Quotations by James Joseph Sylvester


...there is no study in the world which brings into more harmonious action all the faculties of the mind than [mathematics], ... or, like this, seems to raise them, by successive steps of initiation, to higher and higher states of conscious intellectual being....
Presidential Address to British Association, 1869.

So long as a man remains a gregarious and sociable being, he cannot cut himself off from the gratification of the instinct of imparting what he is learning, of propagating through others the ideas and impressions seething in his own brain, without stunting and atrophying his moral nature and drying up the surest sources of his future intellectual replenishment.

[on graph theory...]
The theory of ramification is one of pure colligation, for it takes no account of magnitude or position; geometrical lines are used, but these have no more real bearing on the matter than those employed in genealogical tables have in explaining the laws of procreation.
Quoted in H Eves Mathematical Circles Adieu (Boston 1977).

Time was when all the parts of the subject were dissevered, when algebra, geometry, and arithmetic either lived apart or kept up cold relations of acquaintance confined to occasional calls upon one another; but that is now at an end; they are drawn together and are constantly becoming more and more intimately related and connected by a thousand fresh ties, and we may confidently look forward to a time when they shall form but one body with one soul.
Presidential Address to British Association, 1869.

The world of ideas which it [mathematics] discloses or illuminates, the contemplation of divine beauty and order which it induces, the harmonious connexion of its parts, the infinite hierarchy and absolute evidence of the truths with which it is concerned, these, and such like, are the surest grounds of the title of mathematics to human regard, and would remain unimpeached and unimpaired were the plan of the universe unrolled like a map at our feet, and the mind of man qualified to take in the whole scheme of creation at a glance.
Presidential Address to British Association, 1869.

I know, indeed, and can conceive of no pursuit so antagonistic to the cultivation of the oratorical faculty ... as the study of Mathematics. An eloquent mathematician must, from the nature of things, ever remain as rare a phenomenon as a talking fish, and it is certain that the more anyone gives himself up to the study of oratorical effect the less will he find himself in a fit state to mathematicize.

Mathematics is the music of reason.

May not music be described as the mathematics of the sense, mathematics as music of the reason? The musician feels mathematics, the mathematician thinks music: music the dream, mathematics the working life.

The object of pure physics is the unfolding of the laws of the intelligible world; the object of pure mathematics that of unfolding the laws of human intelligence.

The early study of Euclid made me a hater of geometry.
Quoted in D MacHale, Comic Sections (Dublin 1993)

Aspiring to these wide generalizations, the analysis of quadratic functions soars to a pitch from whence it may look proudly down on the feeble and vain attempts of geometry proper to rise to its level or to emulate it in its flights.

[A quotation by one of Sylvester's students at Johns Hopkins University]
... the substance of his lectures had to consist largely of his own work, and, as a rule, of work hot from the forge. The consequence was that a continuous and systematic presentation of any extensive body of doctrine already completed was not to be expected from him. Any unsolved difficulty, any suggested extension, such would have been passed by with a mention by other lecturers, became inevitably with him the occasion of a digression which was sure to consume many weeks, if indeed it did not take him away from the original object permanently. Nearly all of the important memoirs which he published, while in Baltimore, arose in this way. We who attended his lectures may be said to have seen these memoirs in the making.

Surely with as good reason as had Archimedes to have the cylinder, cone and sphere engraved on his tombstone might our distinguished countrymen [Arthur Cayley and George Salmon] leave testamentary directions for the cubic eikosiheptagram to be engraved on theirs. Spirit of the Universe! wither are we drifting, and when, where, and how is all this to end?
Proceedings of the London Math. Soc. 2 (1867) 155.

Writing to his old friend Arthur Cayley, Sylvester confessed, "I expect Poincarre [sic] tomorrow and he will have rooms in College. I rather dread the encounter as there is so little in the way of Mathematics upon which I can hope to talk to him!"
From J Fauvel, R Flood and R Wilson, eds, Oxford Figures. Eight Hundred Years of the Mathematical Sciences, (Oxford 2000)

All roads are said to lead to Rome, so I find, in my own case at least, that all algebraical inquiries sooner or later end at that Capital of Modern Algebra over whose shining portal is inscribed "Theory of Invariants".
Trilogy (1864)

May not music be described as the mathematics of the sense, mathematics as music of the reason? the soul of each is the same! Thus the musician feels mathematics, the mathematician thinks music, - music the dream, mathematics the working life - each to receive its consummation from the other when the human intelligence, elevated to its perfect type, shall shine forth glorified in some future Mozart-Dirichlet or Beethoven-Gauss - a union already not indistinctly foreshadowed in the genius and labours of a Helmholtz!
Trilogy (1864)

In the "Fortnightly Review" [1869] we are told that "Mathematics is that study which knows nothing of observation, nothing of experiment, nothing of induction, nothing of causation" (Huxley, "Lay sermons, addresses and reviews" (London 1870), p. 185). I think no statement could have been made more opposite to the undoubted facts of the case, that mathematical analysis is constantly invoking the aid of new principles, new ideas, and new methods, not capable of being defined by any form of words, but springing direct from the inherent powers and activity of the human mind, and from continually renewed introspection of that inner world of thought of which the phenomena are as varied and require as close attention to discern as those of the outer physical world (to which the inner one in each individual man may, I think, be conceived to stand in somewhat the same general relation of correspondence as a shadow to the object from which it is projected, or as the hollow palm of one hand to the closed fist which it grasps of the other), that it is unceasingly calling forth the faculties of observation and comparison, that one of its principal weapons is induction, that it has frequent recourse to experimental trial and verification, and that it affords a boundless scope for the exercise of the highest efforts of imagination and invention.
Address to a Meeting of the British Association in Exeter (1869).

During a conversation with the writer in the last weeks of his life, Sylvester remarked as curious that notwithstanding he had always considered the bent of his mind to be rather analytical than geometrical, he found in nearly every case that the solution of an analytical problem turned upon some quite simple geometrical notion, and that he was never satisfied until he could present the argument in geometrical language.
P A MacMahon (1898)


JOC/EFR April 2016

The URL of this page is:
http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Quotations/Sylvester.html