Textual materiality and abstraction in mathematics

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In this paper, we wish to explore the role that textual representations play in the creation of new mathematical objects. We do so by analyzing texts by Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736–1813) and Évariste Galois (1811–1832), which are seen as central to the historical development of the mathematical concept of groups. In our analysis, we consider how the material features of representations relate to the changes in conceptualization that we see in the texts.
Against this backdrop, we discuss the idea that new mathematical concepts, in general, are increasingly abstract in the sense of being detached from material configurations. Our analysis supports the opposite view. We suggest that changes in the material aspects of textual representations (i.e., the actual graphic inscriptions) play an active and crucial role in conceptual change.
We employ an analytical framework adapted from Bruno Latour’s 1999 account of intertwined material and representational practices in the empirical sciences. This approach facilitates a foregrounding of the interconnection between the conceptual development of mathematics, and the construction, (re-)configuration, and manipulation of the materiality of representations. Our analysis suggests that, in mathematical practice, distinctions between the material and structural features of representations are not permanent and absolute. This problematizes the appropriateness of the distinction between concrete inscriptions and abstract relations in understanding the development of mathematical concepts.
TidsskriftScience in Context
Udgave nummer1
Sider (fra-til)81–101
Antal sider21
StatusUdgivet - 2024

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