Frege and Analytical Philosophy

Michael Dummett

  • Philosophical and Mathematical Correspondence by Gottlob Frege, translated by Hans Kaal, edited by Brian McGuinness
    Blackwell, 214 pp, £15.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 631 19620 X
  • Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege edited by Peter Geach and Max Black
    Blackwell, 228 pp, £12.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 631 12901 4
  • Frege’s Theory of Judgement by David Bell
    Oxford, 163 pp, £8.50, July 1979, ISBN 0 19 827423 8
  • Gottlob Frege by Hans Sluga
    Routledge, 203 pp, £12.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0474 5

In the course of 1936, Professor Heinrich Scholz of Münster completed the collection of Frege’s unpublished writings, of which he had charge, by obtaining from those, such as Russell and Husserl, whose letters to Frege were included in the collection, the letters Frege had written to them. On 25 March 1945 the US Air Force bombed Münster. I believe that the object was to destroy an important telephone exchange: a large part of the town was destroyed, but the telephone exchange was left intact. Among the things destroyed were all Frege’s manuscripts and the original letters to and from him; there survived typescripts of some of the papers and of part of the correspondence. Even these took a very long time to appear in print: the papers only in 1969, the correspondence not until 1976. An English translation of the former was brought out by Blackwell last year, a decade after the German version. Now we have the correspondence in English, only four years after the German volume, but 44 years after the collection was originally made.

McGuinness has omitted from the English version all those frustrating pages which, in the German one, recorded the dates of letters now lost, together with a certain number of letters with no philosophical or mathematical content. The volume contains much of interest – above all, the famous correspondence between Russell and Frege occasioned by Russell’s discovery of his contradiction, derivable in Frege’s formal system. It is fascinating to watch the emergence, in the course of this long exchange (ten letters from Russell, nine from Frege), of various of Russell’s leading Ideas: fascinating, too, to see the staunchness with which Frege, after the initial shock, defended the fundamental principles of his logic. As is well-known, Russell’s first letter arrived when the second volume of Frege’s Grundgesetze was in press, and necessitated a hasty patching-up of the formal system there used. Even before he has discovered a way of doing this, Frege is writing to Russell in tones of great assurance, rejecting various proposals by Russell to meet the situation. By Frege’s sixth letter, he has discovered the modification to his Axiom V by which, in the Appendix which he added to the Grundgesetze, he hoped, in vain as it was to prove, to avoid contradiction; Russell replies that Frege’s solution is probably correct, though he finds it hard to accept, but by that time he has become too engaged in other lines of thought to give Frege’s proposal the attention he promises. In 1906, Frege was to lose confidence in his own attempted solution, and, therewith, in his principal life’s work, the provision of purely logical foundations for arithmetic and analysts. Russell’s letter of June 1902 had been indeed the turning-point of his career: at once the first tribute from a wholehearted admirer and the announcement of the failure of the task he had set himself to achieve. But, though there is much else in this volume of considerable interest, it is a volume primarily for the specialist; Frege’s published and posthumously published writings are, naturally, of more importance than his correspondence. The translation is, for the most part, accurate and fluent, though Professor Kaal ought to become aware of the difference between ‘forgo’ and ‘forego’; but I deprecate strongly the translation of Satz by ‘proposition’. Frege was obsessively careful to distinguish between a form of words and what it expresses – for instance, taking the trouble, for that purpose, to use both the words Grundsatz and Axiom. A Satz is, for him, always a string of words, and therefore, in his writings, should always be rendered ‘sentence’: ‘proposition’ restores the ambiguity he was at such pains to avoid. Russell’s ambiguous use of Satz does not provide a sufficient reason for this choice; an editorial footnote would have dealt with the difficulty. I think that Kaal has been kind to Husserl in translating the word Sonderling, in the latter’s ludicrously dismissive comment on Frege of 1936, as ‘outsider’: ‘crank’ would surely be more accurate. The volume reproduces the numbering of the letters from the German edition, as well as giving its own; but unfortunately most commentators have cited the German volume by page number, and it will cause great inconvenience to those who have only the English edition that it fails to give the pagination of the German one.

When Geach and Black’s volume of translations first came out in 1952, there existed hardly anything of Frege’s in English save his Foundations of Arithmetic. Moreover, even for readers of German, his other books were almost inaccessible, and his articles available only in ancient German learned journals. The volume, with its selection of articles and excerpts from the other books, therefore did an immense service by making a representative sample of Frege’s writings available to the philosophical public. The situation now is utterly different. The whole of Begriffsschrift is readily accessible, in German and English: the Grundgesetze is in print in German, and there is an English translation of Part I and of the Appendix; almost all the shorter writings are contained in the volume Kleine Schriften edited by Angelelli, and the rest in an earlier volume edited by him: of most of these, English translations have appeared in various places; and the unpublished writings and correspondence are available in German and English. The point of such a volume as that of Geach and Black must now, therefore, be altogether different: it is no longer adequate for the purposes of a serious scholar, even if not a specialist, but serves only as a useful collection of snippets for undergraduates. The contents have remained unaltered, save for the excision of the article on ‘Negation’, on the ground that this is now contained in another volume, Logical Investigations, translated by Geach and Stoothoff. Why, then, not also excise the selection from Begriffsschrift, on the ground that the whole work is translated in a volume by Bynum, or the Appendix to the Grundgesetze and the excerpts from Volume I of that work, on the ground that they are available in Furth’s translation? I am afraid that the answer is that the translations by Bynum and Furth are not published by Blackwell. The omission of ‘Negation’ leaves the volume a no longer representative sample: there is now nothing from after 1904. But the space saved has not been used to repair any of the earlier omissions – for example, by printing the whole of Frege’s review of Husserl instead of extracts from it; nothing has been added save the index. I suppose that the reply would be that the addition of anything more would have pushed the price up. If the purpose is to serve the needs of the undergraduate, however, he would have been catered for better by the inclusion of ‘Thoughts’ than by being pushed into buying another volume or being deprived altogether of the late works. The needs of others are not well served by this volume. What is now needed is, first, a volume of English translations of Frege’s articles which, if not quite as comprehensive as Kleine Schriften, at least contains everything of major importance, and, secondly, a full translation of Part 111(1) (the prose section) of the Grundgesetze. Geach and Black could have provided us with either, or with both: perhaps they still will.

The translation remains the same, save for the rendering of certain of Frege’s technical terms. Of these changes, by far the most important is the substitution of ‘meaning’ for ‘reference’ as the translation of Bedeutung. It is, to my mind, a great pity that this rendering was not adopted in the original edition. Since then, largely through the influence of the Geach/Black translation, the word ‘reference’ has become standard, in English language philosophical writing that discusses or alludes to Frege, and cannot now be dislodged in deference to a change of mind 28 years later, at least without rendering a great deal of commentary unintelligible.

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