Propositions, thoughts, and Ideas: clarification of Evans’ terminology in relation to Frege – Part. I
In these last few days I have been reading sections 4.3 and 4.4 of The Varieties of Reference. As a matter of terminology, many philosophers have interpreted Frege’s notion of ‘thought’ as almost equivalent to what now is understood with the term ‘proposition’. In particular, Fregean thoughts have been taken as structured propositions of a peculiar kind. In Evans’ 4.3, however, it seems that the two concepts (thought and proposition) are quite different: thoughts are abilities, while propositions are other things, things whose truth-conditions are required to understand thoughts, that, in turn, can be understood as specific entertaining of propositions. More on this later.
It seems to me that Evans’ use of the term ‘thought’ differs from many contemporary philosophers’ understanding of it. I will make this point by contrasting Evans’ with Frege’s view (or, at least, with some interpretations of Frege).
Few examples of how some contemporary philosophers understand the Fregean notion of thought as almost equivalent to the notion of proposition. In the recent Burgess’ attempt to ‘fix Frege’, we find: “The sense of a sentence of type S Frege calls a thought, and the reader will not go far wrong who thinks of what Frege calls a ‘thought’ as roughly equivalent to what other philosophers call a ‘proposition’.” (Burgess 2003: 3)
Other examples are in King (2007): “However, Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell both had views about what holds together the constituents of propositions, or, in Frege’s case, thoughts.” (King 2007: 10) In a note he further explains that “I shall simply talk of their theories of propositions, ignoring Frege’s use of the term ‘thought’.” (King 2007: 10, note 8). In his entry on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, King says that:
“Frege called propositions thoughts (Gedanken), and held that the thought/proposition expressed by a sentence is itself a sense. And, like the senses of other complex linguistic expressions, the proposition/thought expressed by a sentence is a function of the senses of the words in the sentence and how they are put together. Now Frege at least sometimes appears to hold the stronger view that the sense of a sentence (proposition/thought) has as constituents the senses of the words in the sentence.”
The literature on Frege’s notion of thought is vast (see here), but I am not interested here in (Fregean) exegesis (among the various works, I have found interesting the debate between Dummett and Bell on the topic, see Dummett (1991), Bell (1979), and Bermudez’s reconstruction of this exchange in Bermudez (2001)).
Now, what does Evans say about thought, Ideas, and propositions in 4.3 and 4.4?
First of all, he writes “there is a sense in which thoughts are structured.” (Evans 1982: 100) How should we understand this point? Evans says that the fact that thoughts are structured does not imply that they are composed of elements (intended as abstract or concrete components), but instead that they are the result of the exercise of different “conceptual abilities.” (ibid: 101). In a note related to this point (15), Evans refers to Peter Geach’s Mental Acts, and I think it is interesting to quote two passages from Geach’s work:
- “The ability to express a judgment in words thus presupposes a number of capacities, previously acquired, for intelligently using the several words and phrases that make up the sentence. I shall apply the old term “concepts” to these special capacities an application which I think lies fairly close to the historic use of the term.” (Geach 1957: 12) [Emphasis mine]
- “A concept, as I am using the term, is subjective it is a mental capacity belonging to a particular person. (My use of “concept” is thus to be contrasted e.g. with Russell’s use of it in The Principles of Mathematics and again with the use of it to translate Frege’s “Begriff”; Russell’s ‘concepts’ and Frege’s Begriffe were supposed to be objective entities, not belonging to a particular mind.) The subjective nature of concepts does not however imply that it is improper to speak of two people as “having the same concepts”; conformably to my explanation of the term “concept”, this will mean that they have the same mental capacity, i.e. can do essentially the same things.” (Geach 1957: 13-14)
Summing up the two points, it seems that Geach has in mind a notion of concept according to which concepts are capacities and, in particular, mental subjective capacities. In addition, Geach explicitly contrasts his use of the term with Frege’s objective view of concepts.
Evans says that thoughts comprise “such-and-such an Idea of an object, as well as such-and-such a concept” (Evans 1982: 104). Ideas (the terminology is again borrowed from Geach) of objects are to be understood in terms of mental abilities, in particular, it “is something which makes it possible for a subject to think of an object in a series of indefinitely many thoughts, in each of which he will be thinking of the object in the same way.” (ibid: 104) Thoughts are thus combinations of abilities, for example, if a subject S can entertain the thought that a is F, then, we are committed to say that S has at least two capacities: the Idea of an object and a concept (which can be understood, in turn, as another particular capacity). Now, in a revealing note (24), Evans draws the obvious conclusion that his notion of Idea cannot be equated with the notion of Fregean sense, for the latter “is supposed to exist objectively” (independently of anyone’s grasp of it). This does not exclude that two different subjects, exercising two different capacities (different ‘composed Ideas’, that is, different thoughts), can grasp the same Fregean sense.
In 4.4, Evans further articulates the requirements that are supposed to be met by a subject that can be reasonably credited with a thought (that is, the Russell’s Principle), and the relations between Ideas and propositions. I will deal with this other part in my next post.
Summing up what has been said so far, it seems to me that it would be misguiding to assume that when Evans and Frege use the term ‘thought’, they mean the same thing. Again, I am not a Frege scholar, I have just looked here and there at how some contemporary philosophers have understood the relation between thought and proposition in Frege. According to them, Fregean thoughts are something that is objective (inhabitants of a third realm), while for Evans, thoughts are composed of Ideas, which in turn are subjective capacities. I am not sure whether Evans’ notion of thought can be somehow compared with the notion of ‘idea’ in Frege’s On sense and reference. They are both subjective components of the apprehension of something that is objective, but they are described in rather different ways and play different roles.
Am I wrong? If yes, where and, possibly, why?
Bell, D. (1979) Frege’s theory of judgement (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Bermudez, J. (2001) Frege on thoughts and their structure. Philosophiegeschichte und logische Analyse, 4: 87-105.
Burgess, J. (2003) Fixing Frege (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
Dummett, M. (1991) Frege and other philosophers (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
Geach, P. (1957) Mental Acts (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)
King, J. (2001) Structured Propositions. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
King, J. (2007) The nature and structure of content (Oxford: Oxford University Press)