Merrill Ring

I want to consider differing philosophical responses to the recognition of a certain (kind of) case. The responses as described here should be taken to be rational reconstructions – the historical details are smudged over.

Let us begin by remembering that philosophers, once at least, were committed to the view that the meaning of a word is the thing it names or stands for or refers to or denotes. Against that background assumption, along came Frege who notices that the Morning Star and the Evening Star had been discovered to be one and the same heavenly body, namely the planet Venus. Frege realized that the meaning of the quasi-names (or definite descriptions or referential expressions) 'the Morning Star' and 'the Evening Star' cannot then be that heavenly body, the planet Venus. Because if the meaning of a term is the thing it stands for and as 'the Morning Star' and 'the Evening Star' stand for the same entity, then they would mean the same. Yet they clearly do not ('star which appears in the morning' does not mean the same as 'star which appears in the evening' or, more briefly, 'morning' does not mean 'evening'). Hence, it looks as if the meaning of a word cannot be the object for which it stands. It would thus appear that the favored background assumption about what the meaning of a word is must be false.

What shall a philosopher do who is committed to the thesis that the meaning of a word is the object for which it stands and who grasps the point of the Fregean cases? Let me display, and glance critically at, the differing responses of four major philosophers: Frege himself, Russell, Quine and the later Wittgenstein.

FREGE. Frege decided that what was required was making a distinction. What we formerly, in philosophy, thought of as 'meaning' really covers two different concepts. An expression, such as either one of our specimens, has a Sinn and a Bedeutung. The Sinn, or 'sense', is a "mode of presentation" of an object, the manner in which it is described in a context; the Bedeutung, literally 'meaning', is the object itself. In the Venus case, the same object is "presented" in two different ways by two different expressions, each of which has its own Sinn, sense. This mode of presentation clearly has to do with the time of day of the object's appearance.

The initial problem with Frege's solution is his terminology. In any straight-forward translation 'Bedeutung' means 'meaning'. And so his distinction should be translated 'Sense' and 'Meaning'. Many translators render 'Bedeutung' as 'Referent' or 'reference' - or, in an old translation, 'Nominatum'. Not all do however. Some, Joan Weiner especially, does it literally and correctly. What is to be observed, once we see that 'Bedeutung' should be translated as 'meaning' and not as 'reference' is that Frege's view is a continuation of the traditional thesis that the meaning of a word is the object it stands for, denotes, refers to, etc. Frege, it turns out, was so attached to the thesis that the meaning of a term is what it stands for that he continued thinking that way in his solution to the problems about Venus. In consequence, his solution which involved introducing a distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung did not succeed in getting rid of the philosophically orthodox view of what meaning is.

RUSSELL. Russell encounters Frege's case while committed to the view that the meaning of a word is the object it (in his terms) denotes. He of course sees that on that view, given Frege's case, the terms should mean the same. What he does is to surrender the idea that those expressions, 'The Morning Star' and 'The Evening Star', are names. Crudely put, a real name does mean, as we thought all along, what it stands for - if those words, 'The Morning/Evening Star', can't mean what they stand for, then they are not really names, subject words. So Russell develops a complicated bit of machinery explaining how those terms do function. Russell, that is, is so deeply committed to the thesis that the meaning of a name is what it stands for/denotes that, when that does not work, he keeps the philosophical thesis and surrenders the idea that the terms in Frege's case are names, are referring expressions. Russell, that is, had an even deeper commitment to the thesis about meaning than Frege.

QUINE. Quine is more complicated. First, he has an answer to the question 'What is the meaning of a word?' that is a variant on Frege and Russell. Quine accepts the Lockean view that the meaning of a word is some mental object, some idea, which the word names (denotes, stands for). Second, what is especially unique to Quine is that he holds that it was a philosophical theory that introduced the concept of meaning into human thought and language. Consequently, what meaning is is specified by the theory. And what meaning is, according to the theory, is the object named, albeit a thing in the mind. Then, encountering Frege's case, which establishes definitively that meaning cannot be the object named, he holds that the philosophical theory that introduced meaning into human life has been shown to contain a contradiction, that the theory is inconsistent: it both requires and yet rules out that the meaning of a term is the object named by it. Therefore, the concept of meaning and the philosophical theory that contains it must be surrendered. There is, thus, no legitimate talk of meaning in or out of philosophy. Quine, that is, is so deeply committed, though in an odd way, to the thesis that the meaning of an expression is the object it stands for that when a contrary case is presented he surrenders the concept of meaning. (He does have further arguments against meaning, thought of as he does as something in the mind.)

WITTGENSTEIN (THE LATER). Holding in his Tractatus days that the object named is the meaning of a term (see 3.023), he later comes to realize that what Frege's case does is to show that the philosophical thesis is false. The object named by a name is not its meaning. What one needs, he realized, is not a distinction splitting the concept of meaning, not a thesis that some words really aren't names, not an idea that the concept of meaning is incoherent, but rather a wholly new answer to the philosophical question 'What is the meaning of a word?'

CONCLUSION. Wittgenstein's solution is the only sensible one - though Frege's is a small distance along the road. Russell, denying that certain names are names, and Quine, equally wildly, holding that the concept of meaning is illegitimate, illustrate the lengths to which philosophers will go in defending a favorite thesis - or perhaps only the thesis that meaning is an object.