Square root of two as an irrational number

Square root of two as an irrational number
by Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB
edited by Mr. Michael Hernandez MA

When Lonergan discusses inverse insight in the first chapter of his Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, he presents a mathematical example to illustrate the nature of inverse insight as an act of understanding which realizes that an expected, desired intelligibility is not to be reasonably nor rationally expected. (1) In some situations, in some inquiries, to anticipate in the type of intelligibility sought is to perdure in “barking up the wrong tree” and to waste time by asking irrelevant questions. However, since Lonergan’s example pains readers who have never acquired any easy familiarity with mathematics and who have lost what familiarity they once had, this paper will parse out the discussion in ways which should help. Let us begin.

Lonergan’s argument consists of the following sequence of numbered propositions:

Proposition 1: The square root of 2 is some magnitude greater than unity and less than two

Proposition 2: One would expect it to be some improper fraction, say m/n, where m/n are positive integers and by the removal of all common factors m may always be made prime to n.

Proposition 3: If this expectation correct, then the diagonal and the side of a square would be respectively m times and n times some common unit of length.

Proposition 4: So far from being correct, the expectation leads to a contradiction.

Proposition 5: If sqrt(2) = m/n, then 2 = m2/n2

Proposition 6: But, if m is prime to n, then m2 is prime to n2

Proposition 7: In that case, m2/n2 cannot be equal to two or, indeed, to any greater integer

Proposition 8: The argument is easily generalized, and so it appears that a surd is a surd because it is not the rational fraction that intelligence anticipates it to be

To understand the controversy about the square root of 2, let us look briefly at the historical origins of the problem.

First, with respect to numbers, the square root of 2 is some sort of number. Numbers fall into different types or species since the square root of a number is unlike the number whose square root is sought. Numbers rank as human inventions since they do not exist as purely natural entities apprehended by sense. They were invented as the human need for them arose. (2) Different needs, as they emerged, formed new types of numbers. Hence, the first type of numbers invented were the counting numbers, sometimes cited as natural numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…. (3) They arose as correlatives to designate quantities: how many of this or how many of that. For example, “3” identifies three sheep or three fish. The sequence of counting numbers is potentially infinite since the human mind can keep adding units of 1 to form an ever greater number. Subsets are similarly infinite in their sequences. The odd numbers, as in 1, 3, 5, 7…, are infinite as are the even numbers, 2, 4, 6, 8…. On a straight line, in one vector, each natural number can be represented by one point on a line ad infinitum. (4)

A second species of number emerges in whole numbers when counting proceeds in reverse: toward and beyond 1. Nought or zero emerges as a number to signify the absence of some item. The creation of this numerical designation signifies an “empty set” as in “the number of Eskimos living in our house is 0.” (5) The inclusion of 0 with the counting numbers thus creates a larger system of numbers than the old quantitative counting numbers. Enumeration now begins from 0 which can also be represented by a point on a line.

A third, more comprehensive set of numbers emerges when the reverse counting which had led to 0 continues backwards to include numbers that are now less than zero. The result is a potentially infinite set of negative whole numbers. When these numbers are then added to the numbers that have already been generated by counting from zero upwards (the positive whole numbers), the result is a set of numbers known as integers. An integer is defined as a positive or negative whole number as in 0, ±1, ±2, ±3, ±4 . . . (6) The negative and positive signs indicate direction: all these numbers are directed. On a number line, the negative numbers go to the left of 0 while the positive go to the right. Each number has a point.

Rational numbers deriving from a ratio or fraction of integers or whole numbers emerged when it became necessary to specify measurements which are parts of a number. How does one express a length which is between 4 and 3 meters or 4 and 3 cubits? Is a loaf of bread, equally divided among 5 persons, divided in a way where each piece has a numeric value of 1/5? Does the addition of 1 piece to another not result in a union with a numeric value of 2/5? A number designating parts thus consists of parts in its makeup. There are two halves: a numerator above a line and denominator beneath. (7) The denominator indicates how many intervals exist between two possible whole numbers while the numerator indicates how many of these intervals are pertinent in a given measurement. The denominator cannot be 0 since, otherwise, one would be indicating that no intervals or parts exist between two numbers. Why specify numerators for portions or parts that do not exist? A rational number is commensurate with given lengths that are being measured. A number which includes a fraction can be assigned a point on a line. The position is determinate.

In the 5th Century B.C., the Pythagoreans initially assumed that numbers measuring the sides of a triangle are rational where each number can be expressed as the ratio or quotient of two integers (or two whole numbers). (8) Divisors (or denominators) exactly divide into numerators as in ½, 1/10, and 1/100: a half (or .5), a tenth (or .10), and a hundredth (or .100). A ratio as the quotient of two numbers or quantities indicates relative sizes. (9) The ratio of one number to another is expressed in terms of a/b or a:b. It was assumed that a one-to-one correspondence joins straight-line segments of length with rational (whole) numbers. (10) In attempting to measure the diagonal of a square by taking a small part of one side as the measuring unit, one should be able to fit the measuring unit a fixed number of times within both the side and the diagonal. (11) All lengths are measurable and commensurate in terms of rational (whole) numbers. Two quantities are commensurable if their designating numbers are multiples: both numbers arise as products of common factors (a factor being a number that divides a given number exactly or completely (12)). For instance, 16 and 12 are commensurable since both exist essentially as multiples of 1, 2, or 4: each exactly divides into 16 and 12 and no other number exactly divides 16 and 12. By multiplying one or more of these numbers together, one arrives at numbers 16 and 12 (in conjunction with other possible numbers that are also commensurable). Similarly, 3 feet and 2 inches designate commensurable quantities since 3 feet contains 2 inches an exact or integral number of times. (13) Hence, according to Pythagorean assumptions and expectations, the length of a square’s diagonal whose side is represented by a rational number should be represented by another rational number.

On the basis of this belief in rational numbers and the corresponding commensurability of lengths, according to the Pythagoreans, “numbers are things” and “things are numbers.” All things are numerable in terms of whole numbers and their properties. (14) A cosmic harmony exists in the universe given the interrelation of things based on whole numbers where the relation between two related things can be expressed according to a numerical proportion or ratio. For example, in music, ratios of concord exist between musical sounds (pitch) and whole numbers since by halving the length of a string on a lyre, one can produce one note one octave higher. All harmonies can be represented by ratios of whole numbers and, by extending this principle to all things, through geometry one can explore the configurations of perfect solids in the belief that all lengths are measurable in terms of rational whole numbers.

A crisis emerged for the Pythagoreans when, possibly prior to 410 B.C., they realized that some numbers, though real (as existing), class as irrational because they cannot be written as whole numbers, as integers or as quotients of two integers. (15) No assignable point of a line can be given them. Some numbers do not exist thus as whole numbers as can be seen through a deduction from Pythagoras’ Theorem in geometry which describes the relation between the lengths of the sides of a right-angled triangle in the following terms:

In a right-angled triangle, the square on the hypotenuse [the side of right-angled triangle opposite the right angle] is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. (16)

Thus, if the hypotenuse has a length c and the other two sides, lengths a and b, then c2 = a2 + b2. Now, if, in a square, the side length constitutes 1 unit, then

c2 = 1 + 1


c2 = 2


c = sqrt(2)

The diagonal is 2 units in length. (17) This number obviously designates some magnitude greater than 1 or unity but less than two where, initially, one naturally assumes that this number is an improper fraction expressing a whole number (an improper fraction being defined as a fraction whose numerator exceeds its denominator as in 4/3 versus 3/4, designating a proper fraction (18)). (19) However, if the square root of 2 cannot be expressed as a whole number, its irrationality in terms of whole number properties creates major problems given expectations which assume the adequacy of whole numbers. After all, conversely, if only rational numbers exist, the hypotenuse of every right-angled triangle will have a length that cannot be measured by any whole number. (20) It is incommensurable, non-measurable: in the relation between the diagonal d and an adjoining side s, d cannot be divided by any unit common to s an integral number of times. In trying to effect any measurements, the Greeks found that however small or large would be their measuring unit, it failed to fit within both the diagonal and the adjoining side a fixed number of times. (21) A measuring unit that would fit the adjoining side a fixed number of times would not fit the length of the diagonal. It was either too short or too long. Proofs demonstrating the irrationality of 2 came in a number of varieties.

Aristotle refers to a proof on the incommensurableness of a square’s diagonal with respect to a side that is based on the distinction between odd and even, an odd number being an integer that is not divisible by 2 while an even number is divisible by 2. (22) To understand how this argument works, a digression on prime numbers introduces the discussion.

A prime number is a whole number with exactly two whole-number divisors, itself and 1. Some primes are

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, . . . , 101, . . . , 1093

Prime numbers are the building blocks of other whole numbers. For example,

18 = 233 40 = 2225 105 = 357

This type of factorization is possible for all nonprime whole numbers greater than 1 and it illustrates the fundamental theorem in arithmetic known as the Unique Factorization Theorem (23) which says, as follows, about the prime decomposition of a whole number:

Any nonprime whole number (greater than one) can be written as the product of a unique set of prime numbers. (24)

Every prime integer shares the important property that if it divides a product of two integers, then it must divide at least one of the factors (prime numbers being only divisible either by themselves or by 1). This theorem is important in many parts of mathematics. In one simple consequence, when the square of any whole number is written as a product of primes, each prime occurs as a factor an even number of times. For example:

(18)2 = 1818 = 233233 = 223333

two 2’s four 3’s

(40)2 = 4040 = 22252225 = 22222255

six 2’s two 5’s

(105)2 = 105105 = 357357 = 335577

two 3’s two 5’s two 7’s

To prove that the square root of 2 is irrational, let us suppose that 2 is a rational number; that is, suppose that 2 = m/n, where m and n are whole numbers (necessarily greater than 1). Then:

2 = m2/n2

and so

2n2 = m2

Now, imagine that both n and m are written as products of primes where, for instance (using algebraic notation), n = xy while m = zpt. But, as previously noticed, both n2 and m2 must then have either an even number of 2’s or no 2’s. But, in the above equation, the prime 2 appears on the left an odd number of times either once (if n2 has no 2’s) or more than once (if n2 has an even number of 2’s) but, on the right, the prime 2 appears either an even number of times or no times. This is clearly impossible since, given the nature of primes, m2 equates with a number or produces a number that has either an even number of 2’s or no 2’s. A contradiction obtains despite the equals sign. Therefore, what can be wrong? The only thing that can be wrong is our supposition that 2 is a rational number. If this proof is applied to other primes in terms of square roots for 3, 5, 7, . . ., the same dilemma results. (25) Odd clashes with even to demonstrate the irrationality of these numbers. Hence, could all numbers be the kind of numbers that the Pythagoreans had postulated? Are they all rational?

In Boyer’s version of the mathematical proof demonstrating the incommensurableness of the square root of 2 through the contrast between even and odd, he argues as follows: (26)

1. Let d and s respectively signify the diagonal and side of a square and let us assume that they are commensurable: the ratio d/s is rational and equal to p/q, where p and q are integers with no common factors.

2. given the Pythagorean theorem d2 = s2 + s2 reconfigured as d2/s2 = 2 (since d2 = 2s2), if the ratio d/s = p/q (p and q being integers with no common factor), then (d/s)2 = p2/q2 = 2 or p2 = 2q2

3. therefore, p2 must be even since its equivalent 2q2 is divisible by 2 (which corresponds to the definition of an even number as a number divisible by 2).

4. hence, if p2 is even, p is even since p2 when decomposed into constituent prime numbers necessarily includes at least two instances of 2 as both a prime number and a factor, and the presence of 2 in p makes p an even number since it is divisible by 2 (which again corresponds to the definition of an even number).

5. as a result, q must be odd (not divisible by 2) since, according to conditions stated in aforementioned proposition 2, q is an integer with no factors common to p and so it cannot have 2 as a constituent prime factor.

However, letting p = 2r and substituting in the equation p2 = 2q2 with, hence, the result that 4r2 = 2q2, 4r2 = 2q2 as reconfigured becomes q2 = 2r2. Then q2 must be even; hence q must be even (according to the argumentation which had explained why formerly p2 and p must both be even). However, a contradiction follows if one argues that q is both odd and even. No integer can be both odd and even. As a consequence, it thus follows that the numerical relation between d and s is incommensurable. (27) The result is not a definitive whole number.

A third but second species of proof relying on a study and understanding of prime numbers demonstrates the absence of an anticipated whole number by adverting to the relation between d and s. If, indeed, d (a whole number) is decomposed into constituent prime numbers and s (a second whole number) is similarly decomposed, and if no factor is common between them, the improper fraction d/s can never be resolved into a whole number since, in every case, the denominator does not perfectly divide into the numerator to produce an anticipated, desired whole number. The result is always some sort of fraction which, by definition, is not an integer, a whole number.

A geometrical proof that evidences the existence of irrational numbers in general, and not 2 specifically, designates a third species of proof. (28) Its lesser abstractness suggests earlier origins predating the construction of later proofs using other types of arguments. When examining the sides and diagonals of a regular pentagon (defined as a five-sided polygon with all the sides possessing equal length) and the respective relations between s and d, if the diagonals of this pentagon are all drawn, they form a smaller regular pentagon whose diagonals can also be drawn to form a smaller regular pentagon ad infinitum. Hence, pictorially, the relation or ratio of a diagonal to a side in a regular pentagon is indeterminate because it is indefinite. It is irrational. Similarly, if a straight line is divided into two parts and one part is divided into two smaller parts, it will be possible to keep dividing lengths indefinitely. (29) No determinate end is reached. Our expectations meet with frustration as our inquiry encounters mysteries that occasion questions about the adequacy of our intelligible anticipations. What is to-be-known cannot be known too easily or simply.

1. Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, eds. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran 5th ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 45-6.

2. Leslie Foster, Rainbow Mathematics Encyclopedia (London: Grisewood & Dempsey Ltd., 1985), p. 43.

3. Foster, p. 43.

4. Foster, p. 43.

5. Foster, p. 43.

6. 6The Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics, 1989 ed. S.v. “integer.”

7. Foster, p. 44.

8. 8E. T. Bell, The Development of Mathematics (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992), p. 61.

9. 9The Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics, 1989 ed. S.v. “ratio.”

10. 10Bell, p. 61.

11. Joseph Flanagan, Quest for Self-Knowledge (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), p. 33.

12. The Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics, 1989 ed. S.v. “factor.”

13. The Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics, 1989 ed. S.v. “commensurable.”

14. Carl B. Boyer, A History of Mathematics, 2nd ed. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1989), p. 72; Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, volume 1: Greece & Rome part 1 (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1962), pp. 49-50; A Concise Oxford Dictionary of Mathematics, 1991 ed., s.v. “Pythagoras,” by Christopher Clapham.

15. The Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics, 1989 ed., s.v. “irrational number.”

16. A Concise Oxford Dictionary of Mathematics, 1991 ed., s.v. “Pythagoras’ Theorem,” by Christopher Clapham.

17. Bell, p. 61.

18. 18Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics, 1989 ed., s.v. “improper fraction.”

19. 19Lonergan, Insight, p. 45.

20. 20Euclid quoted by Walter Fleming and Dale Varberg, College Algebra: A Problem-Solving Approach (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, n.d.), p. 16.

21. Flanagan, p. 33.

22. 22Boyer, p. 72; Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics, 1989 ed., s.v. “odd number,” and “even number.”

23. Clapham, p. 187.

24. Fleming and Varberg, p. 16.

25. Fleming and Varberg, p. 17.

26. Boyer, pp. 72-3.

27. Boyer, p. 73.

28. Boyer, p. 73.

29. Boyer, p. 51.

Higher Viewpoints: Part One, from arithmetic to algebra, the transition

This is a repost of a 1997 essay written for a seminar on Insight.

Higher Viewpoints: Part One

From Arithmetic to Algebra: the transition

by David Fleischacker
Draft Version 1

Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved

(This is a reflective commentary on one facet of sections 1 – 3 of chapter one in Insight.)


I. The Viewpoint of Arithmetic:

In Insight, Lonergan builds to the notion of a higher viewpoint after he has developed an understanding of clues, insight, concepts, questions, images, and definitions. A viewpoint is not merely a definition, but a set of systematically related definitions (and of the operations that underpin both the definitions and their systematic relations). It is not a single definition. Defining a circle, for example, is not a viewpoint, but it does arise out of a geometrical viewpoint, and contributes to it. The same is true of the distributive or commutative properties of algebra, or the power rule of calculus. They do not constitute an entire viewpoint, but they are components.

Lonergan illustrates lower and higher viewpoints with arithmetic and algebra. A mathematical viewpoint is constituted by rules, operations, and symbols (or numbers). The rules implicitly define the operations, and the operations implicitly define the symbols. What does he mean by this?


A. The Deductive Expansion of Arithmetic (the first horizontal development in mathematics):

Lonergan begins with arithmetic, more specifically with addition. One may count sheep or goats or troops in an army or persons inhabiting a town. The counting involves the operation of addition– one plus one plus one, and so forth. It is an activity relating quantities and defining them in terms of each other. The basic unit of this quantity can be symbolized, let us say with a “1” or “I”. Other symbols can be used to represent what one is doing when adding, such as “+” or “plus.”

Any number of symbols can be invented to represent operations (addition, subtraction, etc..) and numbers (some of which, Lonergan notes, are better conducive to the future development of mathematics than others because of their potential for leading to further insights). In order to simplify the ongoing definitions of numbers most cultures that developed mathematics introduced repeating schemes. Some introduced repetitions based on 30 or 60 (think of our clocks and watches). Our present system is based on repetitions of 10, so we developed a symbol for zero through nine, and then, once ten is reached, we add a place to the left indicating the number of “tens.” Then once the tens reaches beyond the ninth position, we add the hundreds, then thousands, and so on (Computers, you may have heard, are based on a binary, with ones and zeros).

From adding numbers we can develop, as Lonergan notes, a definition of the positive integers.


1 + 1 = 2
2 + 1 = 3
3 + 1 = 4
etc., etc., etc..

Once the insight is gained, or in other words, when one understands what is meant by “etc., etc., etc.” then one can continue to indefinitely define any positive number. From this, one can create an entire deductive expansion of a viewpoint or horizon in arithmetic, and continue indefinitely to define the whole range of positive integers. One can also construct mathematical tables using 2s, 3s, 4s, etc..

2 + 2 = 4
4 + 2 = 6
6 + 2 = 8
Etc., etc., etc.. (“2” is added in a repeating fashion)

3 + 3 = 6
6 + 3 = 9
9 + 3 = 12
Etc., etc., etc.. (“3” is added in a repeating fashion)

4 + 4 = 8
8 + 4 = 12
12 + 4 = 16
Etc., etc., etc.. (“4” is added in a repeating fashion)



ETC., ETC., ETC. (For the entire process above)

Notice how all of the numbers are defined in terms of the operation of addition. It is the basic insight that grounds this operation which allows for the construction of an entire deductive expansion which creates a “world” or viewpoint, even if rather limited. It is a first, horizontal development of a horizon in mathematics.


B. The Homogeneous Expansion (the second horizontal development in mathematics)

One can become more creative, and begin to add a number to itself say three or four or five times.


1 + 1 + 1 = 3
1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 4
2 + 2 + 2 = 6
3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 12
Etc., etc., etc..


And, instead of writing this with three 1’s or four 1’s or three 2’s or four 3’s, shorthand notation can be developed.

1 x 3 = 3
1 x 4 = 4
2 x 3 = 6
3 x 4 = 12

So, one introduces a different symbol, namely an “x” to indicate the number of times one is added to itself. Notice how this new symbol is still defined in terms of the old operation of addition. It means “adding” a number to itself so many times.

Creativity does not have to stop. If we can add one to another, then what happens if we take something away. We had three sheep, sold one, and now are left with two. This is the opposite of addition, and we can give it the symbolization of “-“(1) and call it subtraction. Again, one can develop charts of subtraction, just as with addition and multiplication. Likewise, just as one can reverse addition by removing something, so one can reverse multiplication by removing a number so many number of times. So, just as one can add 2 to itself four times to get 8, so one can remove 2 from 8 four times. This of course, is division.

Creatively constructing a viewpoint by introducing new symbols such as subtraction, multiplication and division, is what Lonergan calls a homogenous expansion. One has introduced new symbols relating numbers, but notice how everything is still thought of in terms of addition. Subtraction is the reverse of addition. Multiplication is the addition of a number to itself so many number of times. Division is the reverse of that. And if one wishes to add powers and roots, they likewise can be defined in terms of addition. A power is the multiplication of number by itself so many number of times.  Thus to define this in terms of addition, let the number that is powered equal y, and the power equal z.    Thus, the answer is defined as the number, y,  which has been added to itself y number of times, thus forming a group, a group which in turn is added to itself again y number of times, and repeating this formation of groups  z-1 number of times. This can be illustrated with 3 to the power of 4.  3 to the power of 4 is the same as 3 x 3 x 3 x 3.  The first group arises by converting 3 x 3 into 3 + 3 + 3. This group is then added to itself 3 times in order to get the equivalent of 3 x 3 x 3.  This results in a second group that can be written as [(3 + 3 + 3) + (3 + 3 + 3) + (3 + 3 + 3)].  Finally, take this second group and add it three times to itself.  The final answer comprises this third group, which can be written as

[(3+3+3) + (3+3+3) + (3+3+3)] + [(3+3+3) + (3+3+3) + (3+3+3)] + [(3+3+3) + (3+3+3) + (3+3+3)] = 81

A “root” is the reverse of this procedure. So, the 4th root of 81 requires breaking down the 81 into three groups, where the basic group, which when discussing powers was called the first group, is comprised of a number that has been added to itself its own number of times.  This number is the answer. So, even powers and roots can be thought of in terms of addition.

II. Algebra: The Higher Viewpoint ( a vertical expansion in mathematics)

The homogeneous expansion of arithmetic has not introduced any new rules. One can define each of the new operations in terms of addition (or the reverse of addition). New rules are only introduced when one starts “observing” patterns in arithmetic, and doing this initiates algebra (Lonergan notes that the image which leads to algebra is the doing of arithmetic). What does this mean? Lonergan notes that this “turn of question” that lead to the discovery of patterns in arithmetic occurred because of questions such as;

What happens when one subtracts more than one had?
Or what happens when division leads to fractions?
Or roots to surds?

Each of these refers to various problems that emerge in the homogenous expansion. Their answer lies in grasping patterns. Questions emerge which ask, what, in general, happens when one subtracts numbers, or adds numbers, or divides numbers, or adds powered numbers, etc.? Today, these initial patterns are given such names as commutative, distributive, and associative properties. Let us illustrate these laws.

A simple pattern is adding a number to zero.

1 + 0 = 1
2 + 0 = 2
3 + 0 = 3
4 + 0 = 4
5 + 0 = 5
6 + 0 = 6
etc., etc., etc..

The etc., etc., etc., again is introduced to gain the insight. A number added to zero results in an answer that is that number. This can be symbolized by creating a symbol that represents a number (or in other words, a variable).  Let that symbol be “A.” Below is the formulation of this pattern,

A + 0 = A

Another example is the multiplication of a number by 1.

1 x 1 = 1
2 x 1 = 2
3 x 1 = 3
4 x 1 = 4
5 x 1 = 5
etc., etc., etc..

If one recognizes the pattern, then one notices that a number multiplied by one, gives the number. Hence, this insight can be symbolized.

A x 1 = A

The same is true with the various laws or properties (as they are actually called) mentioned earlier. The commutative property of addition states that A + B = B + A. The commutative property of multiplication states that A x B = B x A. The associative property states that (A + B) + C = A + (B + C). The parenthesis means add these numbers first. The associative property of multiplication states that (A x B) x C = A x (B x C). As an exercise right now, try expressing these patterns using actual numbers and the “etc., etc., etc.” as I did above.

You can practice this further by opening any algebraic text, and examining the numerous rules about addition, multiplication, division, powers, roots, addition of powers, multiplication of powers, multiplication of roots, and the inverses of each of these formulas (subtraction of powers and roots, division of powers and roots, etc..)

Notice how one is understanding the operations in a manner beyond that of addition. One begins to grasp, for example, that multiplying two negatives leads to a positive, that dividing a negative into a negative also leads to a positive and many other characteristics. These recognized patterns then begin to form new rules, which constitute the higher viewpoint called algebra. These rules guide one in solving problems, since they implicitly define how one is to carry out operations and define the new symbols of A’s, B’s, and C’s, which represent variable numbers (this will be discussed with more precision and examples in a later commentary). The rules constitute a vertical expansion of the mathematical horizon.

Like arithmetic, algebra also has a deductive and homogeneous expansion, or, at least something analogous. This is for a later section.


David Fleischacker

Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved

1. For a history of mathematics that discusses these symbols, see a book that is frequently recommended in Lonergan circles, Carl Boyer, A History of Mathematics (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1991).