Constructing a Concept of Number

Karenleigh A. Overmann


Numbers are concepts whose content, structure, and organization are influenced by the material forms used to represent and manipulate them. Indeed, as argued here, it is the inclusion of multiple forms (distributed objects, fingers, single- and two-dimensional forms like pebbles and abaci, and written notations) that is the mechanism of numerical elaboration. Further, variety in employed forms explains at least part of the synchronic and diachronic variability that exists between and within cultural number systems. Material forms also impart characteristics like linearity that may persist in the form of knowledge and behaviors, ultimately yielding numerical concepts that are irreducible to and functionally independent of any particular form. Material devices used to represent and manipulate numbers also interact with language in ways that reinforce or contrast different aspects of numerical cognition. Not only does this interaction potentially explain some of the unique aspects of numerical language, it suggests that the two are complementary but ultimately distinct means of accessing numerical intuitions and insights. The potential inclusion of materiality in contemporary research in numerical cognition is advocated, both for its explanatory power, as well as its influence on psychological, behavioral, and linguistic aspects of numerical cognition.


numerical cognition; numerical elaboration; extended cognition; Material Engagement Theory; materiality

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