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Francois, Karen, Vandendriessche, Eric. Reassembling Mathematical Practices: a Philosophical-Anthropological Approach
2016, Revista Latinoamericana de Etnomatemática Perspectivas Socioculturales de la Educación Matemática, 9(2): 144-167.
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Added by: Fenner Stanley Tanswell
Abstract: In this paper we first explore how Wittgenstein’s philosophy provides a conceptual tools to discuss the possibility of the simultaneous existence of culturally different mathematical practices. We will argue that Wittgenstein’s later work will be a fruitful framework to serve as a philosophical background to investigate ethnomathematics (Wittgenstein 1973). We will give an overview of Wittgenstein’s later work which is referred to by many researchers in the field of ethnomathematics. The central philosophical investigation concerns Wittgenstein’s shift to abandoning the essentialist concept of language and therefore denying the existence of a universal language. Languages—or ‘language games’ as Wittgenstein calls them—are immersed in a form of life, in a cultural or social formation and are embedded in the totality of communal activities. This gives rise to the idea of rationality as an invention or as a construct that emerges in specific local contexts. In the second part of the paper we introduce, analyse and compare the mathematical aspects of two activities known as string figure-making and sand drawing, to illustrate Wittgenstein’s ideas. Based on an ethnomathematical comparative analysis, we will argue that there is evidence of invariant and distinguishing features of a mathematical rationality, as expressed in both string figure-making and sand drawing practices, from one society to another. Finally, we suggest that a philosophical-anthropological approach to mathematical practices may allow us to better understand the interrelations between mathematics and cultures. Philosophical investigations may help the reflection on the possibility of culturally determined ethnomathematics, while an anthropological approach, using ethnographical methods, may afford new materials for the analysis of ethnomathematics and its links to the cultural context. This combined approach will help us to better characterize mathematical practices in both sociological and epistemological terms.

Comment (from this Blueprint): Francois and Vandendriessche here present a later Wittgensteinian approach to “ethnomathematics”: mathematics practiced outside of mainstream Western contexts, often focused on indigenous or tribal groups. They focus on two case studies, string-figure making and sand-drawing, in different geographic and cultural contexts, looking at how these practices are mathematical.

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