Frege s Subjects: First-Person Thoughts and Their Thinkers

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1 Frege s Subjects: First-Person Thoughts and Their Thinkers Everything is unimportant to us if we cannot communicate it to others. Kant (1789/1998: 55) 1. INTRODUCTION We each associate specific thoughts with uses of the first-person pronoun or inflexion. For instance, I might think the thought that I would like a cup of tea. And I might aim to express that thought by use of the sentence I would like a cup of tea. My hope would be that my audience would be able to understand my words and thereby gain access to what I think. So there is the thought that I associate with my use of I would like a cup of tea. And there is the thought that you associate with my use of that sentence. I ll refer to thoughts that are associated in these ways with uses of the first-person pronoun or inflexion as first-person thoughts. A central question about such thoughts is: Can they be shared so that, for example, your thinking can engage with my first-person thoughts? I shall present part of an argument that all first-person thoughts can be shared. Of course, that doesn t get us very far. The significance of the claim that firstperson thoughts are shareable is dependent on what it takes to think a firstperson thought and for what purposes it might matter whether such thinking can be shared. In this paper, I shall focus on three questions: (Q1) Are all firstperson thoughts accessible impersonally, so that there are no first-person thoughts with which only one person can engage and that others are unable, in principle, to access? (Q2) What are the requirements on the type of access to a thought that can suffice for understanding my use or for being aware of that which I think? Must you think the very thought that I express in order to gain access to that thought? If not, under what conditions will your thinking amount to your accessing the thought that I aim to express? (Q3) What is it for a thought that I think to be the same as a thought that you think? Must our thoughts correspond at the level of sense that is, must we correspond in the specific ways that we think of referents when we think those thoughts? If not, what are the appropriate standards for identity of the thoughts that are engaged on two or more occasions of thinking? There are other important questions in this area, including questions about the relevant properties of first-person language and its 1

2 uses and related questions about the epistemology of first- and third-personal access to thought. But (Q1) (Q3) are the questions that will occupy me here. My aim here is to make progress in addressing the three questions through reflection on a partly historical question: How should Frege have answered them? The question is partly historical, since a good answer must be tethered by Frege s most central commitments. But, for at least three reasons, it is only partly historical. The first reason is that, in the places where Frege explicitly addresses questions about first-person thought, his answers to our three questions are at best partial and equivocal. Indeed, as we ll see, Frege s views about first-person thought appear less settled than his views on other topics. Second, Frege appears to acknowledge that first-person thought differs in important respects from some other types of thought. So it s not a straightforward task to apply to the first-person case the results of Frege s more detailed and decisive discussions of other cases. Third and finally, our aim is to reach a sort of equilibrium position on first-person thought on the basis of Frege s work. Although that doesn t require provision of fully adequate answers to our three questions, it may yet involve radical departures from Frege s system. In particular, it may involve revisions to Frege s system that he would have been unable or unwilling to contemplate. 1 Here, in sketch form, are the answers to the three questions that I ll defend. (A1) Thought is impersonally accessible: there is no thought, and in particular no first-person thought, that is as a matter of principle accessible to only one thinker. A requirement on two thinkers being in a position genuinely to agree or disagree with a with respect to a thought is that they share access to the very same thought. From (A1), attaining that position is always possible, at least in principle. (A2) The most fundamental mode of access to thought is grasp a way of thinking thoughts, rather than thinking about them. Although there are other ways of accessing a thought for instance, by way of certain forms of thinking about the thought, rather than thinking the thought itself thought is impersonally accessible in the most fundamental way. For genuine agreement or disagreement with respect to a thought requires shared grasp of that thought. Thus, there is no thought, and in particular no first-person thought, that is as a matter of principle or by virtue of the nature of the thought thinkable by only one person. (A3) Thoughts are individuated in the same way as senses, so that two instances of thinking are instances of thinking the same thought just in case they involve the same way of thinking of the same reference. Thus, I shall argue that Frege should have said this: there is no specific way of thinking of a particular reference, and in particular no such way of thinking of oneself associated with the first-person pronoun or inflexion, that is as a matter of principle or by virtue of the nature of that thought available to only one person. As I said above, I shall here present only part of the argument for (A1) (A3). A complete argument in their favour would consist in a positive component in which it is argued that there are powerful Fregean reasons for requiring those answers and a defensive component in which it is argued that there are no 1 Compare Dummett, 1981: 83,

3 powerful Fregean reasons for resisting those answers. My main aim in this paper is to develop the positive component of the larger argument. I pursue the crucial defensive component in a sister paper. My presentation of the positive argument proceeds as follows. In section 2, I present five principles that I take to constitute fundamental components of Frege s account of thoughts and their explanatory roles. And I describe an apparent tension that arises between something that Frege writes about the first-person and the five principles. In section 3, I use the five Fregean principles as a background against which to present three broad lines of response to the apparent tension, each involving a specific revision to one of the five principles. A secondary aim of this discussion is to gain clarity about the specific form that the three main responses to the conflict can take, in light of the presentation of the Fregean principles in section 2. In section 4, I argue that neither of the two most plausible responses to the apparent tension that are considered in section 3 is acceptable. For neither of the two accounts is able to capture a central explanandum of Frege s account of thoughts: the possibility, with respect to any accessible thought, of genuine agreement and disagreement amongst thinkers. 2. BASIC FREGEAN PRINCIPLES Thoughts are the basic objects of attitudinal psychology: they are the things one is related to when one adopts various stances with respect to how things are in one s environment. For one putative example, where one believes that smoking is dangerous, one adopts the belief relation to the thought that smoking is dangerous. Attitudinal psychology is the domain of reason: a domain controlled by requirements on thinking on the adoption of attitudes to thoughts if it is to attain to truth. So the basic objects of attitudinal psychology, thoughts, are required to be bearers, or determinants, of truth-values and to stand in various relations of compatibility or incompatibility that depend on how things have to be in order for them to bear or determine one or another truth-value. 2 Central notions of attitudinal psychology, including correctness and incorrectness of attitudes, or agreement and disagreement amongst attitudes, apply derivatively on the basis of more fundamental properties of the thoughts on which the attitudes are directed. For instance, adopting the belief that smoking is dangerous is correct just in case the thought that smoking is dangerous is true. And you and I agree that smoking is dangerous just in case you and I both stand in the belief relation to the thought that smoking is dangerous. Since attitudinal psychology is, in the above sense, the domain of reason, its fundamental objects, thoughts, appear to be required to uniquely determine truth-values, or at least conditions on truth-values that are uniquely satisfied in any possible situation. 3 For otherwise, transitions amongst attitudes that perfectly satisfy demands applicable to the objects of those attitudes might come out of step with demands on truth, so demands on correctness of attitude. For 2 E.g. CP: E.g. CP: 159, 171,

4 instance, suppose that a given thought is true in one context of thinking, and false in another. Then one might retain an attitude of belief to that thought as one moved from the first context to the second. In that way one might move from correctness to incorrectness of belief despite one s thinking remaining the same from the perspective of one s relation to thought. And one might agree with someone, in bearing the same attitude to the same thought, despite that thought being true in one s context and false in the other s. In that way two thinkers might agree even though only one of them was correct in thinking what they did. To avoid the internal and external demands of reason coming apart in that way, it is required that thoughts determine truth-conditions. 4 Thoughts are required to uniquely determine truth-values (at least given the way things are). In order to meet that requirement, one might simply identify thoughts with truth-values or truth-conditions. However, Frege holds that it is possible rationally to adopt and withhold the same attitude to thoughts that determine the same truth-value or truth-condition. 5 For instance, one might adopt the attitude of belief to the thought that Hesperus twinkles, a thought that is true just in case Hesperus twinkles. Since Hesperus is the very same heavenly body as Phosphorus, what one thereby believes is true just in case Phosphorus twinkles. Nevertheless, Frege holds that one might yet fail to adopt the attitude of belief to the thought that Phosphorus twinkles. If the thought that Hesperus twinkles were the very same thought as the thought that Phosphorus twinkles then instancing that pattern of attitudes would appear to be impossible. It would appear to involve one s both standing in the belief relation, and also failing to stand in the belief relation, to a particular thought, something that is ruled out by the indiscernibility of identicals. 6 Perhaps in some cases something like the required pattern can be instanced. For it may be that, in some cases, one s attitudinal relations to thoughts are derivative from more basic relations between one s sub-components and those thoughts. In that case, one might count as adopting the belief relation to a thought by virtue of one of one s sub-components adopting the belief relation to a thought. And one might count as withholding belief in the same thought by virtue of another of one s sub-components not adopting the belief relation to that thought. That wouldn t be a way of one s both adopting and failing to adopt belief in the same thought. But it would be a close analogue. However, such cases are ruled out by the condition that it is possible rationally to instance the required pattern. In cases where one s attitudinal relations to thoughts are mediated by insulated sub-components the required division compromises one s 4 For a powerful development of this line of argument, see Evans 1979/ E.g. CP: 144 5, 158, 176 7, 241, PMC: 80, , Here and throughout I use truth-condition so that if two truth-condition bearers or determinants are true in all the same possible situations, then they have the same truth-conditions. (For present purposes, I needn t also commit to a necessary condition on sameness of truthcondition.) Thus, they are individuated in a way that is more coarse-grained than are the specifications of truth-condition to which Frege appeals in Gg: I m indebted here to the discussion in Salmon 1986: 57, 77, 80. 4

5 rationality. For as things stand, someone in such a case is not in a position to bring everything that they think into rational contact so as either to assess what they think for compatibility or incompatibility or to bring together what they think in chains of reasoning. And it would only be possible to attain such a position if it were possible to adopt the required pattern of attitudes in propria persona. Frege also exploits differences amongst thoughts that determine the same truth-conditions in order to explain how thinkers can take rationally conflicting attitudes towards thoughts that determine the same truth-conditions. For example, attitudes of endorsement conflict with attitudes of rejection so that one cannot rationally stand in a relation of endorsement and a relation of rejection to the same thing. Yet it appears possible rationally to endorse the thought that Hesperus twinkles while rejecting the thought that Phosphorus twinkles. In this case, treating the required pattern of attitudes as relations to a single thing is not immediately ruled out by the indiscernibility of identicals, since that principle leaves open the possibility that a thinker might bear two attitudinal relations to one thing. Rather, what rules out the possibility is the nature of the required relations: the attitude of endorsement and the attitude of rejection exclude one another, so that it is impossible for a thinker to adopt both attitudes to the same thing. 7 Again, it might be that a proxy for the required pattern can be implemented by appeal to psychological division, so that one of a thinker s subcomponents endorses, while another sub-component rejects, a single thing. But, again, such division would amount to a compromise of the thinker s rationality. A rational thinker can adopt the required pattern of rationally conflicting attitudes only if they are directed at different things, hence only if thoughts are not determined by their truth-conditions. Now Frege holds that these features of basic attitudinal psychology can be discerned in our treatment of the attitudinal psychology of knowledge and belief. However, nothing central in Frege s account depends essentially on his being correct about that. Perhaps knowledge and belief only approximate to the demands on basic attitudinal psychology for example, because belief is a relation either to something that doesn t determine truth-conditions or to something that is determined by truth-conditions. 8 In that case, some of the specific claims that Frege makes, both about belief and knowledge and about our talk about belief and knowledge, would be incorrect. But as long as there is a more basic form of attitudinal psychology that meets the twin demands imposed by Frege s account one that involves attitudinal relations to thoughts that determine, but are not determined by, truth-conditions the most basic 7 Frege puts the point as follows, in considering the options available to one engaged with the question whether p or not-p: This opposition or conflict is such that we automatically reject one limb as false when we accept the other as true, and conversely. The rejection of the one and the acceptance of the other are one and the same. (PW: 8) See also PW: For one such account, see Salmon

6 components of his account can stand. And it is hard to see how that could be denied. 9 Frege often characterizes the constituents of thoughts that are responsible for the possibility that they might differ despite determining the same truthconditions by appeal to his notion of sense. 10 Frege views senses as specific ways of thinking about truth-values and their referential determinants. 11 Thus, wherever it is possible for a rational subject to bear a relation to one thought, T1, while failing to bear the same relation to a thought, T2, T1 is a different thought from T2. Specifically, T1 differs with respect to its constituent senses from T2. That is, wherever such a pattern of attitudes is possible, the thinker must be thinking in different ways, either about the same or different truth-values or referential determinants of truth-values. As with thoughts and for the same reasons it is a requirement that, in general, senses determine the constituent references carried by the thoughts that they constitute, and thus the truthconditions of those thoughts. Since senses are individuated in the same way as thoughts, there is some temptation to identity thoughts with the organizations of senses that constitute them. However, it may also be possible to exploit the flexibility made available by a distinction between thoughts and their constituent senses in order to distribute labour in a slightly different way. For instance, one might hold that in certain special cases only thoughts determine truth-conditions, while their constituent senses are only partial determinants of those truthconditions. And one might hold that a particular thought might be constituted out of different senses, for instance if one held that thoughts are determined by truth-conditions, but also include one or another range of constituent senses that determine those truth-conditions. For present purposes we can set aside the latter possibilities. (We ll return to them below.) We are now in a position to state two basic Fregean principles: (I) Sense determines possible distributions of attitude. Necessarily, for all subjects S, times t, attitudes Φ, thoughts T1 Tn, and senses C1 Cn, D1...Dn, if it is 9 For a time, Russell attempted to deny that there is such a form of attitudinal psychology: for him, the possibility of adopting conflicting attitudes towards thoughts evinces divergences in the constituent referents of those thoughts. Since he seeks to allow for roughly the same range of possible conflicts as Frege, the result is a view on which the immediate subject-matter of our attitudes is individuated as finely as senses are on Frege s view so one form of a sense-data based view of the subject-matter of thought. See e.g. Russell 1912 and the useful discussions of Russell in McDowell 1984/1998: 233 and Taschek 1992: 777. Frege often presents arguments that reference and referenceconditions fail to determine thought or sense as defences of the possibility of sameness of reference in cases of conflicting or otherwise incompatible patterns of attitude towards thoughts. See e.g. CP: Important general defences of broadly Fregean attitudinal psychologies may be found in Burge 2005: 27 59, 2009, Dummett 1978, and Salmon E.g. CP: , PMC: Strictly, Frege classifies as senses only those thoughtcomponents that are expressed, or expressible, through the use of language. On Frege s view, however, that is not a restriction. See e.g. PW: E.g. CP: 157 9, Gg:

7 (II) possible that: S at time t bears attitude Φ to thought T1 with constituent senses <C1 Cn> and it is not the case that S at t bears Φ to T2 with constituent senses <D1 Dn>, then <C1 Cn> <D1 Dn>. 12 Thought determines sense. Necessarily, for all thoughts T1 Tn and constituent senses C1 Cn, D1 Dn, if the constituent senses associated with thought T1 are <C1 Cn> and the constituent senses associated with thought T2 are <D1 Dn>, then if T1 = T2 then <C1 Cn> = <D1 Dn>. Frege holds that our most basic form of access to, or engagement with, thoughts involves thinking the thoughts in a way that is both first-order and also non-committal with respect to their truth or falsity. He thinks that one must engage in that way with thoughts in order to be in a position to adopt committal attitudes to them. He labels the basic form of first-order non-committal engagement with a thought grasp. 13 For certain purposes, it matters whether there is a non-committal form of engagement with thoughts and whether that form of engagement underwrites all other forms. For present purposes, however, we can remain neutral on both issues. For our purposes, the more important requirement on grasp is that it is a mode of first-order engagement with thoughts. On Frege s view, our attitudes are most fundamentally attitudes immediately to thoughts rather than, say, to representations of thoughts. Believing that smoking is dangerous differs from believing that it is believed that smoking is dangerous, or that Frege believes that smoking is dangerous, or even that one believes that smoking is dangerous. Believing that it is believed that smoking is dangerous is at least one order above believing that smoking is dangerous. Even so, it might be that believing that smoking is dangerous is at least one order above bearing a more fundamental attitude to the thought that smoking is dangerous. Frege holds that at the most fundamental level one bears attitudes immediately to thoughts, rather than to thoughts about thoughts, so that at the most fundamental level one s attitudinal relations are at first order. I shall depart from Frege in treating grasp as a generic mode of first-order engagement with thoughts, rather than as a distinct necessary condition on any such engagement. I ll therefore use grasp as a generic label for any form of first-order attitudinal relations to a thought. On that basis we can state a third Fregean principle (using access for the time being as a placeholder that will acquire content from the remaining principles): (III) Access to thoughts requires grasp. Necessarily, for any subject S and thought T, if S has access to T, then S grasps T. 12 See e.g. PMC: 80, 127, 153, I use angle brackets here and throughout to signal reference to constituent senses as structured in a particular way. As is well known, principles (I) and (II) appear inapplicable to basic logic principles, since it is plausible that such principles can be constituted from different thoughts or senses and yet failure to acknowledge the truth of such principles would appear to be indicative of a failure of rationality. 13 E.g. CP: 164, fn.10, 198, 355 6, 363, 368 9, 371, 374 5, 382, PW: 7, 137 9, 145, 211, 267, Gg: xxiv, PMC: 20, 67. 7

8 It is a basic presupposition of Frege s account that thoughts are objects of grasp. The most fundamental reason for this presupposition arises from the considerations driving his denial that thoughts are determined by truthconditions. We can begin by distinguishing first-order thoughts e.g. thoughts about environmental conditions not involving thoughts and second-order thoughts thoughts about thoughts. Now suppose that our relations to secondorder thoughts mediate our relations to first-order thoughts. In that case, we are required to hold that our relations to the second-order thoughts are immediate. For to hold that those relations are themselves mediated by relations to thirdorder thoughts threatens a regress. So at least at that level, our attitudinal relations are immediate and so are first-order, despite their being targeted on second-order thoughts. Ignoring the threat of regress though, the considerations that led to slicing thoughts more finely than truth-conditions require that at some order thoughts are sliced more finely than truth-conditions. But they require only that. So if our most basic engagement with first-order thoughts goes via immediate engagement with second-order thoughts, then one might respond to those considerations by holding that only second- (and higher-) order thoughts are fine-grained. That would enable one to hold that first-order thoughts are determined by their truth-conditions. For in that case something like the required pattern of attitudes could then be explained as one s being related to one second-order thought about a first-order thought, without being related to every second-order thought about that first-order thought. Of course, we might view such a situation as one in which what had appeared to be second-order thoughts are really first-order, since they are directed in the first instance on truthconditions, rather than on something of the same nature as themselves. But we would be powerless in the face of a more minimal, sceptical consequence. Absent the assumption that our most fundamental engagement with thoughts is at first order, we would be unable to derive any consequences concerning the individuation of first-order thoughts from reflection on possible patterns of attitude towards those first-order thoughts. We would thus lack reason to endorse principles (I) and (II) with respect to all thoughts. I take it then that it is a basic presupposition of Frege s account that our most fundamental mode of engagement with thoughts is first-order. The connection between sense and thought enforced by principle (II) enables us to state a fourth Fregean principle: (IV) Grasp of thought determines grasp of sense. Necessarily, for any subjects S1, S2, any thoughts T1, T2, and any constituent senses C1 Cn, D1 Dn, such that S1 grasps T1 by grasping <C1 Cn> and S2 grasps T2 by grasping <D1 Dn>, if T1 = T2, then <C1 Cn> = <D1 Dn>. Although Frege typically characterizes grasp as relating thinkers to thoughts, we noted above the possibility of adding flexibility to his system by exploiting a distinction between thoughts and their constituent senses. If we make use of that possibility, then we might distinguish grasp of thoughts from grasp of senses. In that way, we might allow that grasp of senses can constitute grasp of thoughts, because while both senses and thoughts determine truth-conditions, only 8

9 thoughts and not senses are determined by truth-conditions. (Compare the suggestion above concerning the upshot of a second-order account of grasp of first-order thoughts with a conception of first-order thoughts on which they are determined by truth-conditions.) Alternatively, we might allow that grasp of senses can constitute one form of access to thoughts, but cannot constitute grasp of those thoughts, since such mediated access would amount only to a form of second-order engagement with thoughts. However, Frege s basic account requires that grasp of a particular thought requires grasp of the particular range of senses determined by the thought (in accord with principle (II) above) so that principle (IV) is enforced. Frege held that thoughts are impersonal, so that one does not have to be any particular thinker in order to grasp them. By their nature, thoughts are available to be grasped by more than one thinker. 14 He had three main reasons for this. First, Frege held that the objectivity of truth required the objectivity of the fundamental bearers of truth, thoughts. And he held that objectivity required impersonal accessibility. 15 (More carefully, he held that objectivity of thought required that nothing in the nature of any thought exclude the possibility of its impersonal accessibility.) The first reason is related to the second. Second, Frege held that a fundamental role for thoughts is to mark points of possible agreement or disagreement amongst thinkers. Suppose that two thinkers bear attitudes that conflict only in the minimal sense that they cannot both be correct. For instance, suppose that one holds that Hesperus twinkles while the other denies that Phosphorus twinkles. Although the thoughts engaged by the two thinkers have the same truth-conditions, the thoughts differ at the level of sense. Because of that difference it is plausible that the thinkers are not in genuine disagreement: genuine disagreement is ruled out by an analogue of equivocation. In order to implement genuine disagreement it is plausible that the thinkers must adopt conflicting attitudes to the very same thoughts that is, by principle (II), thoughts constituted in the same way at the level of sense. If thoughts are to play the required role in implementing cases of agreement and disagreement, then it is plausible that they must be not only impersonally accessible but also possible objects of grasp by more than one thinker. 16 That doesn t rule out the possibility of thoughts that can only be grasped by one thinker. But it would mark a fundamental distinction in explanatory function between those thoughts that can be grasped by more than one thinker and those that can t. Moreover, one who invoked such thoughts would be required to show that the invocation was indispensable by appeal to some explanatory function other than marking points of possible agreement or disagreement. That is, they would be required to show, first, that some essential explanatory function is served by such elements and, second, that that function must be discharged by elements of the very same kind as those that discharge the more central function. I ll return to this issue and provide a more detailed discussion of the role of 14 E.g. PW: 7, 133, CP: 160, 162 fn.7, 198, 368, 371, 376, 382, Gg: xix, PMC: 67, E.g. PW: 138, CP: 368, Gg: xxiv. 16 E.g. PW: 133 4, CP: 198 9, 368 9, Gg: xix, PMC: 80. 9

10 grasp of thoughts in implementing agreement and disagreement below when we turn to consider views that assert the existence of elements at the level of sense that cannot be shared. The second reason provides the basis for the third. The third of Frege s reasons for requiring that thoughts be impersonal is this. It is a central feature of Frege s system that psychological attitudes are relational: they relate thinkers with thoughts. The question therefore arises why we should adopt such a relational conception of attitudes rather than a view on which attitudes are monadic properties of thinkers instances of which properties Frege classifies as ideas. The possibility of shared grasp can sponsor an argument in favour of the relational conception by way of a plausible inference to best explanation. For suppose that it is possible for two thinkers to disagree with respect to a particular thought. The simplest account of that possibility is that they stand in different and conflicting relations to the very same thought. By contrast, the monadic conception can make some sense of cases in which thinkers agree, since in those cases it will treat them as sharing a monadic property. 17 But it is bound to struggle with cases of disagreement, since such cases involve both difference in properties since the subjects of those properties disagree together with sameness in properties since the subjects do not just differ, but disagree. In order to cope with such cases, the monadic approach would be forced to make appeal to agreement with respect to shared properties of its basic range of monadic properties, so that thinkers who disagree instance different monadic properties while those properties themselves share a higher-order property. Since the structure of first and higher-order properties on such an account would ultimately have to correlate with the structure of the relational account, the relational account is favoured on grounds of simplicity. 18 However, in any case where the possibility of disagreement was ruled out due to 17 In fact, the issues here are delicate. Instancings of monadic properties cannot be shared. In order for two thinkers to share a monadic property to have the very same property it appears that they must both instance that property. But conceived in that way, their instancing the same property involves their each standing in instances of the instancing relation to that property. Hence, even agreement might require a minimal analogue of relational structure. 18 There are deeper reasons for favouring the relational account of disagreement and, indeed, agreement. For suppose that sameness of higher-order properties is required to implement either agreement or disagreement. And suppose that it is allowed that the required form of sameness of property would be undermined if the higher-level properties themselves differed in their higher-level properties. On those assumptions, it would be a necessary condition on agreement or disagreement that there were no such higher-level differences. And it is not clear how that could be ruled out in a natural and systematic way. By contrast, the analogue is ruled out on the relational view simply through the fact that a single object a thought is the locus of agreement or disagreement so that the indiscernibility of identicals rules out the possibility of disruptive higher-level differences. 10

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