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The first of Lautman’s two theses (On the unity of the mathematical sciences) takes as its starting point a distinction that Hermann Weyl made on group theory and quantum mechanics. Weyl distinguished between ‘classical’ mathematics, which found its highest flowering in the theory of functions of complex variables, and the ‘new’ mathematics represented by (for example) the theory of groups and abstract algebras, set theory and topology. For Lautman, the ‘classical’ mathematics of Weyl’s distinction is essentially analysis, that is, the mathematics that depends on some variable tending towards zero: convergent series, limits, continuity, differentiation and integration. It is the mathematics of arbitrarily small neighbourhoods, and it reached maturity in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the ‘new’ mathematics of Weyl’s distinction is ‘global’; it studies the structures of ‘wholes’. Algebraic topology, for example, considers the properties of an entire surface rather than aggregations of neighbourhoods. Lautman re-draws the distinction:
In contrast to the analysis of the continuous and the infinite, algebraic structures clearly have a finite and discontinuous aspect. Though the elements of a group, field or algebra (in the restricted sense of the word) may be infinite, the methods of modern algebra usually consist in dividing these elements into equivalence classes, the number of which is, in most applications, finite.
In his other major thesis, (Essay on the notions of structure and existence in mathematics), Lautman gives his dialectical thought a more philosophical and polemical expression. His thesis is composed of ‘structural schemas’ and ‘origination schemas’ The three structural schemas are: local/global, intrinsic properties/induced properties and the ‘ascent to the absolute’. The first two of these three schemas close to Lautman’s ‘unity’ thesis. The ‘ascent to the absolute’ is a different sort of pattern; it involves a progress from mathematical objects that are in some sense ‘imperfect’, towards an object that is ‘perfect’ or ‘absolute’. His two mathematical examples of this ‘ascent’ are: class field theory, which ‘ascends’ towards the absolute class field, and the covering surfaces of a given surface, which ‘ascend’ towards a simply-connected universal covering surface. In each case, there is a corresponding sequence of nested subgroups, which induces a ‘stepladder’ structure on the ‘ascent’. This dialectical pattern is rather different to the others. The earlier examples were of pairs of notions (finite/infinite, local/global, etc.) and neither member of any pair was inferior to the other. Lautman argues that on some occasions, finite mathematics offers insight into infinite mathematics. In mathematics, the finite is not a somehow imperfect version of the infinite. Similarly, the ‘local’ mathematics of analysis may depend for its foundations on ‘global’ topology, but the former is not a botched or somehow inadequate version of the latter. Lautman introduces the section on the ‘ascent to the absolute’ by rehearsing Descartes’s argument that his own imperfections lead him to recognise the existence of a perfect being (God). Man (for Descartes) is not the dialectical opposite of or alternative to God; rather, man is an imperfect image of his creator. In a similar movement of thought, according to Lautman, reflection on ‘imperfect’ class fields and covering surfaces leads mathematicians up to ‘perfect’, ‘absolute’ class fields and covering surfaces respectively.