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The Linguistic Turn and the Birth of Analytic Philosophy

March 25, 2012

Young Frege

In philosophy there is very little terra that couldn’t reasonably be labeled infirma. As others have pointed out, that’s why philosophy is philosophy and not some other pursuit. There are, however, positions which come much closer to the ideal of certainty than others and, to the extent that such privileged philosophical positions exist, it behooves the philosopher to take them seriously and to come to terms with the neighboring problems and questions. There are at least two reasons that this is a good philosophical practice: is likely that such a widely held belief is supported by good reasons (and we are in the reason-business, after all)


2. such framework orienting positions will tend to be relevant in more speculative and less retrospective meditations.

I’m going to spend the next few posts thinking about judgment. In particular, I’ll be thinking about Frege’s account of judgment with respect to discursive activity more generally in which judgment is the fulcrum against which the lever of meaning generates its mechanical advantage and Quine’s attempt to problematize meaning by showing that the hermeneutic sphere is too turbulent a place for such tools to have a rigorous articulation.

The exception I have in mind is the philosopher’s recognition of the crucial role that judgment is surely going to play in the final explanatory story we tell about man’s sapient nature and (we find less agreement here) about sapience more generally. Something like what I just said has been accepted in the analytic tradition since its hazy origins. Perhaps a better way to put it is this: certain features of late 19th century philosophy became so important and so foundational to later thinkers’ work that the students of said thinkers, when asking themselves what it was that they were doing, were best able to articulate the gravity of their thoughts by construing them downstream from the Fregean insight into the importance of truth. Truth’s importance is so significant that, in his Begriffsschrift, after some minor housekeeping with respect to the types of symbols to-be employed, Frege begins by carving out a space in the system for judgment. Of this decision’s importance, Frege later says, “What is distinctive about my conception of logic is that I begin by giving pride of place to the content of the word ‘true’, and then immediately go on to introduce a thought as that to which the question ‘Is it true?’ is in principle applicable. So I do not begin with concepts and put them together to form a thought or judgment: I come by the parts of a thought by analysis of the thought.”

Now, by judgment, Frege did not mean just any cognitive relation between man and world. What he had in mind was the idea of the smallest possible unit in such a system of relations which must be either true or false. Consider some concrete cases: I can judge of an apple that it is rotten (because it is either true or it isn’t that a given apple is rotten) though it would be nonsense to say that one judges the concept apple appropriate except where background contexts have been filled in such that there is some notion of a thing of which it might be true that said thing is, in fact, an apple. Notable here is the use of the word ‘that’. For any judgment, it will always be appropriate to deploy ‘that’ as a marker of the propositionality—of the possible (in a very weak sense) truth—of the utterance.

Wittgenstein’s famous (and confusing) claim that the world is one of facts rather than of things is more easily understood in the light of the Fregean project to recast the order of things in such a way as to show how objects are dependent upon thinking rather than the empiricist or rationalist order of explanation in which material or experiential bits and their arrangements provide a ground over which truth is a sort of abstraction and in which truth is merely supervenient. Similarly, it is easier to understand Wittgenstein’s later emphasis on training if, following Frege, we deny the Augustinian picture of language in which the world is ready-made and affirm the counterintuitive view that we first gain the ability to dependably trade in linguistic tokens and only thereafter reflect on the question of what it is that we are up to in so trading. I don’t think it would not be an overstatement to suggest that the linguistic turn in philosophy, of which much has been said, consisted of the unfolding of the radical notion that it is utterances and their acceptableness which are abstracted over to identify the nexuses of attributes we call objects.

I’ve spoken of Frege’s radical move, but one can also see these movements of thought in Kant. The ‘transcendental unity of apperception’ is the notion of a reflective consciousness which places all of the properties that one might point to into a coherent picture which is negatively circumscribed by logic’s content-free framework for casting aside those things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, which can’t hang together, in the broadest sense of the term, with the rest of the things ahanging. Quine’s famous ‘web of belief’ is one way to picture what is going on here, but in pointing out the adequacy of Quine’s metaphor to the Kantian thought, I should also point out how it falls short of the mark: The transcendental unity of apperception is not merely a collection of facts which hang together and fall apart as the interconsistency of those facts dictates. It is, in addition to that, the recognition that within thoughts there are things (again in that broadest possible sense of the term which I’m tempted to say is coextensive with nouns) which play an important structural role in the existence of the true. It is by way of reflection on true sentences that we can make sense of what a thing is and have important things to say about how to speak (or, as it would have been put prior to Frege: think) in the future.

That’s probably enough for one post. I’ll have the next post—a follow up to this one—up far more quickly than I had this one up.

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