# Abstract

Mathematical formalism is the the view that numbers are "signs" and that arithmetic is like a game played with such signs. Frege's colleague Thomae defended formalism using an analogy with chess, and Frege's critique of this analogy has had a major influence on discussions in analytic philosophy about signs, rules, meaning, and mathematics. Here I offer a new interpretation of formalism as defended by Thomae and his predecessors, paying close attention to the mathematical details and historical context. I argue that for Thomae, the formal standpoint is an _algebraic perspective_ on a domain of objects, and a "sign" is not a linguistic expression or mark, but a representation of an object within that perspective. Thomae exploits a shift into this perspective to give a purely algebraic construction of the real numbers from the rational numbers. I suggest that Thomae's chess analogy is intended to provide a model for such shifts in perspective.