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A Brief History of Infinity Hardcover – 26 Feb 2004


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There is one concept that corrupts and confuses the others. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Zellini Thoughtfully Distills the Wisdom of Philosophers, Theologians, and Mathematicians 28 Jan. 2006
By Michael Wischmeyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
A Brief History of Infinity is a serious, in depth study of man's evolving concept of infinity. Paolo Zellini's thoughtfully examines and distills the ideas of philosophers, theologians, writers, and mathematicians.

Zellini's terse style requires close attention and I found it necessary to reread many sections. Zellini begins with Aristotle's negative notion of infinity (apeiron) as an incomplete and unrealized potentiality, and demonstrates that Aristotle view largely explains the inability (or refusal) of Greek mathematicians to introduce a concept of an actual, or real infinity.

The inexhaustibility of the unlimited and the impossibility of finding an absolute minimum or maximum became focal points of discussion in Oxford and Paris in the fourteenth century. Discourse on these topics remained important in the Renaissance, continued with Leibniz and Newton, and culminated in the nineteenth century with Cauchy's and Weierstrass' definitive formulation of infinitesimal calculus.

Having less familiarity with philosophy, I found it profitable to skip for a short period to later chapters that more directly addressed mathematical infinity, a topic of especial interest to me. These chapter included The Principle of Indiscernibles - Classes; The Actual Infinite - Indefinite and Transfinite; and The Antinomies, or Paradoxes of Set Theory.

Paolo Zellini's sources are wide ranging, almost intimidatingly so. We readers encounter the philosophical thoughts of the Platonists, Aristotle, the Pythagoreans, Anaximander, the Chaldeans, Duns Scotus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Giordano Bruno, Nicholas of Cusa, Raymond Lull, Descartes, Leibniz, Goethe, Kant, Hegel, Russell, Simone Weil, Quine, Popper, Wittgenstein, and many others. Similarly, on the literary front we meet Cervantes, Kafka, Borges, Musil, and others.

Mathematicians are prominent also. Zellini discusses the provocative ideas of Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Dedekind, Poincare, Cauchy, Weierstrass, Bolzano, Frege, Du Bois-Raymond, Cantor, Russell, Whitehead, Godel, Von Neumann, Zermelo, Skolem, Brouwer, and many others.

In the end Paolo Zellini's analysis leans away from Cantor's actual mathematical infinity and toward a potential infinity, somewhat in accordance with Brouwer's finite constructive methods (intuitionism).

Key Idea: I was intrigued with Hermann Weyl's conciliatory observation: the infinite is intuitively accessible as an indefinitely open field of possibility, and in this respect would seem analogous to a series of numbers that can be extended unlimitedly. Yet completeness, the so-called actual infinite, lies beyond our reach. Nonetheless, the demands for a totality impel the mind to imagine the infinite, using some symbolic construction, as a closed entity. Hence, the primary philosophical interest of mathematics should consist in attaining a fundamental understanding of these symbolic constructions.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
More a "tour de force" than a book to learn from 3 Oct. 2005
By Fatmi Ben Ayed - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book tells the history of infinity and the ways it was dealt with by thinkers of different times and cultures.

The subjects touched upon by this (relatively short) book extends overs an astonishingly wide range: philosophy, medieval theology, mathematics, logic, litterature

But although it is well written and in an engaging style, it is certainly no light reading

My main critic is that it is too elliptic: many items are introduced matter-of-factly without an attempt to an expository introduction. To a person not acquainted with the domain these remain just words without meaning.

For instance, what is the "axiom of choice" or Cantor's "transfinite" or a "monadology"? These words just appear "out of the blue". This book expects its reader to be familiar with philosophy (from Aristotle to Leibniz), medieaval theology ( A third of the book), modern mathematics and logic and what else; do you know anybody who is, except the author?

To sum it up, I didn't understand 60% of this book although I must say it awoke my curiosity about all those subjects (esp a writer named Musil who is often mentionned)
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