Formalizing Euclid’s first axiom.

Bulletin of Symbolic Logic 20 (3):404-405 (2014)
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Formalizing Euclid’s first axiom. Bulletin of Symbolic Logic. 20 (2014) 404–5. (Coauthor: Daniel Novotný) Euclid [fl. 300 BCE] divides his basic principles into what came to be called ‘postulates’ and ‘axioms’—two words that are synonyms today but which are commonly used to translate Greek words meant by Euclid as contrasting terms. Euclid’s postulates are specifically geometric: they concern geometric magnitudes, shapes, figures, etc.—nothing else. The first: “to draw a line from any point to any point”; the last: the parallel postulate. Euclid’s axioms are general principles of magnitude: they concern geometric magnitudes and magnitudes of other kinds as well even numbers. The first is often translated “Things that equal the same thing equal one another”. There are other differences that are or might become important. Aristotle [fl. 350 BCE] meticulously separated his basic principles [archai, singular archê] according to subject matter: geometrical, arithmetic, astronomical, etc. However, he made no distinction that can be assimilated to Euclid’s postulate/axiom distinction. Today we divide basic principles into non-logical [topic-specific] and logical [topic-neutral] but this too is not the same as Euclid’s. In this regard it is important to be cognizant of the difference between equality and identity—a distinction often crudely ignored by modern logicians. Tarski is a rare exception. The four angles of a rectangle are equal to—not identical to—one another; the size of one angle of a rectangle is identical to the size of any other of its angles. No two angles are identical to each other. The sentence ‘Things that equal the same thing equal one another’ contains no occurrence of the word ‘magnitude’. This paper considers the problem of formalizing the proposition Euclid intended as a principle of magnitudes while being faithful to the logical form and to its information content.

Author's Profile

John Corcoran
PhD: Johns Hopkins University; Last affiliation: University at Buffalo


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