The Metaphysicians of Meaning: Russell and Frege on Sense and Denotation

By Gideon Makin | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

From Begriffsschrift to sense and reference

I Introduction

In his seminal paper Über Sinn undBedeutung (1892, henceforth ‘SuB’) Frege introduces the distinction between an expression’s denotation or reference, and its sense. The distinction is made, in the first instance, with respect to proper names. Very crudely, though ‘Plato’s mentor’ and ‘Xanthippa’s husband’ have one and the same referent, namely (the man) Socrates, each corresponds to a different way in which this man is presented or determined. Corresponding to each of these modes of presentation is what Frege calls the name’s sense.

Frege’s discussion at the outset of SuB makes it plain that the distinction was occasioned by the discovery of a fault in a view he advocated earlier, in Bs. § 8, but, as with Russell’s OD, in that paper he does little to impress upon the reader that this ancestry is indispensable for an understanding of his chief point. As in Russell’s case, I maintain that ignoring this ancestry can lead a contemporary reader to gloss over fundamental misunderstandings regarding the theory propounded. My course with Frege’s distinction will thus begin with a careful examination and reconstruction of the original problem (in section II), after which I move on to its earlier solution set forth in Bs. (section III) and to the fault, the discovery of which led Frege to abandon that solution (section IV), finally arriving at the new solution in SuB (section V). In view of the vast literature on the sense/reference distinction, it is surprising to discover how seldom this particular approach has been taken. After all, it is Frege himself who, at the beginning of SuB, puts us on the track to Bs.; reconstructing this route is therefore no sideways pursuit, but is to approach the distinction by the main entrance. Before launching into this discussion something needs to be said about the context in which the problem presented itself to Frege.

The problem arose, like Russell’s concern with denoting, in the course of preparatory work for the logicist project. The concept-script (Begriffsschrift) was designed first and foremost to be the language in which this undertaking

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