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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The philosopher as a toad

I have been reading all summer – right across the field, whatever has come into my hands. My seminar last semester on Foucault’s  “The Order of Things” stimulated my interest in French literature and because of Foucault’s well-known hostility to Sartre I decided to have another look at that philosopher. So I took up Sartre’s autobiographical work “Les Mots” which had been on my bookshelf for quite a while.

Certainly an intriguing and disturbing book. Intriguing as a description how Sartre leaned to read and began to write. But disturbing also because Sartre speaks about himself in the starkest terms.  We read, for instance: “My long hair got on my grandfather’s nerve. ‘He’s a boy,’ he would say. ‘You’re going to make a girl of him. I don’t want my grandson to be a sissy!’ One day – I was seven years old – my grandfather could no longer stand it. He took me by the hand, saying that we were gong for a walk. But no sooner had we got around the corner than he rushed me into a barber shop, saying: ‘We’re going to give your mother a surprise.’ I returned home shorn and glorious. There were shrieks, but no hugging and kissing, and my mother locked herself in her room to cry. Her little girl had been exchanged for a little boy. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As long as my ringlets fluttered about my ears, they made it possible to deny my obvious ugliness. Yet my right eye was already entering the twilight. She had to admit the truth to herself. My grandfather himself seemed nonplussed. He had been entrusted with her little wonder and had brought back a toad.”

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Democracy Is in the Streets

I have been re-reading James Miller's 1987 "Democracy is in the Streets" since he was in Oakland a month ago. The book provides a richly detailed account of the short life of the "Students for a Democratic Society" (SDS) from their beginnings at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1962 through their being a major driving force behind the protests against the Vietnam war to their collapse in 1969.

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And how about democracy?

"Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we'd be asking? … We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession. But now we turn to our own country."

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die

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Politics in an age of advanced technology

Technology has transformed and deformed our long-evolved political order and it is likely to do more of that. A technologically enabled economic and financial system has certainly diminished the regulatory power of the state. Goods, services, and people can now move easily across continents, not always under the control of governments. Pictures, words, ideas, and information are massively channeled within and between political systems, often defying the power of states but also often abetting it. At the same time, the state’s tools of surveillance and repression have become definitely more effective. Its military strength has vastly increased and can be projected over wider distances. We notice, thus, a diminution of state power in some respects, but also an increase in others.

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Reading Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the leading philosophical minds of the twentieth century and his thought remains of live interest. Twenty years ago, David Stern and I published the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein which was intended to help readers of Wittgenstein along. We have now brought out a second edition of this work with some great new contributions and a completely updated bibliography.

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A Bad Bargain

Joshua Green, Devil's Bargain. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising, Penguin Books 2017, republished with a new preface 2018.

Joshua Green's book has been somewhat overshadowed by the publication of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury but it adds significantly to Wolff's account and corrects it at some important points. It tells in fascinating detail the story of bad bargain the American people accepted when they elected Trump.

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Who is responsible for our decline? – The Frankfurt School, of course.

Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss. The Lives of the Frankfurt School, Verso, London 2017

Poor Frankfurt School. Turn to the internet these days and you realize that the handful of German professors who go under that name are being held responsible for almost everything bad that has happened to society since … when? !990? 1970? 1945? Or even 1920? All these dates are being tossed around on those feverish websites. Neo-Marxism, cultural Marxism, feminism, multiculturalism, sexual excess, postmodernism, political correctness, and all in all the entire “Western decline” are due to their nefarious doings.

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Forget Fire and Fury; It’s Confusion and Turmoil in Trump’s White House

Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury. Inside the Trump White House, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2018

On August 8 of last year, Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” His words were meant to cow the North Koreans into abandoning their nuclear and missile arsenal but until now, at least, they appear to have been only idle threats. Michael Wolff has now adopted the phrase as the title of his book on the first nine months of the Trump presidency – surely, a cleverly ironic choice. For since his election Trump has proved to be more a source of combative words than of real achievements.

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