J. L. Austin and Frege’s Grundlagen

Despite the patronage of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gottlob Frege’s work had surprisingly little direct impact on British philosophy until around the early 1950s. Even amongst British philosophers who actively engaged with German philosophy from around the same period—for one important example, Gilbert Ryle—Frege’s work seems to have figured mainly indirectly before this time. That changed in the 1950s as translations of Frege’s work began to become widely available, and philosophers like Elizabeth Anscombe, Michael Dummett, and Peter Geach began to engage seriously with it. Two key moments were J. L. Austin’s translation of Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik (1884, translated as The Foundations of Arithmetic), published in 1950, and Peter Geach and Max Black’s Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, published in 1952, and including, amongst other important pieces, translations of ‘Über Begriff und Gegenstand’ (‘On Concept and Object’) and ‘Über Sinn und Bedeutung’ (‘On Sense and Reference’). This note concerns the former, Austin’s translation of Frege’s Grundlagen.

According to Geoffrey Warnock (1973), the Grundlagen was one of the texts read by Austin’s ‘Saturday Mornings’ discussion group, and, although Warnock suggests that the book was read in translation after 1950, the opportunity to discuss Frege’s work in the group may have played a role in Austin’s decision to produce the translation. In an encyclopedia entry on Austin’s work, I suggested that Austin’s translation was produced ‘so that it could be set as an exam,’ but I failed to record a source for the remark. The source was Michael Dummett, who records the connection in the following passage:

My fascination with the writings of Frege dates from my reading, as an undergraduate, of the Grundlagen der Arithmetik, unquestionably the most brilliant sustained performance of its length in the entire history of philosophy; and, as I then knew no German, this was made possible by Austin’s translation of that book, which first introduced it to most English-speaking philosophers at a time when there was very little interest in Frege, and was occasioned by its inclusion, I believe at Austin’s suggestion, as one of the of the texts to be studied for an excellent optional paper in the Oxford Philosophy, Politics and Economics Honours School. (Dummett 1978: xxiii–xxiv)

Dummett is clear here that the production of the translation was occasioned by the inclusion of the Grundlagen as an examined text, although he leaves open whether its inclusion as an examined text was also due to Austin and also whether the availability of a translation was a necessary condition of its inclusion. However, Dummett’s claim, together with his admitted inability at that time to read German, makes plausible that the availability of a translation was a necessary condition of reasonable inclusion. Dummett says a bit more in the following two passages:

It just so happened that Austin did a very good thing by inventing an optional paper in P.P.E., which I read, which was called absurdly, ‘Foundations of Modern Epistemology’, and consisted of a number of set texts, starting with the Theaetetus, and finishing with Frege’s Grundlagen. It was for that purpose that Austin translated the Grundlagen. (Dummett 1993: 169)

I’ve always remained an analytic philosopher—but as for logic and philosophy of mathematics, that’s a separate thing. It happened, well again, quite accidentally. I took, the first time it was set, an optional paper in philosophy in my final examination. It was one invented by John Austin and it was called, absurdly, The Origins of Modern Epistemology. What it was was a collection (a rather large collection) of texts, starting with Plato’s Theaetetus and finishing with Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic. These were texts one wouldn’t normally have come across during the ordinary Philosophy, Politics and Economics course in Oxford, and I worked my way through these. I was very interested in a lot of them but I was absolutely bowled over by the Foundations of Arithmetic, and I thought, I want to read everything this man has written. (Fara and Salles 2006: 2)

Daniel Isaacson adds some further information in the following passage from his obituary for Dummett:

In Finals, in Trinity Term 1950, he took a paper “invented by John Austin” for first examination in that term called “The origins of Modern Epistemology”. Candidates were expected to study four texts from a list of seven, one of which was Frege’s Grundlagen der Arithmetik, newly translated by Austin for this purpose. The examiners’ report records that seven candidates took this paper and that Boole and Frege “attracted the least attention”. One can infer that perhaps only one or two candidates studied Frege for this exam. Nonetheless, there was a class on Frege’s Grundlagen in Hilary Term 1950 that met twice a week, given by Mr. W. Kneale and Mr F. Waismann. Dummett’s ensuing work on Frege has transformed understanding of Frege’s philosophy. Dummett wrote recently of Frege’s Grundlagen der Arithmetik, “I thought, and still think, that it was the most brilliant piece of philosophical writing of its length ever penned.” (Isaacson, ‘In Memoriam: Michael Dummett (1925-2011)’)

This post was occasioned by a question from Michael Kremer. I’m grateful to Michael, and also to Michael Bench-Capon and Aidan McGlynn, for help in assembling sources. Thanks also to Robert May for comments and questions that led to corrections.


Michael Dummett (1978) Truth and Other Enigmas. London: Duckworth.

Michael Dummett (1993) Origins of Analytical Philosophy. London: Duckworth.

Rudolf Fara and Maurice Salles (2006) ‘An Interview with Michael Dummett: From Analytical Philosophy to Voting Analysis and Beyond.’ [Online]. London: LSE Research Online.

Geoffrey Warnock (1973) ‘Saturday Mornings.’ In Isaiah Berlin ed. Essays on J. L. Austin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  1. thonyc said:

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think anybody took much notice of Frege in Germany before the Second World War either.

  2. Guy – thanks for that very interesting post. One small correction. My first edition of Austin’s translation of Grundlagen is dated 1950.

    • Thanks very much. You’re quite right, of course. I’ve amended.

  3. Guy. Out of curiosity, do we know in what year/term Austin read Grundlagen in the Saturday seminar? Presumably it would have been 1948 or 49. Also, are we sure that he didn’t at least start the translation for the seminar? Would it have been assumed that the participants at that time would all have sufficient German to read it in the original? (Dummett wasn’t much later, and admits to not having German.) Also, was there a German edition even available for purchase at that time, or would the only available copy be from the library, presumably an original edition? I suspect the latter.

    • As to your second question, I’m afraid that I don’t know the answer. I have this:

      “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.” (Dummett’s (1980) “Frege and Analytical Philosophy,” London Review of Books 2, 18: 13.)

      This doesn’t quite speak to the question about the availability of the Grundlagen, but makes plausible that it may have been amongst the less accessible books.

  4. Thanks, that’s a good question. I’m afraid that it uncovers another memory induced error: contrary to what I wrote in the post, the information I have suggests that the Grundlagen was discussed at the ‘Saturday Mornings’ group post translation. Here’s the passage from Warnock (including some further information about other things read by the group):

    “My impression is that we discussed most regularly passages in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. After 1953, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations came up almost as often. At least once, probably earlier, we spent a term on Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic, of which Austin had done a translation in 1950. (I remember, for no particular reason, Austin’s puzzlement at Frege’s apparent demand that a definition of ‘number’ ought to tell us that Julius Caesar is not a number. Why should definitions provide answers to silly questions?) There was Merleau-Ponty. Then, in 1959, I anyway heard here for the first time the name of Chomsky; we devoted the autumn term of that year to Syntactic Structures.” (Warnock 1973: 36)

    So, Warnock’s impression was that they’d read Foundations after 1950, and probably before 1953. I’ve amended the main text of the post.

    One other snippet: I believe Dummett graduated from the PPE programme in 1950, so I think that he must have read Austin’s translation during the academic year 1949–50. But I don’t know for sure when Austin began the translation.

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