Volume 3: 1771 Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica!


Mathematics, originally signified any discipline or learning; but, at present, denotes that science which teaches, or contemplates, whatever is capable of being numbered or measured, in so far as computable or measurable; and accordingly is subdivided into Arithmetic, which has numbers for its object, and Geometry, which treats of magnitude. See ARITHMETICK and GEOMETRY.

Mathematics are commonly distinguished into pure and speculative, which consider quantity abstractedly; and mixed, which treat of magnitude as subsisting in material bodies, and consequently are interwoven every where with physical considerations.

Mixed mathematics are very comprehensive; since to them may be referred Astronomy, Optics, Geography, Hydrostatics, Mechanics, Fortification, Navigation, etc. See the articles ASTRONOMY, OPTICS, ETC.

Pure mathematics have one peculiar advantage, that they occasion no disputes among wrangling disputants, as in other branches of knowledge; and the reason is, because the definitions of the terms are premised, and every body that reads a proposition has the same idea of every part of it. Hence it is easy to put an end to all mathematical controversies, by shewing, either that our adversary has not stuck to his definitions, or has not laid down true premisses, or else that he has drawn false conclusions from true principles; and in case we are able to do neither of these, we must acknowledge the truth of what he has proved.

It is true that in mixed mathematics, where we reason mathematically upon physical subjects, we cannot give such just definitions as the geometricians: we must therefore rest content with descriptions; and they will be of the same use as definitions, provided we are consistent with ourselves, and always mean the same thing by those terms we have once explained.

Dr. Barrow gives a most elegant description of the excellence and usefulness of mathematical knowledge, in his inaugural oration, upon being appointed professor of mathematics at Cambridge.

The mathematics, he observes, effectually exercise, not vainly delude, nor vexatiously torment, studious minds with obscure subtilties; but plainly demonstrate every thing within their reach, draw certain conclusions, instruct by profitable rules, and unfold pleasant questions. These disciplines likewise ensure and corroborate the mind to a constant diligence in study; they wholly deliver us from a credulous simplicity, most strongly fortify us against the vanity of scepticism, effectually restrain us from a rash presumption, most easily incline us to a due assent, perfectly subject us to the government of right reason. While the mind is abstracted and elevated from sensible matter, distinctly views pure forms, conceives the beauty of ideas, and investigates the harmony of proportions; the manners themselves are sensibly corrected and improved, the affections composed and rectified, the fancy calmed and settled, and the understanding raised and excited to more divine contemplations.

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