Monthly Archives: June 2008

What Do we Mean by the Term “Elementary”?

What do we mean when we use the term ,”elementary”, in relation to a science? Does it refer to an easy introduction, as contrasted with an “advanced” treatment of the same subject? Or does it mean a solid account of the very foundations of the science? Or, for that matter, are these the same thing?

Maxwell had a tendency toward writing “elementary” texts: he wrote one on heat, and another on mechanics, both for use in classes for workingmen – a project to which he was deeply committed. Finally, at the time of his death he was at work on his “Elementary Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, intended to serve as the Cambridge text to support a new degree in experimental natural philosophy at Cambridge University.

My sense is that Maxwell endowed each of these with earnest attention – that he regarded the “elements” not as evident, but as a topic to be approached with great care. Our decision as to what is elementary in a science has a great deal to do with our sense of the form the finished product will take – so that the most difficult issues may focus on the most elementary beginnings.

For example, Maxwell wrote his workingmen’s text in mechanics, Matter and Motion, only after he had hit on the fundamental idea, new to him, of Lagrnagian mechanics and generalized corrdinates. This would not be a mechanics in Newtonian form, in which the elements would be assumed to be hard bodies acting upon one another according to laws; rather, elements of this sort would be the least known components of the system, represented by generalized coordinates.

In this view, what we observe initially is a whole system of some sort; it is this whole which is fundamental, and truly elementary. The parts which compose it, we may never know. Our science can be complete and secure even if that question remains unresolved, or unresolvable.

This is the point of view I believe Maxwell had come to, underlying his approach to the new program at Cambridge as well. If so, must it not represent a truly revolutionary inversion of our very concept of scientific knowledge?

It fitted the primacy he – following the path of Farday – was giving to the concept of the electromagnetic field. In this view, he field would not be a secondary phenomenon, a composite or consequence of simpler “elements”, but itself both simple and whole.

If the elementary is what is primary, then in the case of the field it is the whole which is the element, from which we deduce what we can, concerning lesser components. Faraday had felt strongly that in the case of electricity, there was no “charge” lying on the surface of a charged body, but what we call a “charge” was a field, which filled the room.

Isn’t it the case that when we ask for the “explanation” of a physical system, we are asking for an account in terms of its elements? If so, then the field is itself explanatory, and we would not seek explanation in terms of the actions of some lesser parts. What will be the consequences if we extend this view to physical explanation – or explanation beyond the realm of physics — more generally?