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The main topic of this essay is symbolic mathematics or the method of symbolic construction, which I trace to the end of the sixteenth century when Franciscus Vieta invented the algebraic symbolism and started to use the word ‘symbolic’ in the relevant, non-ontological sense. This approach has played an important role for many of the great inventions in modern mathematics such as the introduction of the decimal place-value system of numeration, Descartes’ analytic geometry, and Leibniz’s infinitesimal calculus. It was also central for the rigorization movement in mathematics in the late nineteenth century, as well as for the mathematics of modern physics in the 20th century.
However, the nature of symbolic mathematics has been concealed and confused due to the strong influence of the heritage from the Euclidean and Aristotelian traditions. This essay sheds some light on what has been concealed by approaching some of the crucial issues from a historical perspective. Furthermore, I argue that the conception of modern mathematics as symbolic mathematics was essential to Wittgenstein’s approach to the foundations and nature of mathematics. This connection between Wittgenstein’s thought and symbolic mathematics provides the resources for countering the still prevalent view that he defended an uttrely idiosyncratic conception, disconnected from the progress of serious science. Instead, his project can be seen as clarifying ideas that have been crucial to the development of mathematics since early modernity.
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