doubt attribute four dimensions to complete visual space.

Tactile and Motor Space. — "Tactile space" is more complicated still than visual space, and differs even more widely from geometrical space. It is useless to repeat for the sense of touch my remarks on the sense of sight. But outside the data of sight and touch there are other sensations which contribute as much and more than they do to the genesis of the concept of space. They are those which everybody knows, which accompany all our movements, and which we usually call muscular sensations. The corresponding framework constitutes what may be called motor space. Each muscle gives rise to a special sensation which may be increased or diminished so that the aggregate of our muscular sensations will depend upon as many variables as we have muscles. From this point of view motor space would have as many dimensions as we have muscles. I know that it is said that if the muscular sensations contribute to form the concept of space, it is because we have the sense of the direction of each movement, and that this is an integral part of the sensation. If this were so, and if a muscular sense could not be aroused unless it were accompanied by this geometrical sense of direction, geometrical space would certainly be a form imposed upon our sensitiveness. But I do not see this at all when I analyse my sensations. What I do see is that the sensations which correspond to movements in the same direction are connected in my mind by a simple association of ideas. It is to this association that what we call the sense of direction is reduced. We cannot therefore discover this sense in a single sensation. This association is extremely complex, for the contraction of the same muscle may correspond, according to the position of the limbs, to very different movements of direction. Moreover, it is evidently acquired; it is like all associations of ideas, the result of a habit. This habit itself is the result of a very large number of experiments, and no doubt if the education of our senses had taken place in a different medium, where we would have been subjected to different impressions, then contrary habits would have been acquired, and our muscular sensations would have been associated according to other laws.

Characteristics of Representative Space. — Thus representative space in its triple form — visual, tactile, and motor — differs essentially from geometrical space. It is neither homogeneous nor isotropic; we cannot even say that it is of three dimensions. It is often said that we "project" into geometrical space the objects of our external perception; that we "localise" them. Now, has that any meaning, and if so what is that meaning? Does it mean that we represent to ourselves external objects in geometrical space? Our representations are only the reproduction of our sensations; they cannot therefore be arranged in the same framework — that is to say, in representative space. It is also just as impossible for us to represent to ourselves external objects in geometrical space, as it is impossible for a painter to paint on a flat surface objects with their three dimensions. Representative space is only an image of geometrical space, an image deformed by a kind of perspective, and we can only represent to ourselves objects by making them obey the laws of this perspective. Thus we do not represent to ourselves external bodies in geometrical space, but we reason about these bodies as if they were situated in geometrical space. When it is said, on the other hand, that we "localise" such an object in such a point of space, what does it mean? It simply means that we represent to ourselves the movements that must take place to reach that object. And it does not mean that to represent to ourselves these movements they must be projected into space, and that the concept of space must therefore pre-exist. When I say that we represent to ourselves these movements, I only mean that we represent to ourselves the muscular sensations which accompany them, and which have no geometrical character, and which therefore in no way imply the pre-existence of the concept of space.

Changes of State and Changes of Position. — But, it may be said, if the concept of geometrical space is not imposed upon our minds, and if, on the other hand, none of our sensations can furnish us with that concept, how then did it ever come into existence? This is what we have now to examine, and it will take some time; but I can sum up in a few words the attempt at explanation which I am going to develop. None of our sensations, if isolated, could have brought us to the concept of space; we are brought to it solely by studying the laws by which those sensations succeed one another. We see at first that our impressions are subject to change; but among the changes that we ascertain, we are very soon led to make a distinction. Sometimes we say that the objects, the causes of these impressions, have changed their state, sometimes that they have changed their position, that they have only been displaced. Whether an object changes its state or only its position, this is always translated for us in the same manner, by a modification in an aggregate of impressions. How then have we been enabled to distinguish them? If there were only change of position, we could restore the primitive aggregate of impressions by making movements which would confront us with the movable object in the same relative situation. We thus correct the modification which was produced, and we re-establish the initial state by an inverse modification. If, for example, it were a question of the sight, and if an object be displaced before our eyes, we can "follow it with the eye," and retain its image on the same point of the retina by appropriate movements of the eyeball. These movements we are conscious of because they are voluntary, and because they are accompanied by muscular sensations. But that does not mean that we represent them to ourselves in geometrical space. So what characterises change of position, what distinguishes it from change of state, is that it can always be corrected by this means. It may therefore happen that we pass from the aggregate of impressions A to the aggregate B in two different ways. First, involuntarily and without experiencing muscular sensations — which happens when it is the object that is displaced; secondly, voluntarily, and with muscular sensation — which happens when the object is motionless, but when we displace ourselves in such a way that the object has relative motion with respect to us. If this be so, the translation of the aggregate A to the aggregate B is only a change of position. It follows that sight and touch could not have given us the idea of space without the help of the "muscular sense." Not only could this concept not be derived from a single sensation, or even from a series of sensations; but a motionless being could never have acquired it, because, not being able to correct by his movements the effects of the change of position of external objects, he would have had no reason to distinguish them from changes of state. Nor would he have been able to acquire it if his movements had not been voluntary, or if they were unaccompanied by any sensations whatever.

Conditions of Compensation. — How is such a compensation possible in such a way that two changes, otherwise mutually independent, may be reciprocally corrected? A mind already familiar with geometry would reason as follows: — If there is to be compensation, the different parts of the external object on the one hand, and the different organs of our senses on the other, must be in the same relative position after the double change. And for that to be the case, the different parts of the external body on the one hand, and the different organs of our senses on the other, must have the same relative position to each other after the double change; and so with the different parts of our body with respect to each other. In other words, the external object in the first change must be displaced as an invariable solid would be displaced, and it must also be so with the whole of our body in the second change, which is to correct the first. Under these conditions compensation may be produced. But we who as yet know nothing of geometry, whose ideas of space are not yet formed, we cannot reason in this way — we cannot predict à priori if compensation is possible. But experiment shows us that it sometimes does take place, and we start from this experimental fact in order to distinguish changes of state from changes of position.

Solid Bodies and Geometry. — Among surrounding objects there are some which frequently experience displacements that may be thus corrected by a correlative movement of our own body — namely, solid bodies. The other objects, whose form is variable, only in exceptional circumstances undergo similar displacement (change of position without change of form). When the displacement of a body takes place with deformation, we can no longer by appropriate movements place the organs of our body in the same relative situation with respect to this body; we can no longer, therefore, reconstruct the primitive aggregate of impressions.

It is only later, and after a series of new experiments, that we learn how to decompose a body of variable form into smaller elements such that each is displaced approximately according to the same laws as solid bodies. We thus distinguish "deformations" from other changes of state. In these deformations each element undergoes a simple change of position which may be corrected; but the modification of the aggregate is more profound, and can no longer be corrected by a correlative movement. Such a concept is very complex even at this stage, and has been relatively slow in its appearance. It would not have been conceived at all had not the observation of solid bodies shown us beforehand how to distinguish changes of position.

If, then, there were no solid bodies in nature there would be no geometry.

Another remark deserves a moment's attention. Suppose a solid body to occupy successively the positions α and β; in the first position it will give us an aggregate of impressions A, and in the second position the aggregate of impressions B. Now let there be a second solid body, of qualities entirely different from the first — of different colour, for instance. Assume it to pass from the position α, where it gives us the aggregate of impressions A′ to the position β, where it gives the aggregate of impressions B′. In general, the aggregate A will have nothing in common with the aggregate A′, nor will the aggregate B have anything in common with the aggregate B′. The transition from the aggregate A to the aggregate B, and that of the aggregate A′ to the aggregate B′, are therefore two changes which in themselves have in general nothing in common. Yet we consider both these changes as displacements; and, further, we consider them the same displacement. How can this be? It is simply because they may be both corrected by the same correlative movement of our body. "Correlative movement," therefore, constitutes the sole connection between two phenomena which otherwise we should never have dreamed of connecting.

On the other hand, our body, thanks to the number of its articulations and muscles, may have a multitude of different movements, but all are not capable of "correcting" a modification of external objects; those alone are capable of it in which our whole body, or at least all those in which the organs of our senses enter into play are displaced en bloci.e., without any variation of their relative positions, as in the case of a solid body.

To sum up:

1. In the first place, we distinguish two categories of phenomena: — The first involuntary, unaccompanied by muscular sensations, and attributed to external objects — they are external changes; the second, of opposite character and attributed to the movements of our own body, are internal changes.

2. We notice that certain changes of each in these categories may be corrected by a correlative change of the other category.

3. We distinguish among external changes those that have a correlative in the other category — which we call displacements; and in the same way we distinguish among the internal changes those which have a correlative in the first category.

Thus by means of this reciprocity is defined a particular class of phenomena called displacements. The laws of these phenomena are the object of geometry.

Law of Homogeneity. — The first of these laws is the law of homogeneity. Suppose that by an external change we pass from the aggregate of impressions A to the aggregate B, and that then this change α is corrected by a correlative voluntary movement β, so that we are brought back to the aggregate A. Suppose now that another external change α′ brings us again from the aggregate A to the aggregate B. Experiment then shows us that this change α′, like the change α, may be corrected by a voluntary correlative movement β′, and that this movement βcorresponds to the same muscular sensations as the movement β which corrected α.

This fact is usually enunciated as follows: — Space is homogeneous and isotropic. We may also say that a movement which is once produced may be repeated a second and a third time, and so on, without any variation of its properties. In the first chapter, in which we discussed the nature of mathematical reasoning, we saw the importance that should be attached to the possibility of repeating the same operation indefinitely. The virtue of mathematical reasoning is due to this repetition; by means of the law of homogeneity geometrical facts are apprehended. To be complete, to the law of homogeneity must be added a multitude of other laws, into the details of which I do not propose to enter, but which mathematicians sum up by saying that these displacements form a "group."

The Non-Euclidean World. — If geometrical space were a framework imposed on each of our representations considered individually, it would be impossible to represent to ourselves an image without this framework, and we should be quite unable to change our geometry. But this is not the case; geometry is only the summary of the laws by which these images succeed each other. There is nothing, therefore, to prevent us from imagining a series of representations, similar in every way to our ordinary representations, but succeeding one another according to laws which differ from those to which we are accustomed. We may thus conceive that beings whose education has taken place in a medium in which those laws would be so different, might have a very different geometry from ours.

Suppose, for example, a world enclosed in a large sphere and subject to the following laws: — The temperature is not uniform; it is greatest at the centre, and gradually decreases as we move towards the circumference of the sphere, where it is absolute zero. The law of this temperature is as follows: If R be the radius of the sphere, and r the distance of the point considered from the centre, the absolute temperature will be proportional to R²-r². Further, I shall suppose that in this world all bodies have the same co-efficient of dilatation, so that the linear dilatation of any body is proportional to its absolute temperature. Finally, I shall assume that a body transported from one point to another of different temperature is instantaneously in thermal equilibrium with its new environment. There is nothing in these hypotheses either contradictory or unimaginable. A moving object will become smaller and smaller as it approaches the circumference of the sphere. Let us observe, in the first place, that although from the point of view of our ordinary geometry this world is finite, to its inhabit ants it will appear infinite. As they approach the surface of the sphere they become colder, and at the same time smaller and smaller. The steps they take are therefore also smaller and smaller, so that they can never reach the boundary of the sphere. If to us geometry is only the study of the laws according to which invariable solids move, to these imaginary beings it will be the study of the laws of motion of solids deformed by the differences of temperature alluded to.

No doubt, in our world, natural solids also experience variations of form and volume due to differences of temperature. But in laying the foundations of geometry we neglect these variations; for besides being but small they are irregular, and consequently appear to us to be accidental. In our hypothetical world this will no longer be the case, the variations will obey very simple and regular laws. On the other hand, the different solid parts of which the bodies of these inhabitants are composed will undergo the same variations of form and volume.

Let me make another hypothesis: suppose that light passes through media of different refractive indices, such that the index of refraction is inversely proportional to R²-r². Under these conditions it is clear that the rays of light will no longer be rectilinear but circular. To justify what has been said, we have to prove that certain changes in the position of external objects may be corrected by correlative movements of the beings which inhabit this imaginary world; and in such a way as to restore the primitive aggregate of the impressions experienced by these sentient beings. Suppose, for example, that an object is displaced and deformed, not like an invariable solid, but like a solid subjected to unequal dilatations in exact conformity with the law of temperature assumed above. To use an abbreviation, we shall call such a movement a non-Euclidean displacement.

If a sentient being be in the neighbourhood of such a displacement of the object, his impressions will be modified; but by moving in a suitable manner, he may reconstruct them. For this purpose, all that is required is that the aggregate of the sentient being and the object, considered as forming a single body, shall experience one of those special displacements which I have just called non-Euclidean. This is possible if we suppose that the limbs of these beings dilate according to the same laws as the other bodies of the world they inhabit.

Although from the point of view of our ordinary geometry there is a deformation of the bodies in this displacement, and although their different parts are no longer in the same relative position, nevertheless we shall see that the impressions of the sentient being remain the same as before; in fact, though the mutual distances of the different parts have varied, yet the parts which at first were in contact are still in contact. It follows that tactile impressions will be unchanged. On the other hand, from the hypothesis as to refraction and the curvature of the rays of light, visual impressions will also be unchanged. These imaginary beings will therefore be led to classify the phenomena they observe, and to distinguish among them the "changes of position," which may be corrected by a voluntary correlative movement, just as we do.

If they construct a geometry, it will not be like ours, which is the study of the movements of our invariable solids; it will be the study of the changes of position which they will have thus distinguished, and will be "non-Euclidean displacements," and this will be non-Euclidean geometry. So that beings like ourselves, educated in such a world, will not have the same geometry as ours.

The World of Four Dimensions. — Just as we have pictured to ourselves a non-Euclidean world, so we may picture a world of four dimensions.

The sense of light, even with one eye, together with the muscular sensations relative to the movements of the eyeball, will suffice to enable us to conceive of space of three dimensions. The images of external objects are painted on the retina, which is a plane of two dimensions; these are perspectives. But as eye and objects are movable, we see in succession different perspectives of the same body taken from different points of view. We find at the same time that the transition from one perspective to another is often accompanied by muscular sensations. If the transition from the perspective A to the perspective B, and that of the perspective A′ to the perspective B′ are accompanied by the same muscular sensations, we connect them as we do other operations of the same nature. Then when we study the laws according to which these operations are combined, we see that they form a group, which has the same structure as that of the movements of invariable solids. Now, we have seen that it is from the properties of this group that we derive the idea of geometrical space and that of three dimensions. We thus understand how these perspectives gave rise to the conception of three dimensions, although each perspective is of only two dimensions, — because they succeed each other according to certain laws. Well, in the same way that we draw the perspective of a three-dimensional figure on a plane, so we can draw that of a four-dimensional figure on a canvas of three (or two) dimensions. To a geometer this is but child's play. We can even draw several perspectives of the same figure from several different points of view. We can easily represent to ourselves these perspectives, since they are of only three dimensions. Imagine that the different perspectives of one and the same object to occur in succession, and that the transition from one to the other is accompanied by muscular sensations. It is understood that we shall consider two of these transitions as two operations of the same nature when they are associated with the same muscular sensations. There is nothing, then, to prevent us from imagining that these operations are combined according to any law we choose — for instance, by forming a group with the same structure as that of the movements of an invariable four-dimensional solid. In this there is nothing that we cannot represent to ourselves, and, moreover, these sensations are those which a being would experience who has a retina of two dimensions, and who may be displaced in space of four dimensions. In this sense we may say that we can represent to ourselves the fourth dimension.

Conclusions. — It is seen that experiment plays a considerable rôle in the genesis of geometry; but it would be a mistake to conclude from that that geometry is, even in part, an experimental science. If it were experimental, it would only be approximative and provisory. And what a rough approximation it would be! Geometry would be only the study of the movements of solid bodies; but, in reality, it is not concerned with natural solids: its object is certain ideal solids, absolutely invariable, which are but a greatly simplified and very remote image of them. The concept of these ideal bodies is entirely mental, and experiment is but the opportunity which enables us to reach the idea. The object of geometry is the study of a particular "group"; but the general concept of group pre-exists in our minds, at least potentially. It is imposed on us not as a form of our sensitiveness, but as a form of our understanding; only, from among all possible groups, we must choose one that will be the standard, so to speak, to which we shall refer natural phenomena.

Experiment guides us in this choice, which it does not impose on us. It tells us not what is the truest, but what is the most convenient geometry. It will be noticed that my description of these fantastic worlds has required no language other than that of ordinary geometry. Then, were we transported to those worlds, there would be no need to change that language. Beings educated there would no doubt find it more convenient to create a geometry different from ours, and better adapted to their impressions; but as for us, in the presence of the same impressions, it is certain that we should not find it more convenient to make a change.



1. I have on several occasions in the preceding pages tried to show how the principles of geometry are not experimental facts, and that in particular Euclid's postulate cannot be proved by experiment. However convincing the reasons already given may appear to me, I feel I must dwell upon them, because there is a profoundly false conception deeply rooted in many minds.

2. Think of a material circle, measure its radius and circumference, and see if the ratio of the two lengths is equal to π. What have we done? We have made an experiment on the properties of the matter with which this roundness has been realised, and of which the measure we used is made.

3. Geometry and Astronomy. — The same question may also be asked in another way. If Lobatschewsky's geometry is true, the parallax of a very distant star will be finite. If Riemann's is true, it will be negative. These are the results which seem within the reach of experiment, and it is hoped that astronomical observations may enable us to decide between the two geometries. But what we call a straight line in astronomy is simply the path of a ray of light. If, therefore, we were to discover negative parallaxes, or to prove that all parallaxes are higher than a certain limit, we should have a choice between two conclusions: we could give up Euclidean geometry, or modify the laws of optics, and suppose that light is not rigorously propagated in a straight line. It is needless to add that every one would look upon this solution as the more advantageous. Euclidean geometry, therefore, has nothing to fear from fresh experiments.

4. Can we maintain that certain phenomena which are possible in Euclidean space would be impossible in non-Euclidean space, so that experiment in establishing these phenomena would directly contradict the non-Euclidean hypothesis? I think that such a question cannot be seriously asked. To me it is exactly equivalent to the following, the absurdity of which is obvious: — There are lengths which can be expressed in metres and centimetres, but cannot be measured in toises, feet, and inches; so that experiment, by ascertaining the existence of these lengths, would directly contradict this hypothesis, that there are toises divided into six feet. Let us look at the question a little more closely. I assume that the straight line in Euclidean space possesses any two properties, which I shall call A and B; that in non-Euclidean space it still possesses the property A, but no longer possesses the property B; and, finally, I assume that in both Euclidean and non-Euclidean space the straight line is the only line that possesses the property A. If this were so, experiment would be able to decide between the hypotheses of Euclid and Lobatschewsky. It would be found that some concrete object, upon which we can experiment — for example, a pencil of rays of light — possesses the property A. We should conclude that it is rectilinear, and we should then endeavour to find out if it does, or does not, possess the property B. But it is not so. There exists no property which can, like this property A, be an absolute criterion enabling us to recognise the straight line, and to distinguish it from every other line. Shall we say, for instance, "This property will be the following: the straight line is a line such that a figure of which this line is a part can move without the mutual distances of its points varying, and in such a way that all the points in this straight line remain fixed"? Now, this is a property which in either Euclidean or non-Euclidean space belongs to the straight line, and belongs to it alone. But how can we ascertain by experiment if it belongs to any particular concrete object? Distances must be measured, and how shall we know that any concrete magnitude which I have measured with my material instrument really represents the abstract distance? We have only removed the difficulty a little farther off. In reality, the property that I have just enunciated is not a property of the straight line alone; it is a property of the straight line and of distance. For it to serve as an absolute criterion, we must be able to show, not only that it does not also belong to any other line than the straight line and to distance, but also that it does not belong to any other line than the straight line, and to any other magnitude than distance. Now, that is not true, and if we are not convinced by these considerations, I challenge any one to give me a concrete experiment which can be interpreted in the Euclidean system, and which cannot be interpreted in the system of Lobatschewsky. As I am well aware that this challenge will never be accepted, I may conclude that no experiment will ever be in contradiction with Euclid's postulate; but, on the other hand, no experiment will ever be in contradiction with Lobatschewsky's postulate.

5. But it is not sufficient that the Euclidean (or non-Euclidean) geometry can ever be directly contradicted by experiment. Nor could it happen that it can only agree with experiment by a violation of the principle of sufficient reason, and of that of the relativity of space. Let me explain myself. Consider any material system whatever. We have to consider on the one hand the "state" of the various bodies of this system — for example, their temperature, their electric potential, etc.; and on the other hand their position in space. And among the data which enable us to define this position we distinguish the mutual distances of these bodies that define their relative positions, and the conditions which define the absolute position of the system and its absolute orientation in space. The law of the phenomena which will be produced in this system will depend on the state of these bodies, and on their mutual distances; but because of the relativity and the inertia of space, they will not depend on the absolute position and orientation of the system. In other words, the state of the bodies and their mutual distances at any moment will solely depend on the state of the same bodies and on their mutual distances at the initial moment, but will in no way depend on the absolute initial position of the system and of its absolute initial orientation. This is what we shall call, for the sake of abbreviation, the law of relativity.

So far I have spoken as a Euclidean geometer. But I have said that an experiment, whatever it may be, requires an interpretation on the Euclidean hypothesis; it equally requires one on the non-Euclidean hypothesis. Well, we have made a series of experiments. We have interpreted them on the Euclidean hypothesis, and we have recognised that these experiments thus interpreted do not violate this "law of relativity." We now interpret them on the non-Euclidean hypothesis. This is always possible, only the non-Euclidean distances of our different bodies in this new interpretation will not generally be the same as the Euclidean distances in the primitive interpretation. Will our experiment interpreted in this new manner be still in agreement with our "law of relativity," and if this agreement had not taken place, would we not still have the right to say that experiment has proved the falsity of non-Euclidean geometry? It is easy to see that this is an idle fear. In fact, to apply the law of relativity in all its rigour, it must be applied to the entire universe; for if we were to consider only a part of the universe, and if the absolute position of this part were to vary, the distances of the other bodies of the universe would equally vary; their influence on the part of the universe considered might therefore increase or diminish, and this might modify the laws of the phenomena which take place in it. But if our system is the entire universe, experiment is powerless to give us any opinion on its position and its absolute orientation in space. All that our instruments, however perfect they may be, can let us know will be the state of the different parts of the universe, and their mutual distances. Hence, our law of relativity may be enunciated as follows: — The readings that we can make with our instruments at any given moment will depend only on the readings that we were able to make on the same instruments at the initial moment. Now such an enunciation is independent of all interpretation by experiments. If the law is true in the Euclidean interpretation, it will be also true in the non-Euclidean interpretation. Allow me to make a short digression on this point. I have spoken above of the data which define the position of the different bodies of the system. I might also have spoken of those which define their velocities. I should then have to distinguish the velocity with which the mutual distances of the different bodies are changing, and on the other hand the velocities of translation and rotation of the system; that is to say, the velocities with which its absolute position and orientation are changing. For the mind to be fully satisfied, the law of relativity would have to be enunciated as follows: — The state of bodies and their mutual distances at any given moment, as well as the velocities with which those distances are changing at that moment, will depend only on the state of those bodies, on their mutual distances at the initial moment, and on the velocities with which those distances were changing at the initial moment. But they will not depend on the absolute initial position of the system nor on its absolute orientation, nor on the velocities with which that absolute position and orientation were changing at the initial moment. Unfortunately, the law thus enunciated does not agree with experiments — at least, as they are ordinarily interpreted. Suppose a man were translated to a planet, the sky of which was constantly covered with a thick curtain of clouds, so that he could never see the other stars. On that planet he would live as if it were isolated in space. But he would notice that it revolves, either by measuring its ellipticity (which is ordinarily done by means of astronomical observations, but which could be done by purely geodesic means), or by repeating the experiment of Foucault's pendulum. The absolute rotation of this planet might be clearly shown in this way. Now, here is a fact which shocks the philosopher, but which the physicist is compelled to accept. We know that from this fact Newton concluded the existence of absolute space. I myself cannot accept this way of looking at it. I shall explain why in Part III., but for the moment it is not my intention to discuss this difficulty. I must therefore resign myself, in the enunciation of the law of relativity, to including velocities of every kind among the data which define the state of the bodies. How ever that may be, the difficulty is the same for both Euclid's geometry and for Lobatschewsky's. I need not therefore trouble about it further, and I have only mentioned it incidentally. To sum up, whichever way we look at it, it is impossible to discover in geometric empiricism a rational meaning.

6. Experiments only teach us the relations of bodies to one another. They do not and cannot , give us the relations of bodies and space, nor the; mutual relations of the different parts of space. "Yes!" you reply, "a single experiment is not enough, because it only gives us one equation with several unknowns; but when I have made enough experiments I shall have enough equations to calculate all my unknowns." If I know the height of the main-mast, that is not sufficient to enable me to calculate the age of the captain. When you have measured every fragment of wood in a ship you will have many equations, but you will be no nearer knowing the captain's age. All your measurements bearing on your fragments of wood can tell you only what concerns those fragments; and similarly, your experiments, however numerous they may be, referring only to the relations of bodies with one another, will tell you nothing about the mutual relations of the different parts of space.

7. Will you say that if the experiments have reference to the bodies, they at least have reference to the geometrical properties of the bodies. First, what do you understand by the geometrical properties of bodies? I assume that it is a question the relations of the bodies to space. These properties therefore are not reached by experiments which only have reference to the relations of bodies to one another, and that is enough to show that it is not of those properties that there can be a question. Let us therefore begin by making ourselves clear as to the sense of the phrase: geometrical properties of bodies. When I say that a body is composed of several parts, I presume that I am thus enunciating a geometrical property, and that will be true even if I agree to give the improper name of points to the very small parts I am considering. When I say that this or that part of a certain body is in contact with this or that part of another body, I am enunciating a proposition which concerns the mutual relations of the two bodies, and not their relations with space. I assume that you will agree with me that these are not geometrical properties. I am sure that at least you will grant that these properties are independent of all knowledge of metrical geometry. Admitting this, I suppose that we have a solid body formed of eight thin iron rods, oa, ob, oc, od, oe, of, og, oh, connected at one of their extremities, o. And let us take a second solid body — for example, a piece of wood, on which are marked three little spots of ink which I shall call α β γ. I now suppose that we find that we can bring into contact α β γ with ago; by that I mean α with a, and at the same time β with g, and γ with o. Then we can successively bring into contact α β γ with bgo, cgo, dgo, ego, fgo, then with aho, bho, cho, dho, cho, fho; and then α γ successively with ab, be, cd, de, ef, fa. Now these are observations that can be made without having any idea beforehand as to the form or the metrical properties of space. They have no reference whatever to the "geometrical properties of bodies." These observations will not be possible if the bodies on which we experiment move in a group having the same structure as the Lobatschewskian group (I mean according to the same laws as solid bodies in Lobatschewsky's geometry). They therefore suffice to prove that these bodies move according to the Euclidean group; or at least that they do not move according to the Lobatschewskian group. That they may be compatible with the Euclidean group is easily seen; for we might make them so if the body α β γ were an invariable solid of our ordinary geometry in the shape of a right-angled triangle, and if the points abcdefgh were the vertices of a polyhedron formed of two regular hexagonal pyramids of our ordinary geometry having abcdef as their common base, and having the one g and the other h as their vertices. Suppose now, instead of the previous observations, we note that we can as before apply α β γ successively to ago, bgo, ego, dgo, ego, fgo, aJw, bho, cho, dho, eho, fho, and then that we can apply αβ (and no longer α γ) successively to ab, be, cd, de, ef, and fa. These are observations that could be made if non-Euclidean geometry were true. If the bodies α β γ, oabcdefgh were invariable solids, if the former were a right-angled triangle, and the latter a double regular hexagonal pyramid of suitable dimensions. These new verifications are therefore impossible if the bodies move according to the Euclidean group; but they become possible if we suppose the bodies to move according to the Lobatschewskian group. They would therefore suffice to show, if we carried them out, that the bodies in question do not move according to the Euclidean group. And so, with out making any hypothesis on the form and the nature of space, on the relations of the bodies and space, and without attributing to bodies any geometrical property, I have made observations which have enabled me to show in one case that the bodies experimented upon move according to a group, the structure of which is Euclidean, and in the other case, that they move in a group, the structure of which is Lobatschewskian. It can not be said that all the first observations would constitute an experiment proving that space is Euclidean, and the second an experiment proving that space is non-Euclidean; in fact, it might be imagined (note that I use the word imagined) that there are bodies moving in such a manner as to render possible the second series of observations: and the proof is that the first mechanic who came our way could construct it if he would only take the trouble. But you must not conclude, however, that space is non-Euclidean. In the same way, just as ordinary solid bodies would continue to exist when the mechanic had constructed the strange bodies I have just mentioned, he would have to conclude that space is both Euclidean and non-Euclidean. Suppose, for instance, that we have a large sphere of radius R, and that its temperature decreases from the centre to the surface of the sphere according to the law of which I spoke when I was describing the non-Euclidean world. We might have bodies whose dilatation is negligeable, and which would behave as ordinary invariable solids; and, on the other hand, we might have very dilatable bodies, which would behave as non-Euclidean solids. We might have two double pyramids oabcdefgh and o'a'b'c'd'e'f'g'h', and two triangles α β γ and α' β' γ'. The first double pyramid would be rectilinear, and the second curvilinear. The triangle α β γ would consist of undilatable matter, and the other of very dilatable matter. We might therefore make our first observations with the double pyramid o'a'h' and the triangle α'β'γ'.

And then the experiment would seem to show — first, that Euclidean geometry is true, and then that it is false. Hence, experiments have reference not to space but to bodies.


8. To round the matter off, I ought to speak of a very delicate question, which will require considerable development; but I shall confine myself to summing up what I have written in the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale and in the Monist. When we say that space has three dimensions, what do we mean? We have seen the importance of these "internal changes" which are revealed to us by our muscular sensations. They may serve to characterise the different attitudes of our body. Let us take arbitrarily as our origin one of these attitudes, A. When we pass from this initial attitude to another attitude B we experience a series of muscular sensations, and this series S of muscular sensations will define B. Observe, however, that we shall often look upon two series S and S as defining the same attitude B (since the initial and final attitudes A and B remaining the same, the intermediary attitudes of the corresponding sensations may differ). How then can we recognise the equivalence of these two series? Because they may serve to compensate for the same external change, or more generally, because, when it is a question of compensation for an external change, one of the series may be replaced by the other. Among these series we have distinguished those which can alone compensate for an external change, and which we have called "displacements." As we cannot distinguish two displacements which are very close together, the aggregate of these displacements presents the characteristics of a physical continuum. Experience teaches us that they are the characteristics of a physical continuum of six dimensions; but we do not know as yet how many dimensions space itself possesses, so we must first of all answer another question. What is a point in space? Every one thinks he knows, but that is an illusion. What we see when we try to represent to ourselves a point in space is a black spot on white paper, a spot of chalk on a blackboard, always an object. The question should therefore be understood as follows: What do I mean when I say the object B is at the point which a moment before was occupied by the object A? Again, what criterion will enable me to recognise it? I mean that although I have not moved (my muscular sense tells me this), my finger, which just now touched the object A, is now touching the object B. I might have used other criteria — for instance, another finger or the sense of sight — but the first criterion is sufficient. I know that if it answers in the affirmative all other criteria will give the same answer. I know it from experiment. I cannot know it à priori. For the same reason I say that touch cannot be exercised at a distance; that is another way of enunciating the same experimental fact. If I say, on the contrary, that sight is exercised at a distance, it means that the criterion furnished by sight may give an affirmative answer while the others reply in the negative.

To sum up. For each attitude of my body my finger determines a point, and it is that and that only which defines a point in space. To each attitude corresponds in this way a point. But it often happens that the same point corresponds to several different attitudes (in this case we say that our finger has not moved, but the rest of our body has). We distinguish, therefore, among changes of attitude those in which the finger does not move. How are we led to this? It is because we often remark that in these changes the object which is in touch with the finger remains in con tact with it. Let us arrange then in the same class all the attitudes which are deduced one from the other by one of the changes that we have thus distinguished. To all these attitudes of the same class will correspond the same point in space. Then to each class will correspond a point, and to each point a class. Yet it may be said that what we get from this experiment is not the point, but the class of changes, or, better still, the corresponding class of muscular sensations. Thus, when we say that space has three dimensions, we merely mean that the aggregate of these classes appears to us with the characteristics of a physical continuum of three dimensions. Then if, instead of defining the points in space with the aid of the first finger, I use, for example, another finger, would the results be the same? That is by no means à priori evident. But, as we have seen, experiment has shown us that all our criteria are in agreement, and this enables us to answer in the affirmative. If we recur to what we have called displacements, the aggregate of which forms, as we have seen, a group, we shall be brought to distinguish those in which a finger does not move; and by what has preceded, those are the displacements which characterise a point in space, and their aggregate will form a sub-group of our group. To each sub-group of this kind, then, will correspond a point in space. We might be tempted to conclude that experiment has taught us the number of dimensions of space; but in reality our experiments have referred not to space, but to our body and its relations with neighbouring objects. What is more, our experiments are exceeding crude. In our mind the latent idea of a certain number of groups pre-existed; these are the groups with which Lie's theory is concerned. Which shall we choose to form a kind of standard by which to compare natural phenomena? And when this group is chosen, which of the sub-groups shall we take to characterise a point in space? Experiment has guided us by showing us what choice adapts itself best to the properties of our body; but there its rôle ends.



  1. Logic, c. viii., cf. Definitions, § 5-6. Tr.