Frege and Wittgenstein's Conceptions of Language as World-Involving

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Philosophy



Contemporary analytic metaphysicians have criticised the founders of the analytic tradition for focusing their attention on language when they should rather have been investigating the world. This criticism assumes that the early analytics' focus on language was not as such a focus on the world. And this assumption depends upon attributing to the early analytics a conception of language under which the determinants of an expression's linguistic category are constituted independently of its engagement with reality. But this is a misattribution: the early analytics conceived of a referring expression's linguistic category as a matter precisely of the ontological category of its referent. Under the early analytic, world-involving conception of language, linguistic investigation is just as such investigation of the world.

The overarching aim of this project is to examine the work of two principal early analytic philosophers, Frege and the early Wittgenstein, documenting in outline and in detail their world-involving conceptions of language. A correct understanding of these conceptions is essential for a proper assessment not only of their philosophies of language and their philosophical methodologies, but also of key elements of their philosophical theorising beyond the explicit discussions of language - such, for example, as Frege's philosophy of mathematics.

The project's outputs will be three papers, one focused on Frege and two on Wittgenstein.

The paper on Frege will take its lead from his reaction to Kerry's suggestion that certain concepts, such as the concept horse, are also objects. Frege responds first that the concept horse is not in fact a concept, and second that Kerry's opposition reflects a terminological rather than substantial disagreement. These two can be satisfactorily explained, I shall argue, only once Frege's world-involving conception of language has been understood. The expression 'the concept horse' is a proper name (a singular term) - that is, it refers to an object and so not to a concept.

My engagement with Wittgenstein will begin by examining his requirement that a correct theory of judgment - that is, of the constitution of thoughts or propositions - must rule out the possibility of judging an ontological nonsense. Explicating this requirement will involve unpacking Wittgenstein's conception of a judgment as world-involving into the thought that a theory of the constitution of a judgment is not less than a theory of sense: a theory, that is, of the world. To judge an ontological nonsense would be for one's judgment to represent an ontologically impossible situation, but for this idea to be coherent we need to understand representability as something other than ontological possibility, and Wittgenstein's perspective on judgment leaves no room for such an understanding.

The second paper on Wittgenstein will be an examination of how Wittgenstein's famous picture theory of judgment meets his own requirement - that is, of how, on his account of the constitution of a judgment, a judgment is world-involving in such a way that it "contains the possibility of the situation that it represents" (Tractatus 2.203). This will require careful examination of how the picture theory's central claim - the claim that a judgment is of the same combinatorial kind as the fact it represents - should be placed and understood.

It is anticipated that the project will benefit not only scholars of early analytic philosophy but also historically engaged philosophers of language and metaphysicians. The modern, non-world-involving conception of language is not compulsory. Indeed, there are theoretically fruitful alternatives suggesting philosophical methodologies rather different from those standardly endorsed today.

The project will last a year. The first six months will be spent on institutional research leave, and the work will be completed under the proposed Fellowship.

Planned Impact

Impact Summary

Questions as to how one can properly or fruitfully conceive of language's relation to the world have wide-reaching importance in theoretical philosophy. As indicated, they connect closely to questions of philosophical methodology. Hand in hand with this wide reach, however, is a certain abstractness. The project's concerns stand at a remove both from more everyday objects of philosophical enquiry such as justice or time, and also from empirical studies of natural language. Add to this theoreticity and abstractness the fact that the proposal is in the first instance a work in the history of philosophy, and it is apparent that many of the ways in which research in the arts and humanities can have societal and economic impact are closed for the project.

If direct impact is understood as impact by a piece of research on a person engaging with the content of its process or results, then this research will have no direct impact outside academia. In parallel with much theoretical research across the disciplines, the project's content will not be substantially intelligible to someone without a background in academic philosophy. Indeed, it is of the nature of the material to be discussed that the outputs cannot reasonably aim both to advance the debate and remain accessible to a wider readership. Given furthermore that the discussion will not directly open or suggest any non-academic possibilities, practical or otherwise, the immediate benefit drawn by a person who is positioned to engage with the research will be a benefit pertaining to their own academic concerns. Of course, this does not rule out that the project's results will over the course of time have indirect impact outside academia. It does mean, however, both that the various routes by which such impact might take place will be grounded in the first place in connections within academia, and further that such routes will be sufficiently complex, temporally extended and unforeseeable that it could be no part of the project to pursue them.

There is a standing possibility through much of philosophy of producing reduced and simplified versions of one's results for dissemination to a non-academic audience. I do not see, however, how this could be a valuable exercise in the present case. Non-academic interest in conceptions and theories of language in the history of philosophy is at best slight. And the degree of simplification necessary to render material from the project accessible would mean that what is of distinctive interest in that material would be largely if not entirely lost. Impact on the non-academic audience would not be impact *of the research project* on the non-academic audience.

These comments made, it should also be said that the proposed research will be a contribution within a tradition of theoretical philosophy which has, over a large timescale, profoundly informed our society's modes of thinking and living. The ongoing cultural impact of this tradition does not of course depend upon the particular project proposed. That could not be claimed of any one project. It would, however, be an obvious fallacy to suppose that because the cultural impact of a tradition of theoretical philosophy is not dependent upon some one piece of research within it, that piece of research plays no role in the impact of the whole to which it is a contribution.


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Description The research funded by this grant has elaborated and defended a view of how two important philosophers, Frege and Wittgenstein, conceived of language, the world, and the relation between the two. More specifically, I have held that that for both Frege and Wittgenstein, language and the world are constitutionally interdependent. Key to understanding this interdependence has been a recognition of the pride of place these philosophers ascribe in their theorising to the notion of truth. On the worldly side, a fact is understood precisely as a truth condition, as something whose obtaining explains the truth of a possible proposition or meaningful sentence. And on side of language, a meaningful sentence or proposition is understood precisely as the representation of a truth condition, as the saying of what must be so for the sentence to be true. This interdependence then dictates, I have argued, that the linguistic and ontological categories must align one to one, with the syntactic category of an expression matching the ontological category of its meaning. It follows that ontological investigation, investigation into the basic nature of reality, can proceed through an analysis of language.

The research provides a novel interpretation of two key historical figures, rejecting common interpretations of Wittgenstein on which ontology is theoretically prior to language, and common interpretations of Frege on which syntax is constitutionally independent of ontology. More than this, though, it provides a defence of the practice of philosophy offered such early analytic figures as Frege and Wittgenstein. The early analytics commonly sought to answer metaphysical questions through an examination of language. Recently, some philosophers have thought this inept, involving either a false assumption that language must track language-independent reality or a false assumption that there is no non-linguistic substance to metaphysics. But such reactions can now be seen to be mistaken. Indeed, the project may begin not only to deflect such criticisms, but more positively to rehabilitate the philosophical methodology of the early analytics.
Exploitation Route The outcomes of my research will be of use in the first instance to historians of philosophy and historically sensitive metaphysicians. Historians of philosophy will find novel and forceful interpretations of two key figures with which to engage. Contemporary analytic metaphysicians prepared to think seriously about their intellectual ancestors will find a challenge to certain commonplace presumptions of the aims and methodology of philosophy. As explained in my Impact Summary and Pathways to Impact Statement, the research was not anticipated to have any direct impact outside the academy.
Sectors Other