Generality Quotes (34 quotes)

...the source of all great mathematics is the special case, the concrete example. It is frequent in mathematics that every instance of a concept of seemingly generality is, in essence, the same as a small and concrete special case.

*On se persuade mieux, pour l’ordinaire, par les raisons qu’on a soi-même trouvées, que par celles qui sont venues dans l’esprit des autres.*

We are generally more effectually persuaded by reasons we have ourselves discovered than by those which have occurred to others.

Another diversity of Methods is

*according to the subject or matter which is handled*; for there is a great difference in delivery of the Mathematics, which are the most abstracted of knowledges, and Policy, which is the most immersed ... , yet we see how that opinion, besides the weakness of it, hath been of ill desert towards learning, as that which taketh the way to reduce learning to certain empty and barren generalities; being but the very husks and shells of sciences, all the kernel being forced out and expulsed with the torture and press of the method.
During the school period the student has been mentally bending over his desk; at the University he should stand up and look around. For this reason it is fatal if the first year at the University be frittered away in going over the old work in the old spirit. At school the boy painfully rises from the particular towards glimpses at general ideas; at the University he should start from general ideas and study their applications to concrete cases.

During the time that [Karl] Landsteiner gave me an education in the field of imununology, I discovered that he and I were thinking about the serologic problem in very different ways. He would ask,

*What do these experiments force us to believe about the nature of the world? I would ask, What is the most. simple and general picture of the world that we can formulate that is not ruled by these experiments?*I realized that medical and biological investigators were not attacking their problems the same way that theoretical physicists do, the way I had been in the habit of doing.
Euclid avoids it [the treatment of the infinite]; in modern mathematics it is systematically introduced, for only then is generality obtained.

For it being the nature of the mind of man (to the extreme prejudice of knowledge) to delight in the spacious liberty of generalities, as in a champion region, and not in the enclosures of particularity; the Mathematics were the goodliest fields to satisfy that appetite.

Fourier’s Theorem … is not only one of the most beautiful results of modern analysis, but it may be said to furnish an indispensable instrument in the treatment of nearly every recondite question in modern physics. To mention only sonorous vibrations, the propagation of electric signals along a telegraph wire, and the conduction of heat by the earth’s crust, as subjects in their generality intractable without it, is to give but a feeble idea of its importance.

Generality of points of view and of methods, precision and elegance in presentation, have become, since Lagrange, the common property of all who would lay claim to the rank of scientific mathematicians. And, even if this generality leads at times to abstruseness at the expense of intuition and applicability, so that general theorems are formulated which fail to apply to a single special case, if furthermore precision at times degenerates into a studied brevity which makes it more difficult to read an article than it was to write it; if, finally, elegance of form has well-nigh become in our day the criterion of the worth or worthlessness of a proposition,—yet are these conditions of the highest importance to a wholesome development, in that they keep the scientific material within the limits which are necessary both intrinsically and extrinsically if mathematics is not to spend itself in trivialities or smother in profusion.

Guided only by their feeling for symmetry, simplicity, and generality, and an indefinable sense of the fitness of things, creative mathematicians now, as in the past, are inspired by the art of mathematics rather than by any prospect of ultimate usefulness.

I believe that natural history has lost much by the vague general treatment that is so common.

In Euclid each proposition stands by itself; its connection with others is never indicated; the leading ideas contained in its proof are not stated; general principles do not exist. In modern methods, on the other hand, the greatest importance is attached to the leading thoughts which pervade the whole; and general principles, which bring whole groups of theorems under one aspect, are given rather than separate propositions. The whole tendency is toward generalization. A straight line is considered as given in its entirety, extending both ways to infinity, while Euclid is very careful never to admit anything but finite quantities. The treatment of the infinite is in fact another fundamental difference between the two methods. Euclid avoids it, in modern mathematics it is systematically introduced, for only thus is generality obtained.

In the expressions we adopt to prescribe physical phenomena we necessarily hover between two extremes. We either have to choose a word which implies more than we can prove, or we have to use vague and general terms which hide the essential point, instead of bringing it out. The history of electrical theories furnishes a good example.

It is told of Faraday that he refused to be called a

*physicist*; he very much disliked the new name as being too special and particular and insisted on the old one,*philosopher*, in all its spacious generality: we may suppose that this was his way of saying that he had not over-ridden the limiting conditions of class only to submit to the limitation of a profession.
Mathematics as an expression of the human mind reflects the active will, the contemplative reason, and the desire for aesthetic perfection. Its basic elements are logic and intuition, analysis and construction, generality and individuality. Though different traditions may emphasize different aspects, it is only the interplay of these antithetic forces and the struggle for their synthesis that constitute the life, usefulness, and supreme value of mathematical science.

Men in general are very slow to enter into what is reckoned a new thing; and there seems to be a very universal as well as great reluctance to undergo the drudgery of acquiring information that seems not to be

*absolutely*necessary.
Natural historians tend to avoid tendentious preaching in this philosophical mode (although I often fall victim to such temptations in these essays). Our favored style of doubting is empirical: if I wish to question your proposed generality, I will search for a counterexample in flesh and blood. Such counterexamples exist in abundance, for the form a staple in a standard genre of writing in natural history–the “wonderment of oddity” or “strange ways of the beaver” tradition.

One feature which will probably most impress the mathematician accustomed to the rapidity and directness secured by the generality of modern methods is the

*deliberation*with which Archimedes approaches the solution of any one of his main problems. Yet this very characteristic, with its incidental effects, is calculated to excite the more admiration because the method suggests the tactics of some great strategist who foresees everything, eliminates everything not immediately conducive to the execution of his plan, masters every position in its order, and then suddenly (when the very elaboration of the scheme has almost obscured, in the mind of the spectator, its ultimate object) strikes the final blow. Thus we read in Archimedes proposition after proposition the bearing of which is not immediately obvious but which we find infallibly used later on; and we are led by such easy stages that the difficulties of the original problem, as presented at the outset, are scarcely appreciated. As Plutarch says: “It is not possible to find in geometry more difficult and troublesome questions, or more simple and lucid explanations.” But it is decidedly a rhetorical exaggeration when Plutarch goes on to say that we are deceived by the easiness of the successive steps into the belief that anyone could have discovered them for himself. On the contrary, the studied simplicity and the perfect finish of the treatises involve at the same time an element of mystery. Though each step depends on the preceding ones, we are left in the dark as to how they were suggested to Archimedes. There is, in fact, much truth in a remark by Wallis to the effect that he seems “as it were of set purpose to have covered up the traces of his investigation as if he had grudged posterity the secret of his method of inquiry while he wished to extort from them assent to his results.” Wallis adds with equal reason that not only Archimedes but nearly all the ancients so hid away from posterity their method of Analysis (though it is certain that they had one) that more modern mathematicians found it easier to invent a new Analysis than to seek out the old.
Ordinarily logic is divided into the examination of ideas, judgments, arguments, and methods. The two latter are generally reduced to judgments, that is, arguments are reduced to apodictic judgments that such and such conclusions follow from such and such premises, and method is reduced to judgments that prescribe the procedure that should be followed in the search for truth.

Science deals with judgments on which it is possible to obtain universal agreement. These judgments do not concern individual facts and events, but the invariable association of facts and events known as the laws of science. Agreement is secured by observation and experiment—impartial courts of appeal to which all men must submit if they wish to survive. The laws are grouped and explained by theories of ever increasing generality. The theories at first are ex post facto—merely plausible interpretations of existing bodies of data. However, they frequently lead to predictions that can be tested by experiments and observations in new fields, and, if the interpretations are verified, the theories are accepted as working hypotheses until they prove untenable. The essential requirements are agreement on the subject matter and the verification of predictions. These features insure a body of positive knowledge that can be transmitted from person to person, and that accumulates from generation to generation.

The art of doing mathematics consists in finding that

*special*case which contains all the germs of*generality*.
The generality of men are so accustomed to judge of things by their senses that, because the air is indivisible, they ascribe but little to it, and think it but one remove from nothing.

The importance of a result is largely relative, is judged differently by different men, and changes with the times and circumstances. It has often happened that great importance has been attached to a problem merely on account of the difficulties which it presented; and indeed if for its solution it has been necessary to invent new methods, noteworthy artifices, etc., the science has gained more perhaps through these than through the final result. In general we may call important all investigations relating to things which in themselves are important; all those which have a large degree of generality, or which unite under a single point of view subjects apparently distinct, simplifying and elucidating them; all those which lead to results that promise to be the source of numerous consequences; etc.

The origin of a science is usually to be sought for not in any systematic treatise, but in the investigation and solution of some particular problem. This is especially the case in the ordinary history of the great improvements in any department of mathematical science. Some problem, mathematical or physical, is proposed, which is found to be insoluble by known methods. This condition of insolubility may arise from one of two causes: Either there exists no machinery powerful enough to effect the required reduction, or the workmen are not sufficiently expert to employ their tools in the performance of an entirely new piece of work. The problem proposed is, however, finally solved, and in its solution some new principle, or new application of old principles, is necessarily introduced. If a principle is brought to light it is soon found that in its application it is not necessarily limited to the particular question which occasioned its discovery, and it is then stated in an abstract form and applied to problems of gradually increasing generality.

Other principles, similar in their nature, are added, and the original principle itself receives such modifications and extensions as are from time to time deemed necessary. The same is true of new applications of old principles; the application is first thought to be merely confined to a particular problem, but it is soon recognized that this problem is but one, and generally a very simple one, out of a large class, to which the same process of investigation and solution are applicable. The result in both of these cases is the same. A time comes when these several problems, solutions, and principles are grouped together and found to produce an entirely new and consistent method; a nomenclature and uniform system of notation is adopted, and the principles of the new method become entitled to rank as a distinct science.

Other principles, similar in their nature, are added, and the original principle itself receives such modifications and extensions as are from time to time deemed necessary. The same is true of new applications of old principles; the application is first thought to be merely confined to a particular problem, but it is soon recognized that this problem is but one, and generally a very simple one, out of a large class, to which the same process of investigation and solution are applicable. The result in both of these cases is the same. A time comes when these several problems, solutions, and principles are grouped together and found to produce an entirely new and consistent method; a nomenclature and uniform system of notation is adopted, and the principles of the new method become entitled to rank as a distinct science.

The person who did most to give to analysis the generality and symmetry which are now its pride, was also the person who made mechanics analytical; I mean Euler.

The pursuit of pretty formulas and neat theorems can no doubt quickly degenerate into a silly vice, but so can the quest for austere generalities which are so very general indeed that they are incapable of application to any particular.

The traditional mathematics professor of the popular legend is absentminded. He usually appears in public with a lost umbrella in each hand. He prefers to face a blackboard and to turn his back on the class. He writes

“In order to solve this differential equation you look at it till a solution occurs to you.”

“This principle is so perfectly general that no particular application of it is possible.”

“Geometry is the science of correct reasoning on incorrect figures.”

“My method to overcome a difficulty is to go round it.”

“What is the difference between method and device? A method is a device which you used twice.”

*a*, he says*b*, he means*c*, but it should be*d*. Some of his sayings are handed down from generation to generation:“In order to solve this differential equation you look at it till a solution occurs to you.”

“This principle is so perfectly general that no particular application of it is possible.”

“Geometry is the science of correct reasoning on incorrect figures.”

“My method to overcome a difficulty is to go round it.”

“What is the difference between method and device? A method is a device which you used twice.”

The world is anxious to admire that apex and culmination of modern mathematics: a theorem so perfectly general that no particular application of it is feasible.

There is in every step of an arithmetical or algebraical calculation a real induction, a real inference from facts to facts, and what disguises the induction is simply its comprehensive nature, and the consequent extreme generality of its language.

These sciences, Geometry, Theoretical Arithmetic and Algebra, have no principles besides definitions and axioms, and no process of proof but deduction; this process, however, assuming a most remarkable character; and exhibiting a combination of simplicity and complexity, of rigour and generality, quite unparalleled in other subjects.

Time’s arrow of ‘just history’ marks each moment of time with a distinctive brand. But we cannot, in our quest to understand history, be satisfied only with a mark to recognize each moment and a guide to order events in temporal sequence. Uniqueness is the essence of history, but we also crave some underlying generality, some principles of order transcending the distinction of moments–lest we be driven mad by Borges’s vision of a new picture every two thousand pages in a book without end. We also need, in short, the immanence of time’s cycle.

To ask what qualities distinguish good from routine scientific research is to address a question that should be of central concern to every scientist. We can make the question more tractable by rephrasing it, “What attributes are shared by the scientific works which have contributed importantly to our understanding of the physical world—in this case the world of living things?” Two of the most widely accepted characteristics of good scientific work are generality of application and originality of conception. . These qualities are easy to point out in the works of others and, of course extremely difficult to achieve in one’s own research. At first hearing novelty and generality appear to be mutually exclusive, but they really are not. They just have different frames of reference. Novelty has a human frame of reference; generality has a biological frame of reference. Consider, for example, Darwinian Natural Selection. It offers a mechanism so widely applicable as to be almost coexistent with reproduction, so universal as to be almost axiomatic, and so innovative that it shook, and continues to shake, man’s perception of causality.

Whatever be the detail with which you cram your student, the chance of his meeting in after life exactly that detail is almost infinitesimal; and if he does meet it, he will probably have forgotten what you taught him about it. The really useful training yields a comprehension of a few general principles with a thorough grounding in the way they apply to a variety of concrete details. In subsequent practice the men will have forgotten your particular details; but they will remember by an unconscious common sense how to apply principles to immediate circumstances. Your learning is useless to you till you have lost your textbooks, burnt your lecture notes, and forgotten the minutiae which you learned by heart for the examination. What, in the way of detail, you continually require will stick in your memory as obvious facts like the sun and the moon; and what you casually require can be looked up in any work of reference. The function of a University is to enable you to shed details in favor of principles. When I speak of principles I am hardly even thinking of verbal formulations. A principle which has thoroughly soaked into you is rather a mental habit than a formal statement. It becomes the way the mind reacts to the appropriate stimulus in the form of illustrative circumstances. Nobody goes about with his knowledge clearly and consciously before him. Mental cultivation is nothing else than the satisfactory way in which the mind will function when it is poked up into activity.

When we have amassed a great store of such

*general facts*, they become the objects of another and higher species of classification, and are themselves included in laws which, as they dispose of groups, not individuals have a far superior degree of generality, till at length, by continuing the process, we arrive at*axioms*of the highest degree of generality of which science is capable. This process is what we mean by induction.