Taking Frege Seriously

Joan Weiner, Taking Frege at His Word, Oxford University Press 2020, xxvii + 317 pp.

In 1936 Edmund Husserl wrote in a private letter to Heinrich Scholz, the collector of Frege’s writings, that he had never met Frege in person and that Frege was considered at the time “a sharply intelligent outsider who bore fruit neither as a mathematician nor as a philosopher.”[1] That was, of course, a misjudgment. We can see now more clearly that Frege contributed, in fact, at least three things to mathematics and philosophy after him. The first was his new logic (the propositional and predicate calculus) that replaced the old Aristotelian logic. Given the important role that the Aristotelian syllogistic had played in philosophy for more than two thousand years that was, indeed, a significant achievement. The second was Frege’s attempt to show that arithmetic can be reduced to logic. Frege’s logicist thesis has not remained uncontested and his way of trying to prove it has turned out to be defective, but the considerations that led him to it are still being taken seriously by philosophers of mathematics. The third are his thoughts about signs – the symbols and formulas of his logical calculus and the words and sentences of ordinary language – and the way they serve to convey meaning. These “semantic” considerations have contributed much to the subsequent development of the philosophy of language.[2]

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The Murder of Professor Schlick

David Edmonds, The Murder of Professor Schlick. The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, Princeton Univerity Press 2020, xiv + 313 pp, $ 27.95.

It was the morning of June 22, 1936. Shortly after 9 am Moritz Schlick, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, was on the way to his lecture when one of his former students intercepted him on the university staircase. “Now, you damned bastard, there you have it,” the man was heard shouting as he unloaded a pistol into his victim. Schlick was instantly dead. The student, Nelböck by name, remained on the scene, waiting to be arrested. When he was questioned, he gave a variety of confused reasons for his attack. It became quickly clear that he was mentally unstable.  At his trial, Nelböck settled on saying that Schlick’s anti-metaphysical philosophy had undermined him morally. Two years later, after Hitler had marched into Austria, he changed his story and declared that he had acted on the conviction that Schlick was Jewish. He was duly released by the new Nazi authorities and he eventually died twenty years later, still a free man, in post-Second-World-War Austria.

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