Topsy-Turvy Frege

Davidson’s Truth and Predication–at least parts of it–have been in front of me this weekend.  Good stuff, although I am out of sympathy with many of the details of the stories he tells, both about the history of the problem of predication and about the solution of the problem.

But I guess my fundamental disagreement with Davidson centers on the reality of the problematic he investigates.  For Davidson, the unity of the proposition must be explained; explaining it requires solving the problem of predication.  Seeing things this way, when Davidson turns to Frege he understands objects and concepts as constituents of propositions, constituents fashioned, as it were, so as to constitute a propositional unity.  Predictably, Davidson is most fascinated with concepts, since they are–even more than objects–fearfully and wonderfully made:  they are incomplete.   Objects of course are complete–as are propositions (although in a different sense (Frege got confused about this, unfortunately)).  The beginning of wisdom in reading Frege is recognizing the varieties of incompleteness and completeness he thematizes in his thinking–but that is a topic for another post.  What I want to consider here is the way that Davidson turns Frege upside-down.  I believe Frege understands objects and concepts as abstractions from propositions, not constituents of propositions.  Objects and concepts are, shifting descriptions, made from propositions, not made for them.  The proposition, the propositional unity, is prior to objects and concepts.  There is no explaining the unity; and there is no problem of predication to solve.  Davidson’s problematic is unreal.

Of course there is a problematic looming here, but it is more metaphilosophical than metaphysical.  Namely, how do we philosophize without this problem?  What would it be to philosophize constrained by the unity of propositions, recognizing that ultimately our only grip on anything as an object of thought is as what we are thinking instead of as what we are thinking about?  Or, to put this in a more Fregean way, what would it be to philosophize constrained by The Context Principle–and its two companion Principles from Foundations?  Frege’s Principles, as I believe (and have argued elsewhere), are the methodological counterpart to the unity of the proposition.  Taken seriously–kept is Frege’s word–the Principles reorient philosophy itself.  Wittgenstein’s work, both in TLP and in PI, strives to keep Frege’s Principles.  Arguably, Davidson senses this.  Although he shies away from Wittgenstein (saying a bit about why in a long footnote) he does at one point talk of a “deep truth” in a “Wittgensteinian thought”–but he seems unable to see how really to entertain the thought.  That is unsurprising, since the thought impugns the problematic that provides the very structure of Davidson’s thinking.

3 responses

  1. I was wondering if–or how far–it would be right to connect this post with the previous one (about Kant and Frege arguing from a point of view “outside”) in the following way:
    Might it be said that if we want to remind ourselves of what “arguing from the inside” is, we should recall how Frege’s principles reorient philosophy, and in particular, how the context principle does that: How, by making us remember that we begin with the whole proposition, the principle prevents us from forgetting that we already understand the proposition–that we are already embroiled in life with language. It thus manages to keep this understanding in front of our mind’s eye, and thus prevents our thoughts from becoming loose: It gives our thoughts a hinge, gives them friction.

    To the extent that this is even right, does the context principle have a privileged place in reorienting our thoughts?

    • R: I intended the posts to bear on one another in much the way you suggest. Typically I am trying to construct strings of posts that I hope bear on one another in useful ways. Think of the categories of the posts, or of their tags, and sometimes of their titles, as serving a purpose much like Cavell’s Thematic Index in Must We Mean What We Say?

      Does the CP have a privileged place in reorienting our thoughts? Very quickly: Yes–and no. Yes, because it serves a a kind of reminder, a counterbalance to a tendency to misunderstand ourselves and our lives with language. No–because it is a kind of reminder, and so not a piece of unvarnished news meant to strike us as a revelation. As Samuel Johnson said, anticipating Wittgenstein, we more often need to be reminded than informed.

  2. Thanks Kelly,
    What I meant by asking about the CP’s privileged place was this: As reminders go, is it somehow more important than other reminders?
    For instance, it seems more important somehow than reminders like: ‘When there is pain in my hand, it is not my hand that feels it, but I in my hand.’ There seem to be something more… “infrastructural” about the CP.

    Or maybe I should ask: what is it that makes me want to say that it is more important? – It is that it is useful as a reminder in more circumstances? Is it a matter of quantity? Or is it nevertheless a matter of quality, and the confusions with which the CP helps are somehow more important?

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