Episode 34: Frege on the Logic of Language

Discussing Gottlob Frege's "Sense and Reference," "Concept and Object" (both from 1892) and "The Thought" (1918).

What is it about sentences that make them true or false? Frege, the father of analytic philosophy who invented modern symbolic logic, attempted to codify language in a way that would make this obvious, which would ground mathematics and science. Applying his symbolic system to natural language forced him to invent strange entities like "thoughts" and "senses" that are neither physical nor psychological, and we pretty much spend this episode kvetching about the metaphysical implications of this and the fact that Frege didn't care about them.

Featuring guest podcaster Matt Teichman, who also hosts Elucidations.

Read along: "The Thought," "On Sense and Reference," "On Concept and Object," and we also read
Frege's introduction (p. 12-25) to his book The Basic Laws of Arithmetic: Exposition of the System (1904), or just buy this book.

End song: "The Great Forgotten Lover," from the 2011 New People album, Impossible Things.


  1. Burl says

    Y’all did great, as always. Now I understand the problem and milieu of ANW’s ‘eternal objects’ better.

    I am sympathetic to you guys as you had to live in the wake of the ‘Metaphysics of Alphabet’ that dominates modern philosophy – your wisdom won out as your evaluations of ‘is this subject matter and its requisite conformity worth my life energies my career?’

    Philosophy is best done avocationally.

  2. says

    Ahhh yess! At last! You’ve been building up to this episode for so long, and I’ve been waiting for it, checking the site daily in hopes that the great Frege episode was up. And now it’s finally here! Thanks guys!

  3. Ethan Gach says

    The point you made in passing about spanish was an interesting one Mark.

    The idiosyncrasies of language make discussions of logic considered from the point of view of one language (usually English, as least recently given the development of analytic philosophy) very problematic.

    Learning a language is always hard in the beginning as the student tries to say everything in english, and then translate word for word. So for instance in english I always want to say that I “am” doing somthing or that something is, where as in spanish it’s more often that you’ll say, “I run” (vs. I am running) or “the object”feels x to me (vs. the object is x/has quality x). I’m curious how all of these early twentieth century logicians weren’t worried precisely about differences in syntax. I’m not very familiar with Chomsky and the natural syntax that underlies how languages develope, but at least in terms of “grounding” logic or anything else in language, trying to account for the seemingly endless variations in how similar meanings are conveyed would be the larger issue. For someone like Frege that can be read as suggesting a sort of platonic idealism with regard to concepts/truth, how did he get away with simply tabling the fact of multiple languages?

  4. Profile photo of Tom McDonald says

    One of my favorite contemporary philosophers Robert Brandom on Frege:

    Q: Would you call yourself a neo-Fregean? How do you see the importance of Frege in your work and what do you think it is the main difference between your philosophy and the original Fregean project?


    The closest affinities between the view of [my book] Making It Explicit and Frege’s original project (in his Begriffsschrift, of 1879) concerns the role of logic in semantics.

    Frege there defines the “conceptual content” of an expression as its role in inference.

    His “concept-script” is meant to express such inferential roles, to make explicit what follows from applying a concept, what would be evidence for it, and what is incompatible with it.

    He understands logical vocabulary, paradigmatically the conditional and negation, as having the function of making explicit the inferential connections in virtue of which even nonlogical expressions mean what they do.

    Thus “if…then…” lets us say (put into the assertible content of a claim) what follows from a claim and what is evidence for it, and “not” lets us say what is incompatible with it.

    The mathematical development of the logic Frege invented has obscured for us this original expressive function he envisaged for logic, and so, I think, much of its philosophical importance. I aim to recover this aspect of his original vision.

    Frege followed Kant in emphasizing that logic (and semantics) is a normative discipline: talk about concepts is talk about how we should talk and think, not just about how we actually do.

    This insight is also very important for me. But Frege seems to have had a platonistic, ontological construal of these conceptual norms, whereas I follow a pragmatist line and see them as implicit in our practice. This is probably the greatest difference between the two approaches.


  5. Legends, all of ye says

    wow, just wow! Great stuff, kept me entertained all the time, I may actually get my essay done in time now! Go raibh míle maith agat!


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