Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

As far as I know, the reals were not rigorously constructed during his time (i.e via equivalence classes of Cauchy sequences, or Dedekind cuts), so how did Newton even define differentiation or integration of real-valued functions?

share|cite|improve this question
Mathematical theories are rarely developed axiomatically from the beginning. Instead, our axiomatizations tend to be the product of hindsight, using the experience accumulated through examples, guess work, and semi-rigorous reasoning. – Andrés E. Caicedo Jan 26 '13 at 2:51
If you think about a usual mathematical development and the naturals, there is a useful correspondence. I could add, subtract, multiply, divide, factor, know about primes, unique factorization, etc. before I heard of Peano. – Ross Millikan Jan 26 '13 at 4:56
I forget where I read this so I can't go back and check its veracity, so making this a comment. As far as I remember Newton actually worked quite a lot with infinitary series. If you think about this being a formal ring of functions, that really draws the focus away from the set over which the $x$'s are defined. This might be key to Newton's reasoning; if I find the source again I'll write a more thorough and verified answer. – isomorphismes Oct 17 '14 at 4:07

You don't need a formal definition of the real numbers to understand the real numbers. Decimal fractions, with which Newton was quite familiar, had been invented a hundred years before, and provide a sufficiently rich and uniform model for a good understanding of the real numbers. Add to decimal fractions the notion, of which Newton was well aware, that $0.abc9999\ldots = 0.ab\{c+1\}000\ldots$, and what you have is exactly the real numbers.

So I think the premise of your question is wrong. Mathematician rarely invent some formalization out of thin air, and then study its properties; rather, they have an object which has certain properties, which they formalize in order to examine more closely. The real numbers were invented and understood long before they were formalized by Cantor and Dedekind. Had Cantor or Dedekind's formalizations failed to capture the properties of real numbers as they were already understood, they would have thrown away those formalizations and started over. (On review, I see that Andres Caicedo said this in a comment.)

Similarly the notion of a continuous function long predates its formal definition by Weierstrass. The early notions don't always exactly match the modern formal notion, but they match very closely, because the modern formal notation is intended to formalize the earlier intuitive notion.

share|cite|improve this answer
If I recall correctly it was actually Cantor who constructed the real numbers as equivalence classes of Cauchy sequences. – Asaf Karagila Jan 27 '13 at 15:24
Thank you for the correction. – MJD Jan 27 '13 at 15:25

In Leibnitz' case (who co-invented) by (quite wrongly) assuming that the Greek atomos (indivisible) really was that: a smallest indivisible part he called "Monaden", and which also explains that his integral sign is just a stylized "S" for sum as he really believed you could sum those parts up. His philosophy was generally quite wonky (as Voltaire would agree). It just turned out to work as it should (usually), but books even a century later by great mathematicians like Euler had errors as the infinitesimal concepts were not fully understood (eg, why it matters to sometimes have uniform continuity, not only continuity).

In newton's case, I remember this less except that his "fluxiones" were motivated by physics and again turned out to do the right thing, even though a foundation wasn't present yet...which is arguably part of his (and their) genius.

share|cite|improve this answer

I have read that Newton imagined time as flowing in very short, discrete ticks, and treated the derivative as linear interpolation between the ticks. This let him consider rates of change that varied with time and position. But to Newton, nailing down the precise definition of the "derivative" was not so important as having a symbolic framework to quantify his laws of motion and produce empirical predictions, much as to modern physicists, nailing down things like Feynman integrals are not so important as having a symbolic framework to generate predictions for particle collisions.

Generally speaking, before the first half of the twentieth century, mathematics was not conducted as rigorously as it is today. The inventors of calculus did not need to give super-rigorous proofs, because as you point out, the concepts necessary for a rigorous foundation of calculus did not yet exist -- in fact, calculus motivated their invention (or discovery)!

Perhaps more pertinently, the clean, neat construction of calculus seen in many real analysis classes (construct reals, define limits with $\epsilon$-$\delta$s, proceed with definition-theorem-proof) is made in hindsight. Its actual historical development would have proceeded in jumps and starts, often (from the perspective of the real analysis student) backwards and sideways. We don't see that in class because real analysis is centuries-old theory, digested and regurgitated by so many generations of mathematicians that the standard presentation is now streamlined and clean.

share|cite|improve this answer

Way earlier, the Greeks invented a surprising amount of mathematics. Archimedes knew a fair amount of calculus, and the Greeks proved by Euclidean geometry that $\sqrt{2}$ and other surds were irrational (thus annoying Pythagorus greatly).

And I can do a moderate amount of (often valid) math without knowing why the the co-finite subtopology of the reals has a hetero-cocomorphic normal centralizer (if that actually means something, I apologize).

share|cite|improve this answer
I am going to define the term "hetero-cocomorphic normal centralizer of a topology" just to make sense into that paragraph! :-) – Asaf Karagila Jan 27 '13 at 15:35

The concepts of a real number, that arbitrary spot on a ruler between integer values was probably understood intuitively by carpenters long before Newton or Dedekind, and the ideas of areas and volumes were also understood long before Newton invented the integral.

This question brings to mind V.I. Arnold's piece about the dangers of studying mathematics without physics:

To the question "What is 2 + 3" a French primary school pupil replied: "3 + 2, since addition is commutative". He did not know what the sum was equal to and could not even understand what he was asked about!

... as ridiculous as teaching addition of fractions to children who have never cut (at least mentally) a cake or an apple into equal parts. No wonder that the children will prefer to add a numerator to a numerator and a denominator to a denominator!"

share|cite|improve this answer
Readers of this answer might like to know who the child was and the background to it. Look at and search for "I was that child". – KCd Jun 4 at 1:02

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.