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Wednesday, June 13, 2012


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Where actually does Anscombe deny that 'I' is a referring term?

I have three concerns about Bill’s post.

1. Bill’s discussion of Frege’s view about the first person pronoun ‘I’ seems not to be accurate. While discussing Frege’s view, Bill asks: “What is the common referent of 'I' and 'BV'?” (I presume according to Frege!) On behalf of Frege, Bill answers:

“Presumably the common referent is the publicly identifiable person BV. But when BV designates himself by means of the thought or utterance of 'I’, he designates BV under the aspect, or via the sense, expressed by 'I,' a semantically irreducible sense that cannot be captured by any expression not containing 'I.'”

But this does not accurately describes Frege’s views. In the essay ‘Thoughts’, Frege says ”Now everyone is presented to himself in a special and primitive way, in which he is presented to no one else.” Subsequent to discussing the example of Dr. Lauben, Frege states: “But now he (i.e., Dr. Lauben) may want to communicate with others. He cannot communicate a thought he alone can grasp. Therefore, if he (i.e., Dr. Lauben) now says ‘I was wounded’, he must use ‘I’ in a sense which can be grasped by others, perhaps in the sense of ‘he who is speaking to you at this moment’;” (my emphasis)

So, first, according to Frege the sense of ‘I’ when used in communication is captured by an expression along the lines of “the speaker” (or writer), which is quite different from the manner in which the subject himself thinks of himself (i.e., in Kripke’s terminology: by means of self-acquaintance; see Kripke ‘The First Person’ printed in “Philosophical Troubles: Collected Papers, Vol. 1”, (2011), Oxford).

Second, contrary to what Bill say, the sense Frege assigns to ‘I’ in the above quotation does not seem to contain the expression ‘I’, although it does contain the expression ‘you’. So Frege appears not to be in agreement with Bill that the sense of ‘I’ is “a semantically irreducible sense that cannot be captured by any expression not containing ‘I’.” Perhaps Bill should have said instead of what he actually said something like this:

‘Frege is committed to the view that the sense of ‘I’ is a semantically irreducible sense that cannot be captured by any expression not containing some other indexical expression (e.g., ‘you’).’

Of course, it is not clear to me that Frege would have accepted this version either. In any case, Bill’s actual exegesis of Frege seems to face some problems that need to be corrected.

2. Bill’s calls Frege’s solution a “pseudo-solution” and offers an argument in which someone (for instance, a materialist philosopher) asserts “I am this body here.” Bill then states that, according to Frege, in order for the ‘I’ in the example to refer to the speakers intended referent, namely his own body, “… the sense of 'I,' whatever it might be, must be the sense of a physical thing inasmuch as it must be the mode of presentation of a physical thing. “ But, Bill notes, we of course understand quite well the use of the pronoun ‘I’ (by the materialist philosopher? or by anyone? I am not sure who is the ‘we’ here) without having to include in this sense the sense of a physical thing.

But I do not see why Frege is committed to construe the sense of ‘I’ used in the sentence “I am this body here’ as containing a sense of a physical thing simply because the intended referent is indeed a physical thing. After all, as noted in (1) above, it is open to Frege to give the sense of ‘I’ as used by the speaker who utters ‘I am this body here’ along the lines of “he who is speaking to you at this moment.” That fixes the referent of ‘I’ without having to include in the sense of ‘I’ the sense of a physical thing, unless one insists that the term ‘speaking’ already entails the sense of a physical thing. To counter this objection (which I do not believe Bill is in the position to make for quite other reasons) we can change the whole example to thinking. My objection would go through with minor alterations.

3. Towards the end of his post, Bill claims that the case of ‘I am BV’ (asserted or thought by BV) is not analogous, as Frege maintained, to the evening star/morning star case. And why is that? Because, Bill says:

“One cannot use 'morning star' and 'evening star' with understanding unless one understands that they refer to physical things, if they refer at all. It is understood a priori that these terms designate physical things if they designate at all; the only question is whether they designate the same physical thing.”

This statement is somewhat puzzling to me on several grounds.

First, according to Frege the sense of the ‘morning star’ is given by the phrase the star visible in the morning and similarly the sense of the ‘evening star’ is given by the phrase the star visible in the evening. There is no mention of physical things in these phrases and yet we understand them very well.

Second, imagine that our remote ancestors believed that stars are really the illumination of divine light as it flows through specifically designed wholes in a heavenly dome. Moreover, they also sincerely believed that divine light is very much unlike the light emanating from fire on earth. So in effect they did not believe that stars are physical objects. Despite the fact that they are certainly wrong about the nature of stars in general, they could still use the terms ‘evening star’ and ‘morning star’ to communicate for the sense of these terms is ‘the star visible in the morning (whatever stars are)’ etc.

Third, Bill’s claim that “it is understood a priori that these terms (i.e., ‘morning star’ and ‘evening star’) designate physical things if they designate at all;” is even more astonishing. How can it be known a priori that stars are physical things? After all, it was a matter of a monumental discovery that stars are in fact physical things just like earth is etc.

Fourth, if the nature of the referent must enter into the sense of a term, then the sense of ‘physical thing’ would be, well, ‘physical thing’ (or perhaps ‘things in space and time’; but then the sense of this phrase in turn would be ‘physical thing’, which lands us in a circle).


The denial is to be found in "The First Person" reprinted in her Collected Philosophical Papers, vol. II, and in other places. This is essential reading for anyone interested in the above topic.

Thanks for the comments, Peter. But I feel no need to respond since it should have been clear that I was not engaging in any exegesis or interpretation of Frege's actual views, but posing a problem and discussing one possible soultion to it, a solution that exploits the diference between the sense and the reference of an expression.

Nowhere in my post did I use the phrase 'Frege's solution.' I spoke of a Fregean solution which is somehting quite different, just as a Humean theory of causation needn't be the same as Hume's theory of causation.


Well, it seemed clear to me that

(1) You were considering a solution originating from Frege whether or not you used the term 'Frege's solution'. I think anyone reading the post would get the same impression;

(2) That your #3 is intended to refute a solution heavily inspired by Frege's position; and

(3) Regardless of whether or not you engage in Frege exegesis, several problems I posed are independent from the question of exegesis and apply to anyone examining a "Fregean solution" which employs the sense/reference distinction along Frege's lines.

I will expand upon the last point in the future.

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