The Integrity of the Mental Act: Husserlian Reflections on a Fregian Problem
From Mind, Meaning and Mathematics, edited by Leila Haaparanta, The Synthesis Library, Dordrecht/Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994, pp. 235-262.
There is a general structure present in the event of something standing before us as the object of our consciousness. Obviously, for not just any event is an event of this sort. Such an event must be one with characteristic parts, interrelated in a definite manner, for it is a whole of a certain specific type. No one denies this, and it is hard to see what might be meant by a denial of it. But to give a plausible account of exactly what those parts are and of how they interrelate has good claim to being the problem of philosophy--and certainly so if we restrict ourselves to the modern and contemporary periods of Western philosophy. Of those who have focussed on this problem in the last one hundred years or so, none are of greater historical significance than Gottlob Frege and Edmund Husserl. The similarities and contrasts in how they approach the problem of the mind/object nexus, and in the results they achieve, suggests that a comparative study of them might be especially illuminating of “the fact itself.”
Frege’s discussions of “sense” and “reference” are generally conceded to be milestones in recent philosophy. Strangely enough, however, almost no one working currently would accept his explicitly stated interpretations of what Sinn and Bedeutung are or of how they fulfill the role assigned to them in an account of representation, judgment and linguistic meaning. The most sympathetic of commentators often go to considerable lengths in spelling out how badly wrong Frege went--especially in his interpretation of the “sense,” and, more specifically still, in his views on the “Thought,” the propositional subclass of senses. With very few exceptions they eventually replace what he called “sense,” and possibly even his “reference,” with something essentially’linguistic’--in some liberal or even vague sense of the term, no doubt, but almost certainly contrary to his own intent.
In part, this curious combination of admiration and rejection (in the form of “interpretation”) is due to the fact that Frege was certainly one of the greatest logicians who ever lived, while at the same time being an emphatic ontological dualist, an epistemological realist, a Platonist (a realist “in the Medieval sense”), and an anti-empiricist. Moreover, he spoke with venomous contempt of “that mighty academic positivistic scepticism which now prevails in Germany” (CP, p. 181)1 --a perspective which can fairly be said to remain, with superficial modifications, the dominant ideational force in Anglo-American (“Analytic”) philosophy yet today. Thus Joan Weiner correctly points out that “He turns out to be positively hostile to some of the most prominent views attributed to him, and widely held by our philosophical peers.“2 His theory of sense and reference naturally takes its substance from his general philosophical outlook, and one cannot consistently reject the latter and retain the former. So sense and reference must be re-interpreted by many of his contemporary admirers. Still, this is a only a part of the problem for a contemporary understanding of Frege. For, as we shall see, there are objections to his analyses which are not traceable to his general position and thus might be raised even by those who share it.
The outlines of Frege’s analysis are widely known. Because of the special problems about meaning and knowledge that concern him, he attempts to interpret the act/object nexus in terms of a three-fold distinction between reference (Bedeutung), sense (Sinn) and ‘idea’ (Vorstellung). Intuitively, our consciousness must be dealing with a specific subject matter in any given case, there must be a way it is available to us, and our experience must consist in something in its own right. Now the “reference” falls, according to him, on the object side of the nexus. The moon is one of his favorite illustrations. Thus in a familiar passage he says that “The reference of a proper name is the object itself which we designate by using it. The ‘idea’ which we have in designating the object is wholly subjective. Between object and ‘idea’ lies the sense, which certainly is no longer subjective, like the ‘idea’, but is yet not the object itself.” (CP, p. 160) For any representation the corresponding “reference” is the object that “falls under” the concept or sense involved in the representation. On the other hand, the sense is or contains the “way” in which that object is given to the act (of judgment or representation)--e.g. a certain number as the successor to five. It is also called the “mode of presentation” of the reference to the mind. (CP, p. 158)3 Where the sense concerned is not a mere concept, but is a Thought, as with the question or judgment, it is regarded by Frege as what is thought, e. g. that the successor to five is divisible by three.
“Vorstellung,” finally, usually translated by “idea,” is Frege’s word for what seems to be the most obvious part of the stuff that literally makes up the event or activity--the “mental act”--of judgment or representation. The exact nature of this “stuff” is of course one of the most contested questions in all of philosophy and psychology. But when Frege speaks of “ideas” he nearly always has in mind subjective, private images, and his arguments often hinge on this usage. However, an important footnote to his “Ueber Sinn und Bedeutung” indicates his awareness that sense impressions and mental ‘activities’ take the place of “ideas” in our sense perceptions--although such impressions and activities are supplemented by memories, a special type of “idea,” to complete the intuitive image that perception always involves. (CP 160n and 161) “Ideas” are described in this note as “traces” left in the soul by sense impressions plus mental activities.
Thus we have what may be called “the focal triad” in Frege’s analysis. But He is very much aware that the task is not just to understand the sense and reference of judgments or of associated linguistic expressions. Rather, we have to account for our consciousness and possibly our knowledge of objects. This is indicated by many passages in his writings. We do not in reality have complexes of sense/reference/Vorstellungen floating about doing interesting semantic or epistemic things. We have persons representing, inquiring and making judgments about objects, and occasionally coming to knowledge of them. The sense/reference/ Vorstellungen structure is introduced to help us understand our consciousness of objects. The central paper, “Ueber Sinn und Bedeutung,” makes this clear. Its aim is not to provide an analysis of sense and reference, but to explain our knowledge of non-trivial identities, some of which are, as Frege indicates, among the most important discoveries in the history of science.4 So what we have to understand is not the union of sense with reference, carefully avoiding confusion of sense or reference with Vorstellungen. Rather, we want to understand how the person--or ‘soul’, as Frege sometimes says--comes into that peculiar union with objects which we describe by saying that the person is aware of or conscious of the object, inquires and makes judgments concerning it, and perhaps even has knowledge of it. The total picture here involves five interrelated terms, not three as in the focal triad:
Now the basic problem is to understand what it is for 1 to be conscious of 5. We see immediately that the structure from 1 to 5 manifests a progressive dependence, not to be interpreted temporally. The person cognizes the object only in virtue of the act, the act is directed upon the object only in virtue of the sense, the sense applies to the object only in virtue of the characteristics which belong to the object, and--in some fashion that is obvious but hard to spell out--the characteristics belong to the object because of what it is. Although the overwhelmingly anti-realist bent of recent philosophy may balk at accepting such a neat scheme of things, I doubt that this--still largely indeterminate--interpretation of the overall structure joining 1 to 5 in cognition can be much improved upon except in specificity, and I am sure that Frege, as well as Husserl, basically accepted it. How they made out the details of it is the point of our concern here, which lead us to examine some of the more important problems posed for this overall structure by Frege’s use of his “focal triad.” These problems nest mainly around two points of articulation in the structure: the connection between the mental or linguistic act and the sense or Thought, and that between the act (or expression) and the object. The connection between the act and the other acts which make up the cognitive life of the person also raises important issues for Frege, but we will only mention these occasionally as we deal with other matters.
1. We begin our critique with the first point. Since for Frege the primary unit of cognition and meaning is the judgment and its corresponding sense, the Thought, we shall concentrate on the Thought and leave the other types of senses aside for the most part. What, according to Frege, is the relationship between the mental act and the Thought? In answering this question the first thing to say is that the Sinn (concept, Thought) is somehow before the mind, that the mind is aware of it, “grasps” it. It stands over against and is present to (gegenuebersteht; CP 377) the mind. The “grasping” (fassen) of a Thought-sense is what Frege calls “thinking” (das Denken). It presupposes “a special mental capacity, the power of thinking” (CP 368), and is what occurs, for example, in the posing of a question. (CP 355-356) It is the first level of aboutness, ofness or “intentionality”--though he does not use this term--found in the act/object complex according to Frege, and upon which any further extension of consciousness or referring depends. He says that “The metaphors that underlie the expressions we use when we speak of grasping a thought, of conceiving, laying hold of, seizing, understanding ...put the matter in essentially the right perspective.” (PW 1375, cf. CP 368-369) But it is here no matter of judgment, for “We can think without making a judgment.” (PW 34) “Inwardly to recognize something as true is to make a judgement.” (PW 2)
“Thinking” is, as Bertrand Russell and others around the turn of the century used to say, merely a matter of “entertaining” a proposition. “The thought does not belong with the contents of the thinker’s consciousness,” Frege holds, but “there must be something in his consciousness that is aimed at the thought.” (“etwas auf den Gedanken hinzielen,” CP 369) However, the thought-sense is not private, for “everyone who grasps it encounters it in the same way, as the same thought.” (PW 133) The “aiming at” is the thinking, the “grasp.”“The grasp of a thought presupposes someone who grasps it, who thinks. He is the owner of the thinking, not of the thought.” (CP 369; cf 383) Every thought, true or false, “is eternal and independent of being thought by anyone and of the psychological makeup of anyone thinking it.” (PW 174;cf. CP 377-378) And if it is true, it “...is true independently of our recognizing it as such....” (PW 2)
Now Frege confesses, in some of his notes published posthumously, that the nature of this “aiming” at the sense involved in an act of cognition is mysterious. Discussing the law of gravitation as a case of a thought-sense, he is making the point that we do not create the law by thinking it, since it holds true indifferently of whatever comes and goes in human minds. Then he introduces the objection: “But still the grasping of this law is a mental process!” To which he replies:
“Yes, indeed, but it is a process which takes place on the very confines of the mental and which for that reason cannot be completely understood from a purely psychological standpoint. For in grasping the law something comes into view whose nature is no longer mental in the proper sense, namely the thought; and this process is perhaps the most mysterious of all. But just because it is mental in character we do not need to concern ourselves with it in logic. It is enough for us that we can grasp thoughts and recognize them to be true; how this takes place is a question in its own right.” (PW 145)
In a footnote he then adds that the difficulties of this question are usually overlooked by treating thinking as a matter of having images, or what he calls ‘ideas’. As is well-known, Frege, like Kant, believed that “everyone would remain shut up in his inner world” but for a non-imagable or “non-sensible something” that somehow combined with private contents of our minds. (CP 369) For Kant, of course, this “something” consisted of ‘actions’ performed by the transcendental ego upon contents. For Frege the “something” is the Sinne which are “aimed at.” Here is a striking difference between the two thinkers, and one often overlooked by those who like to read Frege as Kantian.
Now this “aiming at” or “grasping” which is present in the stuff of our consciousness, bringing the thought or sense together with the mental act and hence with the mind or person, looks very much like an act/object nexus in its own right. Gregory Currie interprets Frege as holding that “it is exactly Thoughts which are the direct objects of our knowledge.“6 This seems on the whole a plausible interpretation, and it is one shared by others. However, the grasping of the thought cannot be the act/object nexus simply, for that ‘grasping’ is supposed to explain the nexus, and hence must significantly differ therefrom. Unlike the intentionality of the ‘ordinary’ act/object nexus, the “object” here, the Thought, must exist if the act does. The famous “intentional inexistence of the object” is ruled out. Frege does not allow that we might “aim at” a thought in thinking it and it not exist. True, the Thought is not for him an element of the act of consciousness. It “does not belong with the contents of the thinker’s consciousness’ (CP 369), and also does not depend upon consciousness, as we have seen. But on the other hand the act of consciousness certainly does depend on the Thought as one of its necessary conditions. No Thought, no act--or, for that matter, no sentence as a meaningful linguistic unit.
It is this fact that leads Frege--in the last paragraphs of his paper, “Der Gedanke,” and following an established usage in German philosophy in his times--to treat the Thought as capable of being a real factor in the course of the natural world, and hence as “actual” (wirklich). Now this is a view which can easily be misunderstood today. Currie points out: For Frege “the mind grasps a Thought; on this view the state of mind is altered by its contact with a thought, and this is supposed to show that the thought acts upon the mind.” He interprets this as saying that the Thought itself played a “role in bringing about that mental event,” and, strangely, holds it to derive from Frege’s concern to show that “thinking is not just a psychological process.“7 But the Wirklichkeit of an object in Frege’s historical context does not require that it act upon or bring about things or events in the manner of the efficient cause. It is enough that it be a condition of them.
The Thought clearly is, for Frege, a condition, though not a cause of the act of thought--which then in turn may be a cause of events and things in the world of actuality. The airplanes and skyscrapers we have depend for their existence upon certain persons having had certain Thoughts. Yet, while “Thoughts are not wholly unactual...their actuality is quite different from the actuality of things. And their action is brought about by a performance of the thinker; without this they would be inactive....and they are not wholly unactual even then, at least if they could be grasped and so brought into action.” (CP 371-372) Here we see Frege, driven by the intuitions of genius, assigning comparative degrees (more or less “actual”) in a progression the possibility and nature of which remains in the dark. Similarly above, where he wants to locate the “grasping” of the thought at the “very confines” of the mental. -- As opposed to what? And precisely how opposed? He introduces certain factors into the act/object nexus to solve problems that obsess him, but he has no general ontology in terms of which those very factors can be made sense of.
What, unlike Currie’s concerns with causation, remains genuinely puzzling on Frege’s view is the role of the Thought as necessary condition, when its only relation to the act or mind is supposed to be that of “object.” Frege wanted to keep the Thought objective in its existence and nature and literally shareable among many thinkers, and he tries to do this by locating the grasping on “the very confines” of the mental. But, as just noted, he never provides the expositions which would allow us to understand what that means. Something is either mental or not, we might well think. What is it for the ‘grasping’ to be at the outer limits and impossible “to be completely understood from a purely psychological standpoint.” What is the impurely psychological standpoint from which it might be completely understood. Logic deals with psychologically indifferent relationships between Sinne. Frege’s problematic of saving the objectivity of logic drove him to make Sinne so anti-psychological that the role they play as necessary conditions in the psychological sphere becomes unintelligible. Yet he cannot deny that role. The noetic or rational structure of the act and mind fall between the stools of psychology and logic, being unable to sit on either.
We have been looking at the bearing of the Thought on the act and mind, but the same lack of intelligible connection found there presents itself in another guise when we look at the bearing of the act upon the thought. Passages quoted above clearly show that Sinne are in object position with reference to the act in which they function as “mode of presentation.” In the act they are “aimed at.”
Criticisms of this aspect of Frege’s views are widely known. The role of the sense for Frege is to enable us to bring objects other than senses before the mind. “Although what we think about,” Baker and Hacker comment, “may be perceptible, concrete, mental, or abstract, what we think is, in Frege’s view, never anything other than abstract,“8 namely the sense, and especially the Thought-sense. David Bell, among others, points out that this leads to an infinite regress. If we need a sense to grasp an object, and the sense grasped is itself an object, then we shall need a sense to grasp a sense to grasp an object, and so ad infinitum.9Elsewhere Bell laments that, since Frege holds Thoughts to “exist prior to and independently of their being grasped or expressed by any person, he is forced to represent the relation between a person and a Thought, and also between a Thought and the language which expresses it, as arbitrary and non-complex.” (p. 110)
But is the prior and independent existence attributed to Thoughts by Frege really the culprit here? I think not. It is conceivable that the Thoughts should be prior and independent and their connection to the thinker nevertheless not “arbitrary and non-complex.” The real problem here is that we are used to thinking that there must be something within the makeup of the mental or linguistic act that is responsible for its picking out whatever it does in fact pick out as object. Frege certainly concedes this with reference to objects generally, but then suddenly presents us with an exception when it comes to the “grasping” of a Thought-sense. Of all the infinite Sinne there are, the mind in a given act just “arbitrarily” seizes or lands on this one? It could equally well have been any other?
The objection is not just that the grasping of a sense is something “odd” or “mysterious.” Perhaps that alone should never be regarded as objectionable in philosophical work, since ultimately everything is pretty strange. It is that we have here an obvious special case of mental selectivity or “intentionality” which raises serious questions within the framework of Frege’s analysis. If we can ‘pick out’ an objective Thought-sense that is not mental, not a part of the mental act, without a sense through which it presents itself, why can we not pick out any other thing--abstract, mental, or even something in the “external” world--without an intervening sense? If acts generally require a sense to determine their objects, why is this changed when the object is a sense? Frege intends to explain intentionality generally in terms of Sinne, but then it turns out that the “having” of senses which founds intentionality presupposes intentionality.
We cannot helpfully reply that the senses are in the mind, and that that is what makes it possible to ‘grasp’ them without utilizing a further sense. For that is precisely what Frege denies. But even if he did not deny it--even if he allowed or held them to be ‘mental’, in the manner of John Locke’s ‘ideas’, for example--how and why, exactly, would that help? Why should “being in the mind,” whatever that means, make it possible to grasp something without a sense? Unless being in the mind just means or presupposes that it is grasped. And then we have only presupposed what we set out to explain. If being mentally directed upon something requires ‘having’ a sense relevant to it, then we cannot interpret “having a sense” in terms of “being mentally directed upon” the sense that is had. Yet is is very difficult to see how Frege can avoid doing just that.
2. Now we turn to an aspect of the “focal triad” which unfortunately has received far less critical attention than the foregoing matters, but around which an equal or even greater obscurity nonetheless reigns. Because of the obscurity that prevails here we shall place a critical thesis at the front of our remarks and then see how it might be sustained. The thesis is that Frege has no account at all of the relation between an act (or sign) and its object, object as that which is referred to or denoted. “Bedeutung” (or “reference”) of course receives a lot of attention both from Frege and his commentators. But it, like “father,” is a relative term. That is, whatever is a Bedeutung is so because it stands in a certain relationship to something else: an act for which it is the object, a designation for which it is the designated. Its nature and function as Bedeutung cannot illuminate the relationship from which that very nature and function derive. The verb “bedeuten” is Frege’s usual term for the relationship which qualifies its relatum for the status of Bedeutung. It is this relationship, I hold, for which Frege has no account at all and about which, I suspect, he remains rather fundamentally confused.
The struggle over the translation of “Bedeutung” is itself suggestive of the problem that lies in Frege’s presentations. Joan Weiner mentions “denotation,”“reference,”“meaning,” and “significance” as translations of it, and dismisses the first three as carrying “a great deal of late twentieth-century philosophical baggage” which, she holds, forms no part of Frege’s views. (p. 102; cf. 127-129) Her choice is to revert to speaking of “content” (“Inhalt”)--which Frege began with, as she recognizes, but which he himself deserted in favor of Sinn and Bedeutung precisely because in late nineteenth-century German (and British) philosophy it had become unusable through manifold equivocations. She also decides just to use “Bedeutung” itself as if it were an English word, hoping to develop its meaning from her interpretation of what Frege is attempting to do in his analyses of arithmetic and logic. She, like Bell, back-pedals furiously from the obviously ontological weight of the term in Frege, intending to provide an epistemic interpretation of it. (pp. 128-129) More on this later. But for now we note that the problem with terms like “reference,”“meaning,” and “denotation,” is not--at least not just--the alien philosophical baggage they import into Frege’s thought, but that they are fundamentally ambiguous on precisely the point in greatest need of clarification. They all have uses in which they refer to the relation of act or term to its “object,” right along side of uses in which they refer to “objects” in the status of relatum to that relation. The only term, it seems to me, which has avoided this fundamental ambiguity between relation and relatum--or perhaps process and product--is the one chosen by Herbert Feigl, and possibly borrowed from Carnap, the term “nominatum.“10
That some confusion over this ambiguity persists today is shown by Bell’s discussion of “Bedeutung.” He says (p. 14) that “The relation in which a complete name stands to the object which bears it Frege calls Bedeutung, a term which is variously translated as ‘nominatum’, ‘denotation’, ‘reference’, ‘standing for’, and ‘meaning’.” He chooses to drop the first and the last of these and use the others interchangeably. But surely “nominatum,” at least, could not serve to designate the relation he describes, just as “standing for” cannot designate the relatum in that relation. Just as surely, Frege does take the Bedeutung to be the object and not the relation, and it is probably under the very weight of Frege’s actual usage, that Bell himself, in nearly every case where he is treating of Bedeutung, in fact treats of objects, whether truth-values, senses (functions) or individual entities. (see his pp. 16, 23, 25, 42, 48-49 etc.)
Now I certainly do not want to suggest that Frege was oblivious to the distinction between the relation of referring, as we might best call it, and the relatum of that relation, his reference. Rather, it seems that he saw serious problems with determining what the references were in various cases of thought and discourse--with clarifying what we are actually dealing with in such cases, what we are inquiring into or have knowledge about. He then devoted his attention to solving these problems in various ways that seemed appropriate. From time to time in the course of his work he mentions referring (bedeuten), as well as naming, designating, etc., but not to analyze them. And this, it seems to me, is only because he takes referring to be something fairly obvious in the light of his doctrine of sense. The sense, as he repeatedly says, determines the reference (Bedeutung), and if you grasp a sense you thereby have referred to (bedeutet) whatever reference it determines.
He sees a rigorous structure governing the relationships of sign, sense and Bedeutung:
“The regular (regelmaessige) connection between a sign, its sense, and what it means (dessen Bedeutung) is of such a kind that to the sign there corresponds a definite sense and to that in turn a definite thing meant (Bedeutung), while to a given thing meant (an object) there does not belong only a single sign....To every expression belonging to a complete totality of signs, there should certainly correspond a definite sense....Every grammatically well-formed expression figuring as a proper name always has a sense. But this is not to say that to the sense there also corresponds a thing meant....In grasping a sense, one is not certainly assured of meaning anything.” (CP 159)
The grounds of what seems Frege’s rather easy disregard of referring as a subject in need of careful of analysis seem to me to lie in two further assumptions he makes. These are: the identity of concept-sense and objective property (or relation), and the “unsaturatedness” of concept-senses (properties). If we can presuppose these two points, as Frege certainly does, then we might be able to imagine a bridge leading from the act through the grasped sense, across its identity with the property, and to the object (“argument”). Thus the transition from 1 to 5, above, would be completed, and the integrity of the mental (or linguistic) act secured. We might be able to think that once we have “got” the sense we have got the object--if one exists. We might, and I believe that this is precisely what Frege does.
One of the most basic ideas in Frege’s philosophy is that of “a whole complete in itself” (CP 140-141: “ein in sich abgeschlossenes Ganze,” or “ein vollstaendiges Ganze”) He never provides an elucidation of what this means--in the manner of Spinoza on substance, for example, or otherwise. Instead, whatever operative meaning this language has in his work derives from a contrast with other types of entities called “functions,” which by themselves alone (“fuer sich allein”) are “incomplete,”“in need of supplementation,” or “unsaturated.” (CP 140) Frege does not seem to mean that “functions” cannot exist or have being “by themselves alone.” His point is simply that without further mediation they are (somehow!) capable of “coming together” with entities (“arguments”) that are not“incomplete,” or are “saturated,” to yield a further entity (the “value”) which is also complete or saturated. No further entity is needed to connect them up, and so what is sometimes referred to as “Bradley’s regress“11 is avoided. His favored illustrations fall within the domain of mathematics, of course. “Thus, e.g., 3 is the value of the function 2.x3 + x for the argument 1, since we have: 2.13 + 1 = 3.” (CP 141) By “object” Frege means “...anything that is not a function, so that an expression for it does not contain any empty place.” (CP 147)
As for a concept, a sense that is not a Thought, it “...is a function whose value is a truth value.” (CP 146) All that is true of a function is true, therefore, of a concept. The concept too has an inherent tendency to seize upon relevant objects. (PW 193) Further, we are told that “A concept is the reference (Bedeutung) of a predicate.” (CP 187) While a predicate expression does not name the corresponding concept--since only objects have names (CP 186n)--it nevertheless refers to it and confers the status of reference upon it. And finally: “I call the concepts under which an object falls its properties.” (CP 190; cf 146) The distinction between 3 and 4 in the 5-point person to object structure indicated above just disappears.
With this in mind we can perhaps understand why Frege might regard the relation of referring as something obvious, given his doctrine of sense. But can we possibly concur? The relation of referring depends upon the grasp of the Thought or sense, and possibly even contains it as a part. There would be no referring and hence no references (Bedeutungen) if senses were not grasped. Hence, every problem that is found with the ‘grasping’ will carry over to referring, and we have seen that these are pretty serious.
But a further problem arises. Senses do not themselves refer. Referring is not a relationship between the sense and the referent, but between an act or term in use and its object. The act or term has the object as its Bedeutung provided that both it and the object have the requisite relations to the appropriate sense. Certainly there is a relationship between the sense of any given act or term and the relevant object. If we are correct it is the relationship the concept/function has with the “argument” to which it clings to fill out its “incompleteness.” It is predication (exemplification) in the ontological sense, or also the relation of “falling under” the concept. (CP 146) But this relation is not itself the relation of referring. Properties do not refer to their subjects, are not about or directed upon them. And if they did ‘refer’, that would still leave us the task of analyzing the relation of acts and signs to the objects which they intend or denote, for the act or term certainly is not, on Frege’s view, a property of the object which is its reference.
This leaves us in the following situation. ‘Grasping’ a sense does not itself constitute referring to an object. We might, as frequently is the case in theoretical work, have no interest beyond the concepts or thoughts concerned. What we do more than ‘grasp’ a sense in order to refer to an object--how we deal with or use the sense to arrive at the Bedeutung--remains completely unclarified (really, I think, undealt with) in Frege’s account of the act/object nexus.
We should note also, from the quotation above (CP 159) and elsewhere in Frege’s writings, that the grasping of a sense does not guarantee a reference. That is, it does not guarantee that one exists. This is standard fare, for we often wish to be able to work with concepts with empty extensions, or without regard to whatever extension they may or may not have. But Black’s translation quoted--“In grasping a sense, one is not certainly assured of meaning anything”--once again catches us up in the play of relation/relatum ambiguity. The Germans reads, “Dadurch also, dass man einen Sinn auffasst, hat man noch nicht mit Sicherheit eine Bedeutung,” which says that the grasping of a sense does not guarantee a reference. That is, it does not guarantee the existence of an object falling under the concept-sense. But Black translates the sentence in terms of “meaning something,” which clearly suggests the verb “bedeuten” and the relation or process of referring instead of “Bedeutung.” I suspect he correctly takes Frege’s view to be that if there is no object there is no referring, just as, certainly, if there is no referring there is no reference. In short, the possibility of “intentional inexistence” is lacking here as well as with the mere grasping of a sense, noted above. Perhaps the deeper indication is that Frege was never able to capture the authentic phenomenon of intentionality, which permits consciousness of what does not exist, as it displays itself in the ordinary bearing of the mind upon its ‘objects’. This lack may lie at the root of his problems with the act/object nexus.
Summarizing, then, I am suggesting that Frege’s interpretation of the relation between a sense and the act (mind) which grasps it is incoherent, for the reasons cited, and that in his assumed relation of referring, which alone qualifies entities for the status of Bedeutungen, there are further obscurities in how the sense is functioning, or in how the mental grasp is ‘using’ it to refer to an object. These matters require clearing up in any satisfactory account of what the structure is that brings mind and object together in the peculiar way characteristic of consciousness. I do not think this is the sum total of his problems in adapting his focal triad to the act/ object nexus. Indeed, the entire issue of how specific acts emerge from and fit into the flow of a conscious and significantly rational existence--the “noetic” structure required in actual knowing by actual persons--remains totally untouched by his analyses. Thus the transition from 1 to 5 is definitively interrupted at its very first move, from the person to the particular act of consciousness. But enough has been said to establish that his focal triad may be as much an imposition upon objective consciousness as an illumination of it.
Now why would Frege fall into such difficulties? I think it is a result his way of working on the projects dearest to him. It just is no part of his project to understand the mental act and how it comprehends its objects on the one hand and is comprehended in the life of the working mind on the other. Rather, he is concerned with certain specific issues that arise out of his technical interests as a mathematician: the nature of number, the method, epistemic status and ontological commitments of logic and mathematics, and the analysis of identity statements, being chief among them. He deals with his three basic units of knowledge and language only insofar as deemed necessary to solve his special problems. Then he lets them drop without concern for whether and how they might fit into a systematic account of what knowing amounts to.
But consciousness or knowledge after all has a substance of its own. It is a specific type of ‘thing’, differing from all that is not knowledge. The focal triad is not a theory of knowledge, and Frege never intended it to be. But it nevertheless must be capable of fitting into an adequate account of knowledge. He surely assumed that this was possible, but for reasons given above I think it is not--at least as it stands in his writings. Ironically, it was precisely his failure or inability to take subjectivity seriously that undermined his aim of securing the objectivity of knowledge. He was so focussed upon the independence of ‘cognitive content’ that he failed to develop any account of how such content comes together with or ‘in’ a mental act to form consciousness or cognition of the relevant objects. Yet it is essential to any successful account of how cognitive content can be public to provide, precisely, an understanding of how it can be ‘private’, can belong to one person, can be integrated into one act. For if it cannot be integrated into one act, it cannot be integrated into many, and its accessibility to many is lost with even greater force than if it could belong or be given to only one.
But readers who have stayed with me thus far will have been very impatient on one particular point. At best they must have slightly cringed each time I have spoken of the “mental act” or “act of consciousness,” and have wished to enter into the record that Sinn and Bedeutung really are matters of language or communication, and that of course all this stuff about ‘grasping’ senses and ‘meaning’ objects is hopeless. So I owe them a brief explanation of why I have stayed with the mentalistic language in discussing Frege, and have refrained from offering a linguistic reconstruction of his remarks which would purport to lift him out of the difficulties stated. (Certainly there are plenty of such reconstructions available!)
Two things are to be said. First of all, the explication of Sinn and Bedeutung in terms of the functioning of language just is not Frege. For him, the function of language in thought and communication is understandable only in terms of Sinn and Bedeutung, and these in turn are to be understood in terms of judgment--judgment “in the logical sense,’ i.e. the Thought, made up of senses that, when appropriately ‘grasped’, determine objects as Bedeutungen. We may, and often do, ‘use’ the sense in making judgments about objects without using language in any way. The judgment “in the logical sense” has nothing of the linguistic about it except the capacity--though not the necessity--to be expressed in language. Thoughts can be without being grasped (in thinking), acknowledged as true (in judging), or expressed (in language). Even judging (acknowledging a Thought as true) can and does occur without expression in language. (PW 133, 137, 185-186, 251; CP 355-356, 374-375, 381-382) Frege regards judging and questioning as essentially inward acts of mind (PW 3, 7), whatever the causal conditions of such acts may be and whatever external behavior may or may not accompany them.
This goes down very hard with post-Wittgensteinian interpreters of Frege, for it boldly holds, as Bell recognizes, that Thoughts, concepts, etc. can “be identified independently of the language with which they are associated.” (p. 111) Frege took that to be obvious, but Wittgenstein is now supposed to have shown that identification of entities in an ‘inward’ realm, apart from the language in which they might be named, described or expressed, would have to work without standards of correctness and hence could never be wrong. Hence could never be right, which seems absurd. The very heart of Frege’s theory is accordingly dismissed as “his crude associationism and faculty psychology” (Bell p. 112), and for his theory is substituted a theory about language and language functioning that, regardless of all good intentions, simply contradicts it.
In both Bell and Weiner this opens the way for a theory of Bedeutung in which, as Bell says, it becomes “a property which an expression must possess if that expression is to be truth-valuable....” (p. 42) Or, as Weiner says, Bedeutung amounts to nothing more than “a requirement that our linguistic terms be precise.” (p. 130, but see 128-130) Now of course everyone is free to develop their own theory of linguistic meaning, and Frege certainly had his, which was a very important part of his philosophy. But not every theory of it is his theory, and his Sinn and Bedeutung distinction covers much more than linguistic’meaning’.
The second thing to be said can and must be said more briefly. The jury is still out, to say the least, on whether or not any philosophically significant degree of objectivity or realism can be salvaged within the relativization of identity and existence to language in the manner of a Wittgenstein, Quine or others. Of course I understand the general assumption today that nothing else could be possible. But to be consistent, this approach to identity and existence must also be applied to the elements of language themselves--the terms and expressions of various types that make it up, the rules, etc.--to which all identities and entities were supposed to be relativized. A regress obviously threatens, for the view is that what is (treated as) the same depends in general upon samenesses--of criteria, rules, expressions--in the domain of language. But these too must depend upon our ways of talking about them, unless identities and entities in language are to be arbitrarily exempted from requirements imposed on everything else. However this problem is seldom even recognized, much less resolved. I have elsewhere discussed such issues in more detail,12 and will only mention them here. They are serious enough, however, to prevent me from thinking that we do Frege a favor by treating his Sinn or Bedeutung as essentially features of linguistic expressions. So with this said we turn to a thinker who accepts the general framework of Frege’s analysis, but modifies the details in such a way as to eliminate, one might hope, the lack of intelligible connection discovered in Frege’s interpretation of objective consciousness in terms of his “focal triad.”
Indeed, when we turn to Husserl’s analysis of the act/object nexus, of the transition from 1 to 5, we are first struck with the very high-degree of agreement between him and Frege on very fundamental matters. To start from the point of the last few paragraphs, they agree in regarding consciousness as fundamentally non-linguistic and in taking ‘mental’ meaning, the ‘intentionalities’ of consciousness, as basic to any understanding of the functioning and meaning of language--though of course they also hold language to have a significant influence upon the mind. Among more recent thinkers, then, they both would agree on this point with Roderick Chisholm, but not with Wilfrid Sellars, Quine, Wittgenstein or Derrida. They also agree in their emphatic ontological dualism, their epistemological realism, their Platonism, and their anti-Empiricism. The building blocks of the world and consciousness are remarkably similar in their views. But upon closer examination highly significant differences in how the parts of the act/object nexus fit together begin to emerge. Before looking at these differences, however, it is necessary to say something about how Husserl’s way of working on philosophical problems differs from Frege’s.
From his earliest days Husserl explicitly understood himself to be engaged in conceptual analysis. This he took to be discernment, through painstaking research, of the precise properties and structures which objects must have in order to “match up” with the intentional moments or meanings in the concepts that apply to them--simultaneously clarifying the essence of the object and the structure of the concept. He thus investigates conceptual objects as such, i.e., the object as falling under the concept. This, one might think, was little different from many others. But in the details of the process Husserl becomes distinctive. For he thought it both possible and necessary literally to observe the concept in its union with the conceptual object--or else in its failure, in some degree, to ‘fit’ onto the object--and to do so repeatedly, possibly involving other investigators as well as oneself.
This is possible because the concept was for him a repeatable, shareable thought: the thought of a specific shade of blue, for example, or of number (‘numericality’), the abstract structure in groups which mediates the union of the concept number with those groups, or of logical law, mental act, intentionality, ideal object (universal), etc. etc. Thoughts in this sense are repeatable and shareable in strict identity. They are true universals. I can have literally the same thought (as concept) on many occasions, and many people can have exactly the same thought as I do. On this point there is of course no difference at all between Husserl and Frege.
The concepts of interest in philosophy are then, for Husserl, to be clarified by observing their union with objects intuitively given as objects falling under the concept in question. Since such ‘observation’ is intersubjectively verifiable, Husserl took it to provide a basis for the objectivity of the method and results of philosophical work. To bring out, to establish, what the meaning contents or partial intendings are in a concept--thus, to “analyze” it--I simply take cases from its extension and, through a process that may quite well involve a good bit of abstract argument (mainly reductio critiques of erroneous analyses), I get a fix on the precise qualities which the intending elements in the concept seize in holding the object under the concept. The analytical process is partly dependent upon comparison of the cases in the concept’s extension with cases from the extensions of other concepts, and partly upon variation of the cases within the concept’s extension to determine which of their features are independent of the concept. Others can check my findings by following the same procedure. Those familiar with Husserl’s later works will easily recognize how much of his later named and highly touted “phenomenological method” is already present in these homely research techniques. Hopefully, too, one can see how little substance there is to the idea that the phenomenologist--or at least Husserl--is one who simply stares at essences.
This method of “concept analysis” is clearly exemplified in Husserl’s first publication, his Ueber den Begriff der Zahl, of 1887.13 Here the extension of the concept number is first determined. Then concrete groups--concrete “totalities” (Inbegriffen)--which fall within that extension, thus constituting “a number of things,” are studied to determine which of their characteristics are the basis for the application of the concept number. This turns out to be the “collective” unification of the elements in the group.14 Erroneous interpretations of the “collective combination” are refuted (pp. 302-327), and its precise nature is then specified by descriptions of some of its features together with a comparison of the Inbegriff with wholes unified by other types of relations among their parts. (pp. 327-338) Anyone interested can find an extensive discussion of these matters in Chapter II of my book, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge.
After the breakdown of his initial program for providing epistemic foundations for general arithmetic, Husserl was driven to analyze the basic concepts of epistemology, and eventually, of course, the act/object nexus itself. In the crucial 1894 paper, “Psychologische Studien zur elementaren Logik,“15 he undertook analysis of the concepts intuition and representation. Misunderstanding of the representation is what led him into the impasse represented by Part II of his Philosophie der Arithmetik of 1891. To prepare the way for its clarification he does preliminary analyses of the independent and non-independent, as well as concrete and abstract, contents of the mind--only some years later recognizing that the distinctions drawn here with reference to ‘mental contents’ are true of entities in general and have nothing to do with the specifically mental. He describes, varies and compares ‘contents’ and their relations, analyzing the concepts under which they fall according to their character, and so makes major steps toward his mature analyses of the act/object nexus. According to his own statement, the Logical Investigations (1900-1901) were developed from this article, which grew into the 3rd and 6th “Logical Investigations.“16 The same type of “conceptual analysis” is practised to yield results of greater fame, e.g. his refutation of psychologism by showing that logical laws are not psychological laws, and the elucidation of what he came to call the “noema.“17
The main point of difference which we find in Husserl’s way of working as contrasted with Frege’s is his practice of working to and from detailed descriptions of the concrete wholes of the type relevant to the concepts to be analyzed. He intends to avoid arguing from abstract considerations of what must or must not be the case, and from positing entities to solve problems generated from abstract considerations. He takes the concept to its instances and observes the instances in their internal variation and external combinations over against the discernible ‘ofnesses’ or ‘aboutnesses’--“connotations,” they used to be called--present in the concepts. The power of his method lies, not in certain special ‘attitudes’ one may adopt, but in its drive toward painstaking elaboration of the details present in concrete cases. No one has ever been a stronger advocate of the Wittgensteinian rule, “Don’t think, look!” than Husserl. Of course that rule alone does not settle the question of what can be seen.
He even carries this attitude so far as to hold that epistemological clarification of the type which concerns him is not a theory at all. “On our view, theory of knowledge properly described is no theory. It is not science in the pointed sense of an explanatorily unified theoretical whole....The theory of knowledge...neither constructs deductive theories nor falls under any....Its aim is not to explain (erklaeren) knowledge...but to illuminate (aufklaeren) the Idea of knowledge in terms of the elements and laws that make it up....It intends to elevate the pure forms and laws of knowledge to forceful clarity by returning to an adequately filled out intuition of them.“18 This, in his view, is the true “Critique” of knowledge, and the only way to discover the conditions of its possibility. You learn what makes knowledge possible by observing it in its actuality and by noting how it becomes actual. Small wonder that he thought Kant’s Critique “drops from the outset into the channel of a metaphysical epistemology.“19 Kant did not subject knowledge and the acts in which it consists to “a clarifying critique and analysis of essence” before ‘saving’ it. The same would be true of Frege, who in this respect is a true Kantian. Needless to say, of course, history has certainly sided with Kant and Frege, decisively rejecting the idea that essences can be discovered by conceptual analysis in Husserl’s sense.
What, then, are Husserl’s ‘findings’ about the act/object nexus, and have they any implications for Frege’s problems in interpreting the nexus in an intelligible fashion? In what we select for attention here we will limit ourselves to points relevant to Fregian difficulties noted, and so we first and foremost look at that in Husserl’s account which corresponds to Fregian Sinne. These are concepts and propositions (i.e. Frege’s “Thoughts,” or judgments “as logicians speak of them.”) They serve as the Bedeutungen of linguistic expressions, but precisely in the sense of the relational or ‘referring’ side of the ambiguity noted in Frege. Just as in Frege, however, they are much more than significations for linguistic expressions, and have no essential dependence upon language for their existence or nature. Many never will become significations in the sense of there being an actual word in some actual language of which they are the meaning. As numbers do not arise and pass away with acts of enumeration, “so it is with the ideal unities of pure logic, with its concepts, propositions, truths, or in other words, with its meanings (Bedeutungen). They are an ideally closed set of general objects, to which being thought or being expressed are alike contingent.“20
But there is a major difference from Frege on the position of the signification in the mental or linguistic act. For Husserl, the signification is never the object in the act for which it is the signification. Rather, it is the intentional character or property of the act or expression. It is its ‘aboutness’, a property which is literally identical, in the manner of universals, in all acts that are about the same objectivity, however much the psychological content of these acts may vary in other respects. Thus “The Bedeutung is related to varied acts of signifying (Bedeutens)--the logical representation to acts of representing, the logical judgment to acts of judging, the logical deduction to acts of deducing--just as redness in specie is to the slips of paper which lie here and all ‘have’ the same redness.“21 The signification enters into my experience of thinking, for example, that is a transcendental number, as any property enters its instance. It is thus both immanent in my experience, determining what that experience is--specifically, what it is of--and transcendent to my experience, because undetermined in its own existence and nature by that experience. Transcendence and “objectivity” for the Bedeutung is not achieved by being an object, as in Frege, but by being a property, and moreover a property bearing upon a specific object which is also shared insofar as that property itself is shared.
Accordingly, when I judge or understand that is a transcendental number, my object--what my mental state or assertion is about or directed upon--is the number , and that number as having the character of a transcendental number. “If we perform the act and, as it were, live through it, then naturally we mind (meinen) its object and not its Bedeutung. If we for example make an assertion, then we judge concerning the relevant fact and not concerning the Bedeutung of the indicative sentence, the judgment in the logical sense. This latter first becomes our object in a reflective act of thought, in which we look back not merely on the assertion made, but rather carry out the requisite abstraction (or better: ideation) as well. This logical reflection...is a normal component of logical thinking...characteristic...of the context of theory.“22
Also unlike Frege, the significations ‘in’ which I think are not properties of the corresponding objects and states of affairs. The concept green is not the same as the property green. The property is a color, while the concept is not. So while all significations are universals (properties, “species”), not all universals are significations--though to every universal there corresponds a concept in which precisely it is grasped. “Each species, if we wish to speak of it, presupposes a signification, in which it is presented, and this signification is itself a species. But the signification in which an object is thought, and its object, are not one and the same.“23
The final and most important of Husserl’s “findings” about Bedeutungen and the act/object nexus--so far as we can go into them here--is that the ‘referring’ (bedeutend) relation can be fully present in cases where the corresponding relatum or object does not exist. Here is that mental or intentional “inexistence” which, we have suggested, is in the last analysis simply lacking in Frege’s discussions. The ‘referring’ involved in signifying can therefore only be a relation in some qualified sense, since familiar principles in the logic of relations do not apply to it. Most notably, “aSc” (“a signifies b”) does not imply “(Ex)(aSx),” nor does it imply “cSa,” where “S” would be the converse relation of “S.” I do not by merely being conscious of something or engaging in discourse about it confer any property or relation upon it. Elsewhere I have recommended that we treat the ‘referring relation’ as a one-place predicate of a special sort, a ‘referential quality’.24 Here we will continue to speak of it as a relation, with the qualifications noted.
Because of his association with Brentano, the “psychical relation” and the peculiar manner in which it incorporates its terms loomed large on Husserl’s intellectual horizons from the very beginning. In fact, it provided the key to his interpretation of the “collective combination” and to his analysis of the concept of number in his first published work.25 His struggles toward a satisfactory understanding of the “inexistence” associated with the “psychical relation” produced the set of papers now published in his “Gessammelte Werke” under the title “Intentionale Gegenstande (1894),” as well as a letter to Marty dated July 2, 1901.26But the results of his efforts are most clearly presented in the passages of Logical Investigations where, in the course of his analyses of the ‘act’ of consciousness, he is dealing with confusions about so-called “intentional objects.” He repeatedly stresses that the intentional object of any form of consciousness is the same as its actual object, and as its external or “transcendent” object if that is the sort of object it is of.
“The transcendent object would not be the object of this presentation, if it was not its intentional object....If I represent to myself God or an angel, an intelligible being- in-itself or a physical thing or a round square etc., then the transcendent object mentioned is precisely what is minded (gemeint) and thus is, in other words, the ‘intentional object’. It is irrelevant whether this object exists or is imaginary or absurd. ‘The object is merely intentional’ does not, of course, mean that it exists, but only ‘in’ the intentio, of which it is an actual (reelles) part, or that some shadow of it exists somewhere. It means rather that the intention exists--‘meaning’ an object of such and such a character--but the object does not. On the other hand, if the intentional object does exist, then it is not merely the intention, the meaning, that exists, but also what is meant (das Gemeinte).“27
In an earlier passage he comments that you can dismember my representation of the god Jupiter as you will in “descriptive analysis,” and nothing like him will be found. “The ‘immanent’, ‘mental object’ therefore is not part of the descriptive stuff of the experience, it is in truth not really immanent or mental. But it also does not [in this case] exist extramentally. It does not exist at all.” Of course our idea-of-Jupiter exists, but it remains totally the same whether Jupiter exists or not.28 Signifying, meaning, aboutness simply shows up in the realm of what is. Like color and sound, it is a descriptive ultimate and cannot be defined.29 But, also like them, it can be observed, and the laws of its “behavior” can be established. “Intentional inexistence” is a part of that behavior.
Now let us, in conclusion, see where Husserl’s “findings” leave us with the problems that emerged from the application of Frege’s “focal triad” to the act/object nexus:
1. The concern about the role of concepts and propositions (or “Thoughts”) as causal grounds is resolved by positioning them as, fundamentally, the properties of mental and linguistic acts. These acts are events in the world, and their powers are a function of their properties, as is the case with every type of event or entity. But the properties do not exercise their influence on actuality across a mere intentional nexus.
2. The concern about how the act “picks out” its sense is at least firmly redirected. For the act does not pick out it sense at all, but exemplifies it. There is nothing in the act that is directed upon its sense, though there is much in it that involves the sense in other ways--to be descriptively analyzed of course. Any question about why this act has this sense (exemplifies this concept or proposition) will be answered by reference to the internal structure of the act, or possibly in terms of the position of the act in its context of life and thought. Often our explanations will turn to why and how this act emerged here, instead of why it has the Sinn it does. Husserl, following his method, has volumes to say on such matters.
3. The concern about bedeuten, the referring relation, which alone can give something the status of reference (Bedeutung) in Frege’s account, was a complex one.
First, referring involved the ‘grasping’ of the sense, and inherited all of its problems. These problems are now set aside by the repositioning of the sense.
Second, the use of the sense (given its ‘grasp’) to refer to an object was something totally undealt with by Frege, we held, though he seems to have assumed that it was covered by his view of the “unsaturated” nature of the concept. Now as Husserl lays out the act/object nexus, nothing at all is done with the concept in the act of which it is the sense--though a long story is to be told about how the various parts of the act function. We walk in steps, not with them. Stepping is walking. And, fundamentally, we think, perceive, etc., in senses (concepts, propositions), not with them, though at the more complicated and reflective stages of consciousness we do come to reflect on them and even use them in certain ways. The Bedeutung in Husserl just is the quasi-relational bearing of the given act upon its object. Though obviously dependent on various factors, especially upon the other characteristics of the act as well as those in the object, it is not indirect, not a compound of other relations. Especially it is not a compound of consciousness of a ‘special’ sort of object and a blind relation of that object to the signified. It is the signified that is the object of consciousness. Surely Husserl is right in holding this to be something we can find by attending to cases of consciousness. While not definable, the Bedeutung has a nature that can be discriminated in the process of intuitive comparison and variation outlined above.
And third, Husserl’s “signification” selects objects indifferently of whether they exist or not. Frege seems to lose his “referring” when this loses his “reference.” This may be seen as an advantage, and certainly there are many philosophers who have followed him in this, especially so far as acts of perception and names are concerned. But the phenomenon of “intentional inexistence” is salvaged by Husserl’s account, according to which we do not lose our specific “aboutness” when there in fact exists no object such as we are dealing with in our thoughts. What a difference this makes is seen from its loss, requiring as it does the wholesale redescription of the intentionalities of acts of consciousness, or else the finding of special types of ‘objects’, so often seen in philosophical writings. For Husserl, questions of meaning (what the act is of or about) are not questions of existence, though of course they lay the essential foundations for dealing with issues of existence.
Do we then mean to suggest that Husserl’s structuring of the act/object nexus is superior to Frege’s? By no means. Things are hardly that simple. Clearly Husserl’s account meets, in an interesting way, a number of problems that afflict Frege’s analysis--some of which are quite well known. But clearly also, in the contemporary setting, Husserl’s views face tough opposition--even from many who identify themselves as in the ‘phenomenological’ camp. Perhaps the single greatest objection is provoked by his claim to be able to observe that the various factors in our consciousness of objects stand as presented by him. And it will gain little ground for him to point out that Frege is really quite mute before the question of how he knows what he claims to know about the relations of Sinne and Bedeutungen to mental and linguistic acts. But perhaps these remarks on how Husserl could bring his resources to bear upon certain difficulties in Frege’s theory of meaning may provide a better understanding of the two philosophers and at the same time liberalize our sense of what might be done with important problems that are far from solution still.