Classic MDS (cMDS or PCoA) preserves global distances, characteristic of linear techniques. However, metric MDS seeks to minimize a cost function (stress), while non-metric MDS (nMDS) preserves only the ranking of dissimilarities between points. It seems to me these techniques produce a kind of embedding, which would be nonlinear, but both cMDS and nMDS are listed as linear techniques in this article. Conversely, Wikipedia describes MDS in general as a form of nonlinear dimensionality reduction.

It is possible to use a nonlinear kernel in MDS to preserve smaller distances, as in the case of a Sammon mapping. This is definitely a nonlinear technique.

So: are multidimensional scaling and its variants considered linear or nonlinear dimensionality reduction techniques, and why?

  • $\begingroup$ "but both cMDS and nMDS are listed as linear techniques in this article" -- where exactly? $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Jul 30, 2019 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ It clearly lists nMDS as nonlinear in "Tip 1". $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Jul 30, 2019 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ The article itself seems to be contradictory. NMDS is not classified as nonlinear in table 1 in the same paper. $\endgroup$
    – sara-es
    Jul 31, 2019 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ Oh I see. So it's just an unfortunate typo in the Table 1. $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Jul 31, 2019 at 13:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I might write-up a proper answer later, but I wouldn't call t-SNE/nMDS/etc "nonlinear", I think it's sloppy. They should rather be called "nonparametric". See here stats.stackexchange.com/questions/142960 about this distinction. cMDS is called "linear" because it's equivalent to PCA but it's actually an abuse of terminology. $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Jul 31, 2019 at 13:39

2 Answers 2


According to the information I know, I think Metric-MDS just construct the distance matrix by using Euclidian distance, which is a linear transformation. But Non-Metric-MDS redefines the distance between the data using rank order of distances, which is a nonlinear transformation.


Classic MDS is a linear dimensionality reduction technique. One may confirm its linearity by finding a transformation matrix $\mathbf W \in \mathbb R^{d \times d'}$ such that $\mathbf Z = \mathbf W^\top \mathbf X$, where $\mathbf X \in \mathbb R^{d \times m}$ is the collection of samples in original space, and $\mathbf Z$ the samples in reduced space.

Let the inner product matrix $\mathbf B = \mathbf X^\top \mathbf X = \mathbf V\boldsymbol\Lambda\mathbf V^\top$. By classic MDS, one may find $\mathbf Z = \boldsymbol\Lambda_\ast^{1/2}\mathbf V_\ast^\top \in \mathbb R^{d^\ast \times m}$, where $\boldsymbol\Lambda_\ast$ is a diagonal matrix containing $d^\ast$ largest (positive) eigenvalues of $\mathbf B$ and corresponding eigenvector matrix $\mathbf V_\ast$. In addition, let $\mathbf U\tilde{\boldsymbol\Lambda}\mathbf U^\top$ be the eigenvalue decomposition of $\mathbf X\mathbf X^\top$. One is able to show that $\mathbf X^\top\mathbf X$ and $\mathbf X\mathbf X^\top$ share the same nonzero eigenvalues, and that for any nonzero eigenvalue, the corresponding eigenvectors of the two matrices satisfy $\boldsymbol v = C X^\top\boldsymbol u$, where $C$ is an arbitrary constant. Therefore, $\mathbf Z$ can be written as $\boldsymbol\Lambda_\ast^{1/2}\mathbf C^\top\mathbf U_\ast^\top \mathbf X$, where $\mathbf C$ is an arbitrary diagonal matrix. This way, the transformation matrix $\mathbf W = \mathbf U_\ast\mathbf C\boldsymbol\Lambda_\ast^{1/2}$.


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