Thursday, January 5, 2012

Frege's puzzle about identity

To: Dennis T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Frege's puzzle about identity
Date: 31 October 2006 09:42

Dear Dennis,

Thank you for your email of 24 October, with your University of London essay in response to the Sample Logic question, 'Does Frege's puzzle about identity show that there is more to the meaning of a proper name than its reference?'

You have given a clear exposition of Frege's argument, illustrated by two of Frege's examples and one of your own, showing that an identity statement can convey factual information.

In 'Sense and Reference' Frege offers an explanation of this, in terms of his distinction between sense and reference. Not only general terms but also proper names have a sense as well as a reference. Identity statements have the potential to convey factual information because the senses of the two terms conjoined by the equals sign are different.

The exam question, however, does not ask, 'What theory did Frege put forward in 'Sense and Reference' to explain the informativeness of identity statements?' but simply, does the puzzle over identity show that there IS more to the meaning of a proper name than its reference?

If there is more to the meaning of a proper name than its reference, then the next step would be to decide what this extra 'something' is, and how it relates to the property of having a reference. Possibly, there may be competing theories about the extra something. However, all you have been asked to do is consider Frege's argument for saying that there is more to the meaning of a proper name than its reference.

In the exam you must pay scrupulous care to the wording of the question. In this case, you are not being asked merely to show your knowledge of Frege's argument in 'Sense and Reference' but rather show that you understand what is at issue in the question what is, or is not part of the meaning of a name.

You say, in your penultimate paragraph, 'There can be little doubt that there is more to the meaning of a proper name than its reference.' In fact, there is plenty of room for doubt on this issue.

As a first step towards showing this, consider what you say about Frege's Aphla-Ateb example. 'Indeed the legends and mythology surrounding the mountain are contained in the name's sense.'

Frege would emphatically NOT agree with this. Prime Minister Tony Blair and I share a favourite philosopher - John Macmurray. When I hear the name Tony Blair mentioned in the context of philosophy, I am reminded of this. But the fact that Tony Blair as an undergraduate was keen on the philosophy of John Macmurray is not part of the sense of the name 'Tony Blair'.

Frege was clear about this. Each of us have more or less private associations with different words. Each of us has different knowledge of someone like Tony Blair. Yet, Frege claims, there is such a thing as THE sense of the name 'Tony Blair'. Sense is what is public, shared, that which gives the word its potential for contributing to the sense of statements in which it occurs. In the case of Aphla and Ateb, the salient feature which gives the two names their different senses is the geographical point of view from which each name has currency.

But is there such a thing as sense, really?

Imagine Mill reading your essay. One possibility might be that he has never considered identity statements and would be totally shocked to discover the 'paradox'. Another possibility is that he would immediately offer what seems, at face value, the most likely explanation: that the meaning of a proper name just is its reference. However, in virtue of having a reference, a proper name becomes a convenient way to sort beliefs, like a card index system. On the card labelled 'Bruce Wayne' a typical inhabitant of Gotham City has a number beliefs. On the card labelled 'Batman' he has other beliefs. It is news to discover that the two cards collate information belonging to one and the same individual.

How would Frege respond to this point? One question to ask is how does a name get attached to an object? What makes a name a name for one object rather than another object? Frege's notion of 'mode of presentation' implies that there is, somehow, a typical situation where you are presented with the object and the sense - by contrast with beliefs which you happen to have about the object - relates to this typical situation.

But why is this needed? Why is Mill wrong? The underlying theme of 'Sense and Reference' is that one of the tasks of the philosophy of language is to account for the facts in virtue of which a name has reference. We can't simply start, as Mill does, with the fact that a name names what it names, taken as a given, and proceed from there.

There is an explanatory gap in Mill's account which needs to be filled. The card-index theory ignores this gap. That's what Frege would say.

You will find these issues fully aired in a book by Gareth Evans 'Varieties of Reference'. Two classic discussions of this problem are by Saul Kripke 'Naming and Necessity' and Michael Dummett in his book 'Frege Philosophy of Language'. However, rather than plough through lots of heavy tomes, my advice would be to look on the internet, in Philosophy Encyclopaedias etc. You will find plenty of discussion of these issues. Meanwhile, I hope that I have given you enough pointers.

However, this is a good first effort, well done!

All the best,

Geoffrey