Is Language Necessarily Fregean?

                                    Is Language Necessarily Fregean?




Frege’s distinction between sense and reference gains much of its intuitive plausibility from certain often-rehearsed examples. Thus we have the cases of Hesperus and Phosphorus (the planet), Afla and Ateb (the mountain), Superman and Clark Kent (the person). Citing this type of example Frege invokes the notion of a “mode of presentation”, inviting us to consider the fact that a single object can be presented to us in many different ways; these ways are said to correspond to the sense of a name, so that two names of a single object can have different senses. The intuitive point is that we can have many visual perspectives on the same object as we view it from different angles and in different conditions. And it is not always obvious that it is the same object we are seeing from these different viewpoints. Thus senses are held to be constituted by (or supervenient on) perceptual aspects—in these cases visual aspects. This sounds all very straightforward and plausible, and so the theory of sense is launched on apparently solid foundations. Once it is extended beyond these initial examples to include sense and reference for predicates, connectives, and whole sentences the theory tends to lose its intuitive appeal; but in the case of names of perceptible material objects it looks to be on firm ground.

            This raises the question of whether the Fregean picture can be applied to any language. Are there types of language to which it does not apply? Is it only proper names for perceptible material objects that exemplify the theory? That would be a serious limitation. In particular, do all singular terms carry with them a mode of presentation that fixes their sense? The obvious problem concerns language about mental states—about sensations, thoughts, “I”, etc. Suppose I refer to a pain in my knee: does this pain offer me a variety of perceptual perspectives? Clearly, it does not—I do not see, hear, touch, smell, or taste my pains. Can we introduce two different names for the pain that are associated with two modes of presentation, analogous to visual perspectives on a material object? We certainly have no such names as things stand, and it is hard to see what the distinct modes of presentation might be. I don’t sense my pains from different perspectives. Russell would say that it is possible for me to have logically proper names for my sense data, where the meaning of the name is identified with the reference; but the idea that my sense data can be presented to me in different ways, according to my viewpoint, seems manifestly absurd. I don’t have perceptual relations to my inner states. Maybe we can try to cobble together some analogue of visual mode of presentation here—say by bringing in third-person reference to my inner states—but then we are trying to save a theory, not motivate it. The beauty of the usual examples is that they appear to give the theory a strong intuitive foundation (which then gets stretched to breaking point as it is generalized), but we cannot obtain this result by invoking mental language—here the idea of two modes of presentation of a single mental state looks contrived at best. I couldn’t perceptually encounter a single pain of mine in two different ways and then be surprised to find that I have encountered the same sensation twice. So mental language looks distinctly non-Fregean. Just as it is hard to extend the Fregean apparatus beyond the initial examples to include predicates and whole sentences, so it is hard to extend it to words for mental particulars (including the self). So it would seem that only a fragment of natural languages fits the Fregean model—names of people, places, and things. We might then speak of a Fregean theory of names, where this linguistic category is quite narrowly circumscribed, with no attempt to be more general. At least the theory is correct for the initial examples—or so it might be thought.

            But is it? Note the heavy emphasis on visual modes of presentation in describing the motivating examples: for example, the way Venus looks in the morning and the evening. Here we have a clear conception of two appearances of a single entity—the way a planet can appear differently in the visual field. There can be variations of brightness, apparent size, position, relation to other celestial bodies, color of sky, etc. We also have a clear conception of tracking a single object visually through time and space. Vision supplies us with well-delineated perceptual aspects, both distinct from each other and yet clearly of the same object. It is ideally suited to getting Frege’s theory of sense and reference off the ground. But what about blind people: can’t they use and understand ordinary proper names? Evidently they can, and yet they associate no visual mode of presentation with those names. If Frege tried to motivate his theory by reminding blind people of how they see objects, he wouldn’t get very far. So is his theory limited to proper names as used by sighted people? That would surely be a grave limitation.

            It might be suggested that blind speakers can exploit their sense of hearing to arrive at suitable modes of presentation. Thus they might detect planets by the use of an instrument that converts information contained in light into audible clicks: they apply the names “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” on the basis of this instrument (there could be blind astronomers). They might then discover that what produces one pattern of clicks is the very object that produces another pattern. The sense-determining mode of presentation is identical to the pattern of clicks, it may be said. Accordingly, what these speakers mean by “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” is not what sighted people mean, since they associate different sensory modes of presentation with the names in question.

It is certainly possible to construct Fregean modes of presentation this way, but it is striking how unintuitive the resulting theory is—patterns of clicks caused by an object don’t seem much like visual aspects of the object. The clicks are evidence for the planet in its two different appearances, but they hardly constitute aspects of the planet. We see objects, but we hear only the sounds that objects make, not objects themselves. Doesn’t it seem peculiar to claim that the clicks constitute what the blind speakers mean by their names? “What do you mean by ‘Hesperus’?” we ask; “I mean the following sequence of clicks…” they answer. Is this what the blind speakers expresswhen they utter the name? It is the same with names for people: a blind speaker might hear the same person talking on different occasions and not realize it is the same person, but is it plausible to suggest that (say) “Superman” and “Clark Kent” mean these different vocal sounds? Are these different modes of presentation of the same man, suitable for conversion into senses? And what if a speaker is both blind and deaf—are we then to suppose that his modes of presentation are tactual or olfactory? And what if he has no senses at all? Must his names then be meaningless, devoid of sense?

            Someone wedded to the Fregean scheme might insist that this is all really perfectly intuitive—the use of visual aspects was not essential to getting the theory off the ground. It is equally plausible when we shift to other senses. Then consider a further sensory deprivation: the speakers suffer from blindsight and analogues of blindsight for the other senses. Can’t they still have names for material objects, even though they experience no conscious modes of visual (or other) presentation for those objects? They can detect the presence of objects by use of their eyes, but there is no conscious visual seeming, just a sensory blank. How then could the sense of the names be derived from their visual (or other) experience? It might be replied that they harbor unconscious visual modes of presentation, and that these constitute the senses of the names. But how can a speaker’s consciousunderstanding of a name be constituted by an unconscious state of his mind or nervous system? The unconscious information delivered by the eyes in cases of blindsight cannot be what the speaker consciously means by her words; it surely plays no part in forming the speaker’s linguistic understanding. It is neither grasped nor expressed, existing merely at an unconscious level. There is absolutely nothing intuitive about the claim that the meaning of names for speakers with blindsight is made up of unconscious information buried deep in their brains. And the same is true for “deafhearing” and the like: unconscious auditory data, pertaining to clicks or voices, is not going to cut it as a candidate for modes of presentation. And yet meaning goes on in such cases. Perceptual aspects of things are simply not necessary to the use and understanding of names, even when those names denote ordinary material objects. They seem, in fact, quite irrelevant. It is perfectly true that we, as we are constituted, experience perceptual aspects of things, notably visual aspects (if we are sighted); but this is not a requirement of meaning—it is not essential to language as such, not even to naming.

            Here are a couple of supplementary points. Your visual modes of presentation of a given object, say a person you are talking to, will vary over time, as you move, your interlocutor moves, the light varies, and so on. These will probably number in the thousands even within a short period of time, given the sensitivity of vision. Are we to suppose that the name you use for your interlocutor varies in its sense as the mode of visual presentation varies? That would mean that the name has thousands of different senses as the conversation continues. But doesn’t it have the same sense over the entire period? Is it really as fluid and ever changing as your visual experience? Secondly, animals and preverbal children see the world under visual aspects—they experience visual modes of presentation—and yet they do not understand language. Clearly vision is not ipso facto a linguistic matter—no sense is grasped just by seeing an object from a particular angle. So how can senses be identified with perceptual aspects? At the least something would need to be added—but then that will be what constitutes meaning, not the perceptual aspect itself. Sensory modes of presentation are at too low a cognitive level to constitute linguistic sense.

            At this point it might be conceded that the motivating examples are flawed, mistaking the parochial for the general, but there is still the question of solving Frege’s puzzle. If we reject modes of presentation, aren’t we stuck with reference alone, and hence will be unable to distinguish “a = a” and “a = b”? At least we can understand how identity statements might be informative if we invoke the apparatus of perceptual aspects, because it is clear that we can discover that two visual aspects belong to the same object. But it doesn’t follow that this kind of identity knowledge is what is expressed by identity statements; it might merely be collateral knowledge, not part of the semantic content of the statement in question. Here we need to state an alternative theory, so that we can see that Fregean modes of presentation are not necessary for solving Frege’s puzzle. Consider this theory: “a = b” means “the denotation of ‘a’ = the denotation of ‘b’”. Here we get a difference of meaning because each definite description contains a reference to a distinct name. This is not a Fregean theory (in fact Frege explicitly rejects such a theory) because, despite the use of definite descriptions, it is not a theory that invokes modes of presentation of objects—Venus does not present itself to us as the denotation of “Hesperus”. This is a meta-linguistic theory, not a mode of perceptual presentation theory. I won’t defend the theory here, merely noting that it provides an alternative to Frege’s official story, as well as giving us an invariant meaning for names used by different speakers (sighted and blind, people with blindsight, and across varying perceptual encounters). Modes of perceptual presentation are thus not part of the meaning of sentences containing names, even names of people we see every day; and the proposition expressed by an identity statement is not identical to a proposition concerning perceptual aspects coinciding in a single object. I can indeed learn that two perceptual appearances are appearances of the same planet, but that is not what I learn when I learn that Hesperus is Phosphorus—instead I learn that the planet called “Hesperus” is identical to the planet called “Phosphorus”. This is the self-same proposition that is learned by the sighted, the blind, people with blindsight, and anyone else who understands the name; it is not that these varying individuals all learn something different, depending upon their contingent perceptual peculiarities.   

            Frege came up with a novel theory of meaning, centered on the distinction between sense and reference, which has had a profound influence. When students are first presented with the theory they are schooled to reflect upon Hesperus and Phosphorus and the like; they are enticed to consider the different modes of presentation we can have of those objects. This all seems very intuitive and commonsensical; they are therefore easily persuaded of the fundamental correctness of Frege’s theory. To be sure, doubts set in when Frege attempts to generalize the theory, and few have followed him the whole way. Still, it is felt that he was definitely onto something with ordinary proper names: sense, reference, mode of presentation, cognitive value—they all make perfect sense. But if what I have argued in this paper is right, that is all an illusion, borne of tendentious examples. Frege’s theory is defective from the ground up—even for the cases thought most favorable to it. Basically, it is too narrow, because too geared to visual perception.  [1] Not only is language not necessarily Fregean, as witness mental language; no fragment of actual language is Fregean either, not even “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus”.


  [1] The vision-centered character of Frege’s thinking about sense and reference is evident in his well-known analogy with the telescope. He compares the subjective idea to the retinal image, the reference to the distantly seen moon, and the sense to the optical image on the lens. A telescope is obviously a visual instrument. Thus the entire scheme is shaped by the existence and nature of vision. But there is no necessary link between vision and meaning, as blind speakers make abundantly clear. If we abandon the visual examples and analogies, simply equating the sense of a name with a definite description that is not tied to any sensory system, we sacrifice a great deal of the intuitive force of theory: no longer can we speak of modes of presentation, but also we are simply claiming synonymy between names and descriptions. We don’t have a theory of what the differences of sense between descriptions consist in, as we do when we invoke modes of perceptual presentation. At the very least a theory with the structure of Frege’s theory needs to be expounded and motivated without reliance on perceptual perspectives. Sense can’t be identified with “mode of presentation” but only “mode of description”. He is then merely proposing a description theory of names, not a general theory of meaning rooted in our basic awareness of the world. A sense might be construed as a mode of conception but not as a mode of presentation—and we can’t elucidate the former by means of the latter. We can certainly set up a structure of the kind Frege recommended, but we can’t motivate it in the way he did; we can’t make it look self-evident by appeal to perceptual examples. 

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