Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Philipp Cantor (3 March, 1845 – January 6 1918) was a German mathematician, born in Russia. He is best known as the creator of set theory, which has become a fundamental theory in mathematics. Cantor established the importance of one-to-one correspondence between sets, defined infinite and well-ordered sets, and proved that the real numbers are "more numerous" than the natural numbers. In fact, Cantor's theorem implies the existence of an "infinity of infinities". He defined the cardinal and ordinal numbers, and their arithmetic. Cantor's work is of great philosophical interest, a fact of which he was well aware.
Cantor's theory of transfinite numbers was originally regarded as so counter-intuitive—even shocking—that it encountered resistance from mathematical contemporaries such as Leopold Kronecker and Henri Poincaré and later from Hermann Weyl and L. E. J. Brouwer, while Ludwig Wittgenstein raised philosophical objections. Some Christian theologians (particularly neo-Scholastics) saw Cantor's work as a challenge to the uniqueness of the absolute infinity in the nature of God, on one occasion equating the theory of transfinite numbers with pantheism. The objections to his work were occasionally fierce: Poincaré referred to Cantor's ideas as a "grave disease" infecting the discipline of mathematics, and Kronecker's public opposition and personal attacks included describing Cantor as a "scientific charlatan", a "renegade" and a "corrupter of youth. Writing decades after Cantor's death, Wittgenstein lamented that mathematics is "ridden through and through with the pernicious idioms of set theory," which he dismissed as "utter nonsense" that is "laughable" and "wrong". Cantor's recurring bouts of depression from 1884 to the end of his life were once blamed on the hostile attitude of many of his contemporaries, but these episodes can now be seen as probable manifestations of a bipolar disorder.
The harsh criticism has been matched by international accolades. In 1904, the Royal Society awarded Cantor its Sylvester Medal, the highest honor it can confer. Cantor believed his theory of transfinite numbers had been communicated to him by God. David Hilbert defended it from its critics by famously declaring: "No one shall expel us from the Paradise that Cantor has created.
In 1874, Cantor married Vally Guttmann. They had six children, the last born in 1886. Cantor was able to support a family despite modest academic pay, thanks to his inheritance from his father. During his honeymoon in the Harz mountains, Cantor spent much time in mathematical discussions with Richard Dedekind, whom he befriended two years earlier while on Swiss holiday.
Cantor was promoted to Extraordinary Professor in 1872, and made full Professor in 1879. To attain the latter rank at the age of 34 was a notable accomplishment, but Cantor desired a chair at a more prestigious university, in particular at Berlin, then the leading German university. However, his work encountered too much opposition for that to be possible. Kronecker, who headed mathematics at Berlin until his death in 1891, became increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect of having Cantor as a colleague, perceiving him as a "corrupter of youth" for teaching his ideas to a younger generation of mathematicians. Worse yet, Kronecker, a well-established figure within the mathematical community and Cantor's former professor, fundamentally disagreed with the thrust of Cantor's work. Kronecker, now seen as one of the founders of the constructive viewpoint in mathematics, disliked much of Cantor's set theory because it asserted the existence of sets satisfying certain properties, without giving specific examples of sets whose members did indeed satisfy those properties. Cantor came to believe that Kronecker's stance would make it impossible for Cantor to ever leave Halle.
In 1881, Cantor's Halle colleague Eduard Heine died, creating a vacant chair. Halle accepted Cantor's suggestion that it be offered to Dedekind, Heinrich M. Weber and Franz Mertens, in that order, but each declined the chair after being offered it. Friedrich Wangerin was eventually appointed, but he was never close to Cantor.
In 1882 the mathematical correspondence between Cantor and Dedekind came to an end, apparently as a result of Dedekind's refusal to accept the chair at Halle. Cantor also began another important correspondence, with Gösta Mittag-Leffler in Sweden, and soon began to publish in Mittag-Leffler's journal Acta Mathematica. But in 1885, Mittag-Leffler was concerned about the philosophical nature and new terminology in a paper Cantor had submitted to Acta. He asked Cantor to withdraw the paper from Acta while it was in proof, writing that it was "… about one hundred years too soon." Cantor complied, but wrote to a third party:
"Had Mittag-Leffler had his way, I should have to wait until the year 1984, which to me seemed too great a demand! … But of course I never want to know anything again about Acta Mathematica."
Cantor then sharply curtailed his relationship and correspondence with Mittag-Leffler, displaying a tendency to interpret well-intentioned criticism as a deeply personal affront.
Cantor suffered his first known bout of depression in 1884. Criticism of his work weighed on his mind: every one of the fifty-two letters he wrote to Mittag-Leffler in 1884 attacked Kronecker. A passage from one of these letters is revealing of the damage to Cantor's self-confidence:
"…I don't know when I shall return to the continuation of my scientific work. At the moment I can do absolutely nothing with it, and limit myself to the most necessary duty of my lectures; how much happier I would be to be scientifically active, if only I had the necessary mental freshness.
This emotional crisis led him to apply to lecture on philosophy rather than mathematics. He also began an intense study of Elizabethan literature in an attempt to prove that Francis Bacon wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare (see Shakespearean authorship question); this ultimately resulted in two pamphlets, published in 1896 and 1897.
Cantor recovered soon thereafter, and subsequently made further important contributions, including his famous diagonal argument and theorem. However, he never again attained the high level of his remarkable papers of 1874–1884. He eventually sought a reconciliation with Kronecker, which Kronecker graciously accepted. Nevertheless, the philosophical disagreements and difficulties dividing them persisted. It was once thought that Cantor's recurring bouts of depression were triggered by the opposition his work met at the hands of Kronecker. While Cantor's mathematical worries and his difficulties dealing with certain people were greatly magnified by his depression, it is doubtful that they were its cause. Rather, his posthumous diagnosis of bipolarity has been accepted as the root cause of his erratic mood.
In 1890, Cantor was instrumental in founding the Deutsche Mathematiker-Vereinigung and chaired its first meeting in Halle in 1891; his reputation was strong enough, despite Kronecker's opposition to his work, to ensure he was elected as the first president of this society. Setting aside the animosity he felt towards Kronecker, Cantor invited him to address the meeting, but Kronecker was unable to do so because his spouse was dying at the time.
In 1911, Cantor was one of the distinguished foreign scholars invited to attend the 500th anniversary of the founding of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Cantor attended, hoping to meet Bertrand Russell, whose newly published Principia Mathematica repeatedly cited Cantor's work, but this did not come about. The following year, St. Andrews awarded Cantor an honorary doctorate, but illness precluded his receiving the degree in person.
Cantor retired in 1913, and suffered from poverty, even malnourishment, during World War I. The public celebration of his 70th birthday was canceled because of the war. He died on January 6 1918 in the sanatorium where he had spent the final year of his life.
In one of his earliest papers, Cantor proved that the set of real numbers is "more numerous" than the set of natural numbers; this showed, for the first time, that there exist infinite sets of different sizes. He was also the first to appreciate the importance of one-to-one correspondences (hereinafter denoted "1-to-1") in set theory. He used this concept to define finite and infinite sets, subdividing the latter into denumerable (or countably infinite) sets and uncountable sets (nondenumerable infinite sets).
Cantor introduced fundamental constructions in set theory, such as the power set of a set A, which is the set of all possible subsets of A. He later proved that the size of the power set of A is strictly larger than the size of A, even when A is an infinite set; this result soon became known as Cantor's theorem. Cantor developed an entire theory and arithmetic of infinite sets, called cardinals and ordinals, which extended the arithmetic of the natural numbers. His notation for the cardinal numbers was the Hebrew letter (aleph) with a natural number subscript; for the ordinals he employed the Greek letter ω (omega). This notation is still in use today.
The Continuum hypothesis, introduced by Cantor, was presented by David Hilbert as the first of his twenty-three open problems in his famous address at the 1900 International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris. Cantor's work also attracted favorable notice beyond Hilbert's celebrated encomium. The US philosopher Charles Peirce praised Cantor's set theory, and, following public lectures delivered by Cantor at the first International Congress of Mathematicians, held in Zurich in 1897, Hurwitz and Hadamard also both expressed their admiration. At that Congress, Cantor renewed his friendship and correspondence with Dedekind. From 1905, Cantor corresponded with his British admirer and translator Philip Jourdain on the history of set theory and on Cantor's religious ideas. This was later published, as were several of his expository works.
The beginning of set theory as a branch of mathematics is often marked by the publication of Cantor's 1874 paper, "Über eine Eigenschaft des Imbegriffes aller reellen algebraischen Zahlen" ("On a Characteristic Property of All Real Algebraic Numbers"). The paper, published in Crelle's Journal thanks to Dedekind's support (and despite Kronecker's opposition), was the first to formulate a mathematically rigorous proof that there was more than one kind of infinity. This demonstration is a centerpiece of his legacy as a mathematician, helping lay the groundwork for both calculus and the analysis of the continuum of real numbers. Previously, all infinite collections had been implicitly assumed to be equinumerous (that is, of "the same size" or having the same number of elements). He then proved that the real numbers were not countable, albeit employing a proof more complex than the remarkably elegant and justly celebrated diagonal argument he set out in 1891. Prior to this, he had already proven that the set of rational numbers is countable.
Joseph Liouville had established the existence of transcendental numbers in 1851, and Cantor's paper established that the set of transcendental numbers is uncountable. The logic is as follows: Cantor had shown that the union of two countable sets must be countable. The set of all real numbers is equal to the union of the set of algebraic numbers with the set of transcendental numbers (that is, every real number must be either algebraic or transcendental). The 1874 paper showed that the algebraic numbers (that is, the roots of polynomial equations with integer coefficients), were countable. In contrast, Cantor had also just shown that the real numbers were not countable. If transcendental numbers were countable, then the result of their union with algebraic numbers would also be countable. Since their union (which equals the set of all real numbers) is uncountable, it logically follows that the transcendentals must be uncountable. The transcendentals have the same "power" (see below) as the reals, and "almost all" real numbers must be transcendental. Cantor remarked that he had effectively reproved a theorem, due to Liouville, to the effect that there are infinitely many transcendental numbers in each interval.
Between 1879 and 1884, Cantor published a series of six articles in Mathematische Annalen that together formed an introduction to his set theory. At the same time, there was growing opposition to Cantor's ideas, led by Kronecker, who admitted mathematical concepts only if they could be constructed in a finite number of steps from the natural numbers, which he took as intuitively given. For Kronecker, Cantor's hierarchy of infinities was inadmissible, since accepting the concept of actual infinity would open the door to paradoxes which would challenge the validity of mathematics as a whole. Cantor also discovered the Cantor set during this period.
The fifth paper in this series, "Grundlagen einer allgemeinen Mannigfaltigkeitslehre" ("Foundations of a General Theory of Aggregates"), published in 1883, was the most important of the six and was also published as a separate monograph. It contained Cantor's reply to his critics and showed how the transfinite numbers were a systematic extension of the natural numbers. It begins by defining well-ordered sets. Ordinal numbers are then introduced as the order types of well-ordered sets. Cantor then defines the addition and multiplication of the cardinal and ordinal numbers. In 1885, Cantor extended his theory of order types so that the ordinal numbers simply became a special case of order types.
In 1891, he published a paper containing his elegant "diagonal argument" for the existence of an uncountable set. He applied the same idea to prove Cantor's theorem: the cardinality of the power set of a set A is strictly larger than the cardinality of A. This established the richness of the hierarchy of infinite sets, and of the cardinal and ordinal arithmetic that Cantor had defined. His argument is fundamental in the solution of the Halting problem and the proof of Gödel's first incompleteness theorem.
In 1895 and 1897, Cantor published a two-part paper in Mathematische Annalen under Felix Klein's editorship; these were his last significant papers on set theory. The first paper begins by defining set, subset, etc., in ways that would be largely acceptable now. The cardinal and ordinal arithmetic are reviewed. Cantor wanted the second paper to include a proof of the continuum hypothesis, but had to settle for expositing his theory of well-ordered sets and ordinal numbers. Cantor attempts to prove that if A and B are sets with A equivalent to a subset of B and B equivalent to a subset of A, then A and B are equivalent. Ernst Schröder had stated this theorem a bit earlier, but his proof, as well as Cantor's, was flawed. Felix Bernstein supplied a correct proof in his 1898 PhD thesis; hence the name Cantor–Bernstein–Schroeder theorem.
Cantor's 1874 Crelle paper was the first to invoke the notion of a 1-to-1 correspondence, though he did not use that phrase. He then began looking for a 1-to-1 correspondence between the points of the unit square and the points of a unit line segment. In an 1877 letter to Dedekind, Cantor proved a far a fortiori result: for any positive integer n, there exists a 1-to-1 correspondence between the points on the unit line segment and all of the points in an n-dimensional space. About this discovery Cantor famously wrote to Dedekind: "Je le vois, mais je ne le crois pas!" ("I see it, but I don't believe it!") The result that he found so astonishing has implications for geometry and the notion of dimension.
In 1878, Cantor submitted another paper to Crelle's Journal, in which he defined precisely the concept of a 1-to-1 correspondence, and introduced the notion of "power" (a term he took from Jakob Steiner) or "equivalence" of sets: two sets are equivalent (have the same power) if there exists a 1-to-1 correspondence between them. Cantor defined countable sets (or denumerable sets) as sets which can be put into a 1-to-1 correspondence with the natural numbers, and proved that the rational numbers are denumerable. He also proved that n-dimensional Euclidean space Rn has the same power as the real numbers R, as does a countably infinite product of copies of R. While he made free use of countability as a concept, he did not write the word "countable" until 1883. Cantor also discussed his thinking about dimension, stressing that his mapping between the unit interval and the unit square was not a continuous one.
This paper, like the 1874 paper, displeased Kronecker, and Cantor wanted to withdraw it; however, Dedekind persuaded him not to do so and Weierstrass also supported its publication. Nevertheless, Cantor never again submitted anything to Crelle.
The difficulty Cantor had in proving the continuum hypothesis has been underscored by later developments in the field of mathematics: a 1940 result by Gödel and a 1963 one by Paul Cohen together imply that the continuum hypothesis can neither be proved nor disproved using standard Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory plus the axiom of choice (the combination referred to as "ZFC").
In 1899, Cantor discovered his eponymous paradox: what is the cardinal number of the set of all sets? Clearly it must be the greatest possible cardinal. Yet for any set A, the cardinal number of the power set of A is strictly larger than the cardinal number of A (this fact is now known as Cantor's theorem). This paradox, together with Burali-Forti's, led Cantor to formulate a concept called limitation of size, according to which the collection of all ordinals, or of all sets, was an "inconsistent multiplicity" that was "too large" to be a set. Such collections later became known as proper classes.
One common view among mathematicians is that these paradoxes, together with Russell's paradox, demonstrate that it is not possible to take a "naive", or non-axiomatic, approach to set theory without risking contradiction, and it is certain that they were among the motivations for Zermelo and others to produce axiomatizations of set theory. Others note, however, that the paradoxes do not obtain in an informal view motivated by the iterative hierarchy, which can be seen as explaining the idea of limitation of size. Some also question whether the Fregean formulation of naive set theory (which was the system directly refuted by the Russell paradox) is really a faithful interpretation of the Cantorian conception.
Debate among mathematicians grew out of opposing views in the philosophy of mathematics regarding the nature of actual infinity. Some held to the view that infinity was an abstraction which was not mathematically legitimate, and denied its existence. Mathematicians from three major schools of thought (constructivism and its two offshoots, intuitionism and finitism) opposed Cantor's theories in this matter. For constructivists such as Kronecker, this rejection of actual infinity stems from fundamental disagreement with the idea that nonconstructive proofs such as Cantor's diagonal argument are sufficient proof that something exists, holding instead that constructive proofs are required. Intuitionism also rejects the idea that actual infinity is an expression of any sort of reality, but arrive at the decision via a different route than constructivism. Firstly, Cantor's argument rests on logic to prove the existence of transfinite numbers as an actual mathematical entity, whereas intuitionists hold that mathematical entities cannot be reduced to logical propositions, originating instead in the intuitions of the mind. Secondly, the notion of infinity as an expression of reality is itself disallowed in intuitionism, since the human mind cannot intuitively construct an infinite set. Mathematicians such as Brouwer and especially Poincaré adopted an intuitionist stance against Cantor's work. Citing the paradoxes of set theory as an example of its fundamentally flawed nature, Poincaré held that "most of the ideas of Cantorian set theory should be banished from mathematics once and for all." Finally, Wittgenstein's attacks were finitist: he believed that Cantor's diagonal argument conflated the intension of a set of cardinal or real numbers with its extension, thus conflating the concept of rules for generating a set with an actual set.
Christian theologians saw Cantor's work as a challenge to the uniqueness of the absolute infinity in the nature of God. In particular, Neo-Thomist thinkers saw the existence of an actual infinity that consisted of something other than God as jeopardizing "God's exclusive claim to supreme infinity". Cantor strongly believed that this view was a misinterpretation of infinity, and was convinced that set theory could help correct this mistake:
"…the transfinite species are just as much at the disposal of the intentions of the Creator and His absolute boundless will as are the finite numbers.
Cantor also believed that his theory of transfinite numbers ran counter to both materialism and determinism—and was shocked when he realized that he was the only faculty member at Halle who did not hold to deterministic philosophical beliefs.
In 1888, Cantor published his correspondence with several philosophers on the philosophical implications of his set theory. In an extensive attempt to persuade Christian thinkers and authorities to adopt his views, Cantor had corresponded with Christian philosophers such as Tilman Pesch and Joseph Hontheim, as well as theologians such as Cardinal Johannes Franzelin, who once replied by equating the theory of transfinite numbers with pantheism. Cantor even sent one letter directly to Pope Leo XIII himself, and addressed several pamphlets to him.
Cantor's philosophy on the nature of numbers led him to affirm a belief in the freedom of mathematics to posit and prove concepts apart from the realm of physical phenomena, as expressions within an internal reality. The only restrictions on this metaphysical system are that all mathematical concepts must be devoid of internal contradiction, and that they follow from existing definitions, axioms, and theorems. This belief is summarized in his famous assertion that "the essence of mathematics is its freedom. These ideas parallel those of Edmund Husserl.
Cantor's 1883 paper reveals that he was well aware of the opposition his ideas were encountering:
"…I realize that in this undertaking I place myself in a certain opposition to views widely held concerning the mathematical infinite and to opinions frequently defended on the nature of numbers."
Hence he devotes much space to justifying his earlier work, asserting that mathematical concepts may be freely introduced as long as they are free of contradiction and defined in terms of previously accepted concepts. He also cites Aristotle, Descartes, Berkeley, Leibniz, and Bolzano on infinity.
"Even if we were descended from Jews ten times over, and even though I may be, in principle, completely in favour of equal rights for Hebrews, in social life I prefer Christians..."which could imply that she was of Jewish ancestry.
Thus Cantor was not himself Jewish by faith, but has nevertheless been called variously German, Jewish, Russian, and Danish.