Mathematical Relativism: Logic, grammar, and arithmetic in cultural comparison

Christian Greiffenhagen, Wes Sharrock

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Cultural relativism is supposed to be a bold and provocative thesis. In this paper we challenge the idea that it is an empirical thesis, i.e., one that, is supported through anthropological and historical examples. We focus on mathematical relativism, die view that a mathematics from another culture or time might be so radically divergent from our mathematics that "theirs" would stand in direct conflict, with "ours" (and in that sense constitute an alternative mathematics). We question in what sense the examples given to support the general thesis are relativistic about, mathematics and argue that on close inspection they are not, and certainly not in any radical sense. We do not contest the fact that there can be great mathematical diversity between cultures, but wonder whether it makes sense to talk of "the same" mathematical forms in heterogeneous mathematical environments. Finally, while relativists see the later Wittgenstein as providing support for their own thesis, we claim that Wittgenstein argues against both realism and relativism. © The Executive Management Committee/Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-221
Number of pages124
JournalJournal for the Theory of Social Behaviour
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2006


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