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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index P > Henri Poincaré Quotes > Mind

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Henri Poincaré
(29 Apr 1854 - 17 Jul 1912)

French mathematician, physicist and astronomer , who is often described as the last generalist in mathematics.


Henri Poincaré Quotes on Mind (11 quotes)

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Deviner avant de démontrer! Ai-je besoin de rappeler que c'est ainsi que se sont faites toutes les découvertes importantes.
Guessing before proving! Need I remind you that it is so that all important discoveries have been made?
— Henri Poincaré
La valeur de la science. In Anton Bovier, Statistical Mechanics of Disordered Systems (2006), 218.
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Il est impossible de contempler le spectacle de l’univers étoilé sans se demander comment il s’est formé: nous devions peut-être attendre pour chercher une solution que nous ayons patiemment rassemblé les éléments …mais si nous étions si raisonnables, si nous étions curieux sans impatience, il est probable que nous n’avions jamais créé la Science et que nous nous serions toujours contentés de vivre notre petite vie. Notre esprit a donc reclamé impérieusement cette solution bien avant qu’elle fut mûre, et alors qu’il ne possédait que de vagues lueurs, lui permettant de la deviner plutôt que de l’attendre.
It is impossible to contemplate the spectacle of the starry universe without wondering how it was formed: perhaps we ought to wait, and not look for a solution until have patiently assembled the elements … but if we were so reasonable, if we were curious without impatience, it is probable we would never have created Science and we would always have been content with a trivial existence. Thus the mind has imperiously laid claim to this solution long before it was ripe, even while perceived in only faint glimmers—allowing us to guess a solution rather than wait for it.
— Henri Poincaré
From Leçons sur les Hypothèses Consmogoniques (1913) as cited in D. Ter Haar and A.G.W. Cameron, 'Historical Review of Theories of the Origin of the Solar System', collected in Robert Jastrow and A. G. W. Cameron (eds.), Origin of the Solar System: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, January 23-24, 1962, (1963), 3. 'Cosmogonical Hypotheses' (1913), collected in Harlow Shapley, Source Book in Astronomy, 1900-1950 (1960), 347.
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L’Astronomie est utile, parce qu’elle nous élève au-dessus de nous-mêmes; elle est utile, parce qu’elle est grande; elle est utile, parce qu’elle est belle… C’est elle qui nous montre combien l’homme est petit par le corps et combien il est grand par l’esprit, puisque cette immensité éclatante où son corps n’est qu’un point obscur, son intelligence peut l’embrasser tout entière et en goûter la silencieuse harmonie.
Astronomy is useful because it raises us above ourselves; it is useful because it is grand[; it is useful because it is beautiful]… It shows us how small is man’s body, how great his mind, since his intelligence can embrace the whole of this dazzling immensity, where his body is only an obscure point, and enjoy its silent harmony.
— Henri Poincaré
In La Valeur de la Science (1904), 276, translated by George Bruce Halsted, in The Value of Science (1907), 84. Webmaster added the meaning of “elle est utile, parce qu’elle est belle,” in brackets, which was absent in Halsted’s translation.
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By natural selection our mind has adapted itself to the conditions of the external world. It has adopted the geometry most advantageous to the species or, in other words, the most convenient. Geometry is not true, it is advantageous.
— Henri Poincaré
Science and Hypothesis (1902), in The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, Science and Method(1946), trans. by George Bruce Halsted, 91.
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Does the harmony the human intelligence thinks it discovers in nature exist outside of this intelligence? No, beyond doubt, a reality completely independent of the mind which conceives it, sees or feels it, is an impossibility.
— Henri Poincaré
…...
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Every phenomenon, however trifling it be, has a cause, and a mind infinitely powerful, and infinitely well-informed concerning the laws of nature could have foreseen it from the beginning of the ages. If a being with such a mind existed, we could play no game of chance with him; we should always lose.
— Henri Poincaré
Science and Method (1908), trans. Francis Maitland (1914), 65.
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How is it that there are so many minds that are incapable of understanding mathematics? ... the skeleton of our understanding, ... and actually they are the majority. ... We have here a problem that is not easy of solution, but yet must engage the attention of all who wish to devote themselves to education.
— Henri Poincaré
Science and Method (1914, 2003), 117-118.
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Mathematicians attach great importance to the elegance of their methods and their results. This is not pure dilettantism. What is it indeed that gives us the feeling of elegance in a solution, in a demonstration? It is the harmony of the diverse parts, their symmetry, their happy balance; in a word it is all that introduces order, all that gives unity, that permits us to see clearly and to comprehend at once both the ensemble and the details. But this is exactly what yields great results, in fact the more we see this aggregate clearly and at a single glance, the better we perceive its analogies with other neighboring objects, consequently the more chances we have of divining the possible generalizations. Elegance may produce the feeling of the unforeseen by the unexpected meeting of objects we are not accustomed to bring together; there again it is fruitful, since it thus unveils for us kinships before unrecognized. It is fruitful even when it results only from the contrast between the simplicity of the means and the complexity of the problem set; it makes us then think of the reason for this contrast and very often makes us see that chance is not the reason; that it is to be found in some unexpected law. In a word, the feeling of mathematical elegance is only the satisfaction due to any adaptation of the solution to the needs of our mind, and it is because of this very adaptation that this solution can be for us an instrument. Consequently this esthetic satisfaction is bound up with the economy of thought.
— Henri Poincaré
In 'The Future of Mathematics', Monist, 20, 80. Translated from the French by George Bruce Halsted.
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So is not mathematical analysis then not just a vain game of the mind? To the physicist it can only give a convenient language; but isn’t that a mediocre service, which after all we could have done without; and, it is not even to be feared that this artificial language be a veil, interposed between reality and the physicist’s eye? Far from that, without this language most of the intimate analogies of things would forever have remained unknown to us; and we would never have had knowledge of the internal harmony of the world, which is, as we shall see, the only true objective reality.
— Henri Poincaré
From La valeur de la science. In Anton Bovier, Statistical Mechanics of Disordered Systems (2006), 3, giving translation "approximately" in the footnote of the opening epigraph in the original French: “L’analyse mathématique, n’est elle donc qu’un vain jeu d’esprit? Elle ne peut pas donner au physicien qu’un langage commode; n’est-ce pa là un médiocre service, dont on aurait pu se passer à la rigueur; et même n’est il pas à craindre que ce langage artificiel ne soit pas un voile interposé entre la réalité at l’oeil du physicien? Loin de là, sans ce langage, la pluspart des anaologies intimes des choses nous seraient demeurées à jamais inconnues; et nous aurions toujours ignoré l’harmonie interne du monde, qui est, nous le verrons, la seule véritable réalité objective.” Another translation, with a longer quote, beginning “Without this language…”, is on the Henri Poincaré Quotes" page of this website.
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The genesis of mathematical invention is a problem that must inspire the psychologist with the keenest interest. For this is the process in which the human mind seems to borrow least from the exterior world, in which it acts, or appears to act, only by itself and on itself, so that by studying the process of geometric thought, we may hope to arrive at what is most essential in the human mind
— Henri Poincaré
As translated in Arthur I. Miller, Imagery in Scientific Thought Creating 20th-Century Physics (1984, 2013), 307. Opening of Paper delivered at Conference at the Institut Général Psychologique, Paris, 'L’Invention Mathématique', published in Enseignment Mathématique (1908), 10, 357. From the original French, “La genèse do l’Invention mathématique est un problème qui doit inspirer le plus vif intérêt au psychologue. C’est l’acte dans lequel l’esprit humain semble le moins emprunter au monde extérieur, où il n’agit ou ne paraît agir que par lui-même et sur lui-même, de sorte, qu’en étudiant le processus de la pensée géométrique, c’est ce qu’il y a de plus essentiel dans l’esprit humain que nous pouvons espérer atteindre.”
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The mind uses its faculty for creating only when experience forces it to do so.
— Henri Poincaré
From La Science et l’Hypothèse (1908), 43 as translated by George Bruce Halsted in Science and Hypothesis (1905), 25. From the original French, “L’esprit n’use de sa faculté créatrice que quand l’expérience lui en impose la nécessité”.
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See also:
  • 29 Apr - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Poincaré's birth.
  • The Value of Science: Essential Writings of Henri Poincaré, by Henri Poincaré. - book suggestion.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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