Colin Maclaurin's A Treatise of Fluxions - Introduction

In 1742 Colin Maclaurin published the two volume work A Treatise of Fluxions. Below is a version of the beginning of his Introduction to this work. However, we have followed the style of the Second Edition published in 1801 in which, although the text of the Introduction is the same as that of the 1742 edition, the punctuation and use of capital letters is quite different:


Geometry is valued for its extensive usefulness, but has been most admired for its evidence; mathematical demonstration being such as has been always supposed to put an end to dispute, leaving no place for doubt or cavil. It acquired this character by the great care of the old writers, who admitted no principles but a few self-evident truths, and no demonstrations but such as were accurately deduced from them. The science being now vastly enlarged, and applied with success to philosophy and the arts, it is of greater importance than ever that its evidence be preserved perfect. But it has been objected on several occasions, that the modem improvements have been established for the most part upon new and exceptionable maxims, of too abstruse a nature to deserve a place amongst the plain principles of the ancient geometry: and some have proceeded so far as to impute false reasoning to those authors who have contributed most to the late discoveries, and have at the same time been most cautious in their manner of describing them.

In the method of indivisibles, lines were conceived to be made up of points, surfaces of lines, and solids of surfaces; and such suppositions have been employed by several ingenious men for proving the old theorems, and discovering new ones in a brief and easy manner. But as this doctrine was inconsistent with the strict principles of geometry, so it soon appeared that there was some danger of its leading them into false conclusions: therefore others, in the place of indivisible, substituted infinitely small divisible elements, of which they supposed all magnitudes to be formed; and thus endeavoured to retain, and improve, the advantages that were derived from the former method for the advancement of geometry. After these came to be relished, an infinite scale of infinites and infinitesimals (ascending and descending always by infinite steps) was imagined and proposed to be received into geometry, as of the greatest use for penetrating into its abstruse parts. Some have argued for quantities more than infinite; and others for a kind of quantities that are said to be neither finite nor infinite, but of an intermediate and indeterminate nature.

This way of considering what is called the sublime part of geometry has so far prevailed, that it is generally known by no less a title than the Science, Arithmetic, or Geometry of infinites. These terms imply something lofty, but mysterious; the contemplation of which may be suspected to amaze and perplex, rather than satisfy or enlighten the understanding, in the prosecution of this science; and while it seems greatly to elevate geometry, may possibly lessen its true and real excellency, which chiefly consists in its perspicuity and perfect evidence; for we may be apt to rest in an obscure and imperfect knowledge of so abstruse a doctrine, as better suited to its nature, instead of seeking for that clear and full view we ought to have of geometrical truth; and to this we may ascribe the inclination which has appeared of late for introducing mysteries into a science wherein there ought to be none.

There were some, however, who disliked the making much use of infinites and infinitesimals in geometry. Of this number was Sir Isaac Newton (whose caution was almost as distinguishing a part of his character as his invention), especially after he saw that this liberty was growing to so great a height. In demonstrating the grounds of the method of fluxion, he avoided them, establishing it in a way more agreeable to the strictness of geometry. He considered magnitudes as generated by a flux or motion, and showed how the velocities of the generating motions were to be compared together. There was nothing in this doctrine but what seemed to be natural and agreeable to the ancient geometry. But what he has given us on this subject being very short, his conciseness may be supposed to have given some occasion to the objections which have been raised against his method.

When the certainty of any part of geometry is brought into question, the most effectual way to set the truth in a full light, and to prevent disputes, is to deduce it from axioms or first principles of unexceptionable evidence, by demonstrations of the strictest kind, after the manner of the ancient geometricians. This is our design in the following treatise; wherein we do not propose to alter Sir Isaac Newton's notion of a fluxion, but to explain and demonstrate his method, by deducing it at length from a few self-evident truths, in that strict manner: and, in treating of it, to abstract from all principles and postulates that may require the imagining any other quantities but such as may be easily conceived to have a real existence. We shall not consider any part of space or time as indivisible, or infinitely little; but we shall consider a point as a term or limit of a line, and a moment as a term or limit of time: nor shall we resolve curve lines, or curvilineal spaces, into rectilineal elements of any kind. In delivering the principles of this method, we apprehend it is better to avoid such suppositions: but after these are demonstrated, short and concise ways of speaking, though less accurate, may be permitted, when there is no hazard of our introducing any uncertainty or obscurity into the science from the use of them, or of involving it in disputes. The method of demonstration, which was invented by the author of fluxions, is accurate and elegant; but we propose to begin with one that is somewhat different; which, being less removed from that of the ancients, may make the transition to his method more easy to beginners (for whom chiefly this treatise is intended), and may obviate some objections that have been made to it.

JOC/EFR February 2017

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