Tag Archives: Frege

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.

One central feature of traditional forms of Rationalism has been a commitment to the existence of non-sensory modes of knowing. Thus, for one central example, Descartes’ Meditations can be read, in part, as a set of instructions for recognising in oneself, and then using appropriately, a power of knowing untainted by reliance on sensory experience or imagination. Thus, Descartes writes:

I have been accustomed these past days to detach my mind from my senses, and I have accurately observed that there are very few things that one knows with certainty respecting corporeal objects, that there are many more which are known to us respecting the human mind, and yet more still regarding God Himself; so that I shall now without any difficulty abstract my thoughts from the consideration of sensible or imaginable objects, and carry them to those which, being withdrawn from all contact with matter, are purely intelligible. (Descartes, 1641: Meditation IV: Of the True and the False.)

The same theme can be found in the work of Gottlob Frege. Frege’s fundamental aim was to gain clarity on the nature of mathematics, especially arithmetic. In pursuit of that aim, Frege thought that we had to recognise a Third Realm—in effect, the realm of the purely abstract—inhabited in particular by numbers and by what he called thoughts. Thoughts, on Frege’s view, are the fundamental loci of truth and falsity, and the contents of acts of judgement. Thus, when it’s claimed that it’s true that 2 + 3 = 5, what is said to be true is the thought: that 2 + 3 = 5. And it’s the very same item that one takes to be true in judging that 2 + 3 = 5.

It’s sometimes claimed that Frege held that the study of language must figure centrally in the attempt to gain clarity on the nature of thoughts. And there’s surely some truth to that claim. However, it’s equally important to acknowledge that Frege held that natural languages reflect thoughts only imperfectly. He held that the basic structures made available by natural languages fail adequately to reflect the most basic structures of thought. (That is one consequence of the infamous puzzle raised by the construction “the concept horse”, which on Frege’s principles cannot be used to denote a concept.) Furthermore, Frege held that the perceptible forms of language, and the effects of language on the imagination that are exploited, for example, in poetry (its “pictorial aspects”), serve to cloud our view of thoughts. The latter theme, of the sensible as disruptive, is especially prominent in the following passage, from Frege’s essay “Thoughts”:

I am not here in the happy position of a mineralogist who shows his audience a rock-crystal: I cannot put a thought in the hands of my readers with the request that they should examine it from all sides. Something in itself not perceptible by sense, the thought, is presented to the reader—and I must be content with that—wrapped up in a perceptible linguistic form. The pictorial aspect of language presents difficulties. The sensible always breaks in and makes expressions pictorial and so improper. So one fights against language, and I am compelled to occupy myself with language although it is not my proper concern here. I hope I have succeeded in making clear to my readers what I mean by ‘a thought’. (Frege, 1918–19: 360, fn.6.)


Descartes, R. 1641. Meditations on First Philosophy, E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross trans.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frege, G. 1918–19. ‘Thoughts.” In his Collected Papers on Mathematics, Logic, and Philosophy. B. McGuinness ed. M. Black, V. H. Dudman, P. Geach, H. Kaal, E.-H. W. Kluge, B. McGuiness, R. H. Stoothoff trans.. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

%d bloggers like this: