What are the differences between hypothesis, supposition, assumption, postulate, and axiom?

  • 1
    No difference in colloquial language. In logic, it seems to me, supposition is not usually used. Apr 7 '17 at 21:18
  • This seems like a question about definition/use of terms, which is not a question for this SE. The question also lacks context, is there some philosophical background to it?
    – Conifold
    Apr 7 '17 at 21:23
  • @Conifold in other words, maybe this question is more appropriate for Mathematics or History of Science?
    – DukeZhou
    Apr 7 '17 at 23:28
  • 1
    @DukeZhou Well, Math SE already has Difference between axioms, theorems, postulates, corollaries, and hypotheses. Acerbi goes deep into the original distinctions between axioms and postulates in Aristotle and Euclid. But I am not sure if Geremia is interested in mathematical use or something else.
    – Conifold
    Apr 7 '17 at 23:44
  • 1
    As a rule of thumb, the usage is: assumption and hypothesis are "starting points" of some argument, "assumed" as true or reasonable for the context of the argument, while postulate and axiom are more related to a theory, and thus "assumed" as true as long as we maintain the corresponding theory. Apr 8 '17 at 9:16

Heath, the famous translator of the Elements, concludes in his introduction to vol. 1 of his translation of the Elements, §"3. First Principles: Definitions, Postulates, and Axioms", that Euclid's usage of these terms aligns most closely to Aristotle's. Heath begins that § by quoting in extenso from Aristotle's Posterior Analytics 1.10 (76a5) ("Difference between principles and non-principles, common and proper principles") and commenting upon it. Here's Heath's translation with his useful parenthetical remarks relating what Aristotle is saying to geometry:

“By first principles in each genus I mean those the truth of which it is not possible to prove. What is denoted by the first (terms) and those derived from them is assumed; but, as regards their existence, this must be assumed for the principles but proved for the rest. Thus what a unit is, what the straight (line) is, or what a triangle is (must be assumed); and the existence of the unit and of magnitude must also be assumed, but the rest must be proved. Now of the premisses used in demonstrative sciences some are peculiar to each science and others common (to all), the latter being common by analogy, for of course they are actually useful in so far as they are applied to the subject-matter included under the particular science. Instances of first principles peculiar to a science are the assumptions that a line is of such and such a character, and similarly for the straight (line); whereas it is a common principle, for instance, that, if equals be subtracted from equals, the remainders are equal. But it is enough that each of the common principles is true so far as regards the particular genus (subject-matter); for (in geometry) the effect will be the same even if the common principle be assumed to be true, not of everything, but only of magnitudes, and, in arithmetic, of numbers.

“Now that which is per se necessarily true, and must necessarily be thought so, is not a hypothesis nor yet a postulate. For demonstration has not to do with reasoning from outside but with the reason dwelling in the soul, just as is the case with the syllogism. It is always possible to raise objection to reasoning from outside, but to contradict the reason within us is not always possible. Now anything that the teacher assumes, though it is matter of proof, without proving it himself, is a hypothesis if the thing assumed is believed by the learner, and it is moreover a hypothesis, not absolutely, but relatively to the particular pupil; but, if the same thing is assumed when the learner either has no opinion on the subject or is of a contrary opinion, it is a postulate. This is the difference between a hypothesis and a postulate; for a postulate is that which is rather contrary than otherwise to the opinion of the learner, or whatever is assumed and used without being proved, although matter for demonstration. Now definitions are not hypotheses, for they do not assert the existence or non-existence of anything, while hypotheses are among propositions. Definitions only require to be understood: a definition is therefore not a hypothesis, unless indeed it be asserted that any audible speech is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is that from the truth of which, if assumed, a conclusion can be established. Nor are the geometer’s hypotheses false, as some have said: I mean those who say that ’you should not make use of what is false, and yet the geometer falsely calls the line which he has drawn a foot long when it is not, or straight when it is not straight.’ The geometer bases no conclusion on the particular line which he has drawn being that which he has described, but (he refers to) what is illustrated by the figures. Further, the postulate and every hypothesis are either universal or particular statements; definitions are neither” (because the subject is of equal extent with what is predicated of it).

source: my answer to HSM.SE's "How did Aristotle influence Euclid?", with extra emboldening of terms

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