Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Richard T.W. Arthur




In his 1883 book Das Prinzip der Infinitesimal-Methode und seine Geschichte, Hermann Cohen gives a detailed history of calculus combined with an argument for its philosophical significance. Through his historical account Cohen seeks to provide the "critical grounding" of the concept of the infinitesimal and to show that the infinitesimal is a necessary presupposition for mathematical natural science.

From its earliest reception Cohen's book has faced harsh criticism, and there is no doubt that this poor reception is due in part to Cohen's difficult writing style. The difficulty of the book has also led to a general lack of detailed discussion of its contents, despite the fact that the work is almost universally regarded by commentators as marking an important transition in Cohen's thought from his early interpretation of Kant towards his own system ofphilosophy.

The purpose of this thesis is to provide a detailed account of the main thrust of Cohen's historical argument in which he identifies Leibniz and Newton as systematic forerunners ofKant. Understanding this argument requires that it be situated within the context ofErkenntniskritik, Cohen's neo-Kantian system of philosophy. Thus, I begin by discussing Erkenntniskritik and aspects of Cohen's interpretation of Kant that are particularly relevant to his critical grounding of the infinitesimal. This discussion is followed by a presentation of Cohen's historical argument focusing on his treatment of Leibniz, Newton, Galileo, and Kant. Lastly, I consider Bertrand Russell's and Gottlob Frege's well-known criticisms of Cohen's book.

McMaster University Library

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