Abstraction in mathematics is the process of extracting the underlying essence of a mathematical concept, removing any dependence on real world objects with which it might originally have been connected, and generalising it so that it has wider applications.
Many areas of mathematics began with the study of real world problems, before the underlying rules and concepts were identified and defined as abstract structures. For example, geometry has its origins in the calculation of distances and areas in the real world; statistics has its origins in the calculation of probabilities in gambling; and algebra started with methods of solving problems in arithmetic.
Abstraction is an ongoing process in mathematics and the historical development of many mathematical topics exhibits a progression from the concrete to the abstract. Take the historical development of geometry as an example; the first steps in the abstraction of geometry were made by the ancient Greeks, with Euclid being the first person (as far as we know) to document the axioms of plane geometry. In the 17th century Descartes introduced Cartesian co-ordinates which allowed the development of analytic geometry. Further steps in abstraction were taken by Lobachevsky, Bolyai and Gauss who generalised the concepts of geometry to develop non-Euclidean geometries. Later in the 19th century mathematicians generalised geometry even further, developing such areas as geometry in n dimensions, projective geometry, affine geometry and finite geometry. Finally Felix Klein's "Erlangen program" identified the underlying theme of all of these geometries, defining each of them as the study of properties invariant under a given group of symmetries. This level of abstraction revealed deep connections between geometry and abstract algebra.
The advantages of abstraction are :
- It reveals deep connections between different areas of mathematics
- Known results in one area can suggest conjectures in a related area
- Techniques and methods from one area can be applied to prove results in a related area
The main disadvantage of abstraction is that highly abstract concepts are more difficult to learn, and require a degree of mathematical maturity and experience before they can be assimilated.