Frege And Burge on ‘Thoughts’ and Sense

Frege’s ‘Thoughts’

Frege argues that if I use a designator such as `that lime tree’ that I believe refers but does not, I wander into `the realm of fiction’. Frege makes the further claim that the content of sentences containing non-referring terms is not truth-evaluable. But am I really failing to refer? If I say `that lime tree has been struck by lightning’, it seems likely that people will look out of the window to see whether this is true. They will see that it is true, and they will come to have knowledge of that fact. They may say that it is regrettable because they enjoyed the shade of `that lime tree’. All of this is the case even if the tree is in fact an oak. So I have had a conversation with someone else, that person has learned a new fact, has formed an attitude towards that fact, and successfully communicated that attitude to me. Note that even if my interlocutor has failed to refer to a tree, that does not prevent them from referring to their attitude to a tree. Are we then to say that their attitude has no intentional object? All of this suggests that referral has taken place. Moreover, even if the empty terms do enter the realm of fiction, why does that entail that they are not truth-evaluable? The claim `Sherlock Holmes plays the violin badly’ seems to have two truth values; it is true in the context of works by Arthur Conan Doyle and false in the actual world. Finally, `killer whales’ are in fact not whales but dolphins; that fact is known by many fewer people than the number who would be disposed to assent to a number of true statements about killer whales such as — they can swim, they live in the sea etc. Will Frege claim that this term does refer because many of us have all agreed together to make this error? But if `killer whales’ is a compositional term as opposed to an empty name, and it means `that subset of whales which kill’, then it does not refer. Are stories about killer whales all fictional such that in the course of an hour-long nature documentary on the topic, nothing is said and no-one learns anything?

Burge’s ‘Frege on Sense & Linguistic Meaning’

“Frege believed that vagueness could not infect reality itself — the objective entities which our thoughts denote. I suspect that only if one explicates reality in terms of mind or meaning does the notion of vagueness in reality make any sense.”

Burge believes that Frege’s view on vagueness was that it was only possible for it to be an element of our thinking and not an element of objective reality. He then agrees with this himself. Since Frege is mostly prior to the advent of quantum physics, Burge is likely to be correct about what Frege thought. Burge may nevertheless be questioned as to whether `reality’ cannot include fundamental vagueness. There are a large number of indeterminate elements to modern physics. There is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which means that the accuracy of a \emph{potential} measurement of the momentum of a particle limits the accuracy of a measurement of its position. Note that this is not a statement of restricted quality in available measuring equipment; it is a reflection of fundamental reality that we can never know both to arbitrary precision. A further development of this is wave-particle duality, by which it is indeterminate whether an entity is actually a wave (with fully defined momentum and `vague’ position) or a particle (with fully defined position and `vague’ momentum). Or in a further consequence still, there can be `virtual’ particles. These do not exist in the same way as fully realized particles in that they are `within’ the limits of the energy that may be `borrowed’ from the vagueness of the vacuum. These virtual particles nevertheless affect the measured mass of non-virtual particles. If Burge wishes to resist the claim that these are aspects of objective reality, he will need to assert that all of these factors are created by minds. While there are elements of quantum physics that do appear to be heavily influenced by mental action — such as the inducement of the collapse of wave-functions — this seems unlikely to extend as far as the creation of virtual particles. Finally, on a more prosaic level, why are minds needed for it to be vague as to where the root systems of two trees that are intertwining under the ground begin and end? Surely a number of choices of equal validity could be made and the range of possibilities could be decided by a computer. If Burge now insists that a computer is effectively a mind at one remove in virtue of the fact that it is created by humans and is their tool, then we might be forced to contemplate the outlandish possibility of alien intelligences making the decision — but in any case, the fact of the matter about the vagueness of the root systems should be the case independent of whether they are inspected by anyone or anything if there is any objective reality.