Frege and the Language of Reason

Sunday, January 14, 2024
First Aired: 
Sunday, November 7, 2021

What Is It

At the end of the 19th Century, the German philosopher Gottlob Frege invented a new language, based on mathematics, designed to help people reason more logically. His ideas have had a lasting impact on philosophy, math, computer science, and the study of artificial intelligence. And many of the questions that influenced his thinking are still hotly debated today: How much does language influence the thoughts you can think? Could there be a way of speaking that taps into deep philosophical insights about the nature of reality? What's the relationship between math and logic? Josh and Ray try to make sense of Frege with host emeritus John Perry, author of Frege's Detour: An Essay on Meaning, Reference, and Truth.

Listening Notes

In this episode, Josh and Ray examine the work of Gottlob Frege, a German philosopher who created a new system of logic. Although there were plenty of former mathematical frameworks, Ray points out that Frege’s was revolutionary because it involved systematic proofs. Josh questions how Frege checked his own system, to which Ray admits that it was still imperfect and contradictory. Then, Josh questions how Frege’s system makes sense of real world confusions.

The philosophers are joined by John Perry, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Stanford University and the co-founder and former co-host of Philosophy Talk. Ray asks about the advances made in Frege’s influential book “The Begriffsschrift,” and John discusses how to apply mathematical ways of thinking about grammar. For instance, Frege favors an object-concept model instead of a subject-predicate structure for sentences. Josh asks about identity puzzles such as the confusion between Clark Kent and Superman, since Frege left that problem unsolved in his first book. John explains how Frege’s solution was to demonstrate that sentences describe the content of people’s thoughts and the world.

In the last segment of the show, Josh, Ray, and John discuss how Frege’s logic differs from that of other philosophers, such as Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Richard Rorty. Ray asks about the relationship between logic and understanding what goes on inside people’s heads, prompting John to discuss things that happen in the abstract and outside of people’s heads. Josh wonders if Frege’s ideas have influenced computer science, and John describes how Frege’s failures sparked a wave of other scientists working in computing and the philosophy of science.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:32) → Holly J. McDede examines how identity confusion plays out in real life.
  • From the Community (Seek to 42:13) → Josh and Ray consider if real life wars could be carried out in virtual reality.



John Perry
You know Frege is wrestling with something when he writes these long paragraphs.

John Landy
Coming up on Philosophy Talk: Gottlob Frege and the Language of Reason.

Comments (14)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, October 3, 2021 -- 1:19 AM

These are tough questions

These are tough questions that I hope John will reflect on in the show.

When I write, language greatly influences my thought. When I speak, that influence is reverted to subconscious channels for the most part as I don’t have a spell checker, references, and Fregean circumstance inherent in the writing process. I rarely read back my spoken word though I unlock emotion in myself and others at times in speech which gives me pause. Now, we too often talk into the void of switched-off video or with the confidence of our pandemic bubble mates. Frege’s detour is felt more in the written word than the spoken language? The medium of language is essential to this question.

As much as language influences thought, not so much emotion and experience. Languages change at different rates, especially once written. In Iceland, they write and read the exact language of their epic literature that predates Christianity (going back to the 10th century.) I doubt Icelandic thought has been frozen as long. However, there might be a consistency there that I am not appreciating.

Language doesn’t determine the circumstance of your birth, experiences, or necessarily your culture. Most importantly, it doesn’t specify the roles you take in your thought. I don’t strictly follow what John says when he talks about roles or characters or why they are necessary. I would follow more on that.

If fewer and fewer languages are spoken, thought is less and less unique? If you count computer languages and math proofs and papers, perhaps there is a change in medium and projection to social and work space rather than a loss in outright thought. Frege’s unique notation is a burst of creativity that has sparked tremendous innovation – tools for thinking and intuition.

Frege was limited in his thought by his culture and times and his focus on Math. Geometry was still the crucible of mathematical thinking. Only in his lifetime did the work of Rieman and Weierstrass make analytical what Descartes put to paper. For Frege, that geometrical concept of perfection and eternity held back his thought to the imperfect languages and reflexive reference that could have deepened his theory. At the same time, John’s take here is logically less powerful and not Mathematical at all.

It is good that this show follows Christopher Lehrich’s presentation of Occultism, in which he mentions the Adamic language. There is an occult idea that a language of creation exists, and divinity even, that has power and insight taken up in Western philosophy and religion. Frege took a giant leap that has put Russell, Wittgenstein, and Godel on a quest that didn’t quite get us to the same place. John makes good headway and adds honest insight into the precursors that perhaps held Frege back.

Logic is the foundation of math, along with observations of geometry. It was around Frege’s time that the topology was formulated. The power of Math to solve logical questions like Euler’s seven bridges problem hinted at a corollary power were language to be understood from a logical foundation. Frege’s notation is mind-warping, if not perfect. There are no ideal natural languages. Current models of language are far from complete even as much of the written corpus has been mined, and everyday speech is heavily surveilled – that was the purpose of Googles’ 411 services in the day and Snowden’s message in the now.

Not all numbers can be manipulated in logic and still retain meaning. Still, whole fields of math extended through sense have later turned out to have application. Where there is causality, there is a need for logic and number. If reality is not derivative of math and logic, causality is the lynchpin between logic and math.

I read Frege’s Detour and am trying to answer the show questions in a quick hitter that is instead turning into a novel… I hope the show goes to some of these places. I heart this book.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, November 5, 2021 -- 7:37 PM

I just took in the show.

I just took in the show.

Holly J. McDede’s Roving Reporter segment was excellent. Lots to think about there with Music and Identity. Roles and Identity are two concepts that John didn’t discuss here that he points to in his book. Holly is always good; she shows it here.

John spent most of the time laying down the history of Frege and his legacy. I wish he would have gotten more into his idea to avoid the Detour. I don’t think I heard that here. It is one of reference back to Reality. I will listen back to the show in the future, as I like to play podcasts as I drive or try to get some sleep (not at the same time, though that is becoming more and more possible.)

Turing keeps coming up here and in other shows and posts recently. It’s beginning to look like an impossibility not to do a presentation on him in the coming year. The AI series is going to do nothing but push back until that is done.

I like Ray’s book recommendations. I will pick up ‘In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language’ by Arika Okrent. They have not let me down so far. Stanislaw Lem was a revelation.

I’ll save thought for a blog if one is posted … but I would like to comment on the conundrum – by Khe Sahn – Can wars be resolved in Virtual Reality (VR.)

No. VR warfare is a terrible idea and fundamentally misunderstands VR. To think that VR isn’t real is a mistake. There is a reason Reality is in the name. The PTSD that a VR war would wreak on a population at large would be devastating. I have, we all have likely, several relatives who fought wars. War is bad. VR is real. We are already suffering from violence in our society from poorly thought out computer games, movies, comic books, and media that have caused actual harm.

I’m excited to hear Jeremy Bailenson in December discuss VR. Josh and Ray should ask him, along with an ask as to how it could be implemented. I bet the answer would be enough to squelch the idea outright.

Josh’s idea of Champion warfare is profound as well. Lots to think about there (Malcolm Gladwell did a bit on David and Goliath that points to a modern allegory for Drones and high tech.) I also like the resource constraint idea to VR warfare. If that were measured in psychological harm and mischief, if the one causing the most significant quantity of either would lose, then I am all for it. The energy use behind server farms already dedicated to silliness makes me rue the idea before giving VR warfare another thought. We have enough pilots in the deserts of the Southwest fighting our battles throughout the world.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, October 3, 2021 -- 2:33 PM

I am in agreement with

I am in agreement with limitations based on culture, science and time. Our overall advancement can hardly surpass these circumstances. Some thinkers have surmounted such limitations, but, mostly, giants have had to stand on shoulders. Having read about Frege, i may now read him. Don't think it will change my view much. But, I will try to jooms it---jump out of my space.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, October 16, 2021 -- 3:22 PM

And, (I got interrupted), the

And, (I got interrupted), the trouble with philosophy is philosophers. It is intractable really. As much as truth. Surely equal to ethics, morality and the rest of those ideals we can never make our minds up about. I mean, WE posited the concepts, tried to codify reasonings. But, then, could not settle on codification(s). If you can't always get what you want, and, don't always want what you get, is there any point in trying? Must we 'go through the motions'? 'Keep up appearances'? I assert that is a ruse.
A foundation for that most human of disservice, lies.. So we stumble and fumble;...wonder why things just don't turn out right. The secret? We set ourselves to failure. And deny that, to hell and back... What a laugh.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, October 17, 2021 -- 11:40 AM



Prosperity does not allow one to cheat on their sexual partner no matter how successful Billy Joel may be in his life. The relative wealth of our generation does not validate our choices or moral judgments.

Are philosophers the problem? John Perry here offers a way to fix Russell’s barber challenge, most philosophers think around Frege’s ideas and don’t dismiss them. Frege was creative and way ahead of his time. That he didn’t accomplish his bigger goals doesn’t make his thought worthless.

The project is to add logical rigor to math and language, decode our thought, and build artificial intelligence… drink beer! (or bow down to the one you serve!) No one here is setting themselves to fail.

I’m not sure if you weren’t intending on posting this to Neil’s Religion post? This is off-topic and not relevant here. Am I wrong? It looks like you were rushed/interrupted.

Frege was a purported anti-semite. Billy Joel’s dad was a holocaust survivor. Is that where you are going here?

In either case, Frege is not a subject for laughter.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, October 19, 2021 -- 9:23 AM

This was in response to a

This was in response to a previous post - that made the point that prosperity and self-control allow greater leeway for actions and morality - using Billy Joel lyrics - now deleted above. Adding this comment for the solitary reader who may wonder where my marbles are. I myself don't know most of the time.

The second post is still outstanding and I also address that here.

Joy. Carry on.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 18, 2021 -- 11:04 AM

You are right. I only know of

You are right. I only know of Frege what I have seen written by others, mostly good. For a majority, philosophers probably are doing the best they can with what they have and know. I willingly grant that much. There are other ideas, however, which seem unfounded, or at best, poorly constructed. I have spouted off on some those---to the displeasure of many. The treatments of so-called microaggression; envy as virtue; and that outworn adjective, awesome and its' noun, awesomeness.
These posts left me disappointed. Well. You can't please everyone. Thanks for setting me straight on philosophy as a discipline. My vision of things goes sometimes, crosseyed. Through this, I think I confirmed some things I have suspected about the way(s) PT presents topics and why it is those are re-addressed. It is a logical sort of formula---appears to meet needs:, if and only if, newer theses on older takes conform with facts which have not changed. The panpsychism surge has not impressed this old dog.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, October 18, 2021 -- 1:40 PM

Fair enough. I don't read

Fair enough. I don't read the original works if there is a book on a philosopher.

But I did read Chapter 3 and 4 from John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" for Rob Reich's show on Philanthropy on Ken's recommendation to understand Rob's and Mill's experiments in living idea. That is some of the most clear and reaffirming philosophy ever written.

Frege is a translation nightmare. Real differences in meaning depending on how you take it. John got into that a bit.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, January 26, 2022 -- 1:19 PM

Quite some years ago, there

Quite some years ago, there was an online page called The Fifteen Minute Philosopher. I used to check it from time to time. One of the principal tenets of the position advanced was that ' context is everything'. I still have not attempted to suss the system proposed by Frege, therefore I cannot offer an opinion on its' discrepancies. From the little I have learned about what he was trying to do, I deduce that his goal was a detachment from accepted modes of logic...not a bad approach, if one wanted to get a different view---a different outcome, independent of what had been gotten before.
I am not saying it was good, bad, correct or incorrect. Just different. And, we know it is easier to go with the status quo than to blaze new trails. (I remembered, several years later, the Fifteen Minute folks' emphasis on context. Cannot find the blog now.)

Whatever Frege's rationale, one point is salient: if one wants something different, one must step outside of current systems. Contexts imply certain rules. It seems Frege had had enough of that.
But, I digress a bit. I have asserted that there is something called contextual reality. It is not the only kind, but has taken on increasing importance, in the near term (ha, ha), giving legs to all sorts of causes and schisms. As for Frege's idea, all such moves entail risk. I don't think he thought much of context, insofar as it too has flaws. I am assuming his idea is imperfect. It is probably not, however, impossible. Tweakable, not unspeakable, or something like that. We need thinkers like Frege---mavericks; free spirits; unconstrained independents willing to risk. I have been doing my best for a quarter century or so. As I understand it, there is a new book out now. It was written by an Englishwoman. It is titled, The Fifteen Minute Philosopher. Context is not everything, no. Evidence suggests we have made it, rather, too much. (No apologies, Professor Dennett...)

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, January 29, 2022 -- 3:45 PM

'What's the relationship

'What's the relationship between math and logic?' This may be the 'right question'. Tim Smith pointed out that translation of Frege's work is a nightmare. Meaning gets confused. I am probably wrong but it seems to me logic and math stand apart from one another---after a discredited Stephen J. Gould's, non- overlapping magisteria., as with science and religion. But, wait a minute. If I am not mistaken, there are items of logic which cannot be proven mathematically, and, contrariwise, mathematically supported ' truths' that, on their face, defy logic. Folkloric wisdom ( there's THAT word, again) holds we cannot have it both ways. Is this an eternal conundrum, or would we rather employ Occam's Broom and ignore it? My thanks to Tim , Josh and Ray for helping me think about this. Two last questions: does this mean logic and math are contrapuntal? If so, are they supposed to be?

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