Educational Studies in Mathematics

, Volume 66, Issue 2, pp 145–164 | Cite as

Syntax and Meaning as Sensuous, Visual, Historical forms of Algebraic Thinking

  • Luis Radford
  • Luis Puig


Before the advent of symbolism, i.e. before the end of the 16th Century, algebraic calculations were made using natural language. Through a kind of metaphorical process, a few terms from everyday life (e.g. thing, root) acquired a technical mathematical status and constituted the specialized language of algebra. The introduction of letters and other symbols (e.g. “+”, “=”) made it possible to achieve what is considered one of the greatest cultural accomplishments in human history, namely, the constitution of a symbolic algebraic language and the concomitant rise of symbolic thinking. Because of their profound historical ties with natural language, the emerging syntax and meanings of symbolic algebraic language were marked in a definite way by the syntax and meanings of the former. However, at a certain point, these ties were loosened and algebraic symbolism became a language in its own right. Without alluding to the theory of recapitulation, in this paper, we travel back and forth from history to the present to explore key passages in the constitution of the syntax and meanings of symbolic algebraic language. A contextual semiotic analysis of the use of algebraic terms in 9th century Arabic as well as in contemporary students' mathematical activity, sheds some light on the conceptual challenges posed by the learning of algebra.


cultural semiotics equations history of algebra meaning ontogenesis phylogenesis recapitulation syntax 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Luis Radford
    • 1
  • Luis Puig
    • 2
  1. 1.École des sciences de l’éducationUniversité LaurentienneSudburyCanada
  2. 2.Departament de Didàctica de la MatemàticaUniversitat de ValènciaValenciaEspaña

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