Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Comments on Frege's Modes of Presentation

J.S. Mill believed that the meanings of singular terms were their denotations. Denotations are usually seen as objects of some description. Therefore any proposition which had a term whose meaning was its denotation would literally(?) have an object within it.

Thus Gottlob Frege argued that meanings can't be denotations. Instead of objects being in propositions, Frege suggested that “different ways of thinking” of an object are contained within propositions. Thus if a belief (or desire) can't literally contain the object of that belief (or desire), then it must contain “specific ways of thinking” of that object. That is, we shouldn’t mix up the ontology of objects with propositional structure and meaning. They belong to different ontological worlds.

Similarly, ways of thinking can't literally contain objects within them and neither do minds generally. It followed, for Frege, that what he called “sense” had to be distinguished from what many call “reference” or “denotation”. (Fregean) senses therefore determine references. They determine the ways in which the referents are thought about. Thus senses are “modes of presentation” of objects; not the objects themselves. Indeed we have no access to an object other than via a mode of presentation or a sense.

Think about what the contrary would entail.

It would mean that the object itself would be in the proposition or in its linguistic expression. That can't possibly be the case. Propositions are abstract entities (according to Frege); whereas objects are mainly concrete. An abstraction can't contain something in concreto.

The Individuation of Objects

In terms of the modes of presentation of an object, it can also be said that a criterion of identity must come along with a “principle of unity”. In addition, an object must have some kind of temporal longevity if it's to be deemed an object in the first place.

How can an object have temporal longevity?

It does so because it has a principle of unity. That principle tells us that certain facts about that object unify it and they do so because they tell us what things about that object must remain in order for the object to remain as that very object. The unity of the object is what makes it the thing it is over time.

Why should an object have a single criterion of identity? Why not many criteria?

It's traditionally thought that an object’s “essence” will determine what we take to be a criterion of identity for an object. However, just as we had choices as to what could be criteria of identity, so we may choices as to what constitutes the essence of a single object.

This is where we depart from Frege and from many other philosophers.

One set of essential properties may work for one group of individuals (or one set of situations) and another set may work for another group of individuals (or set of situations). Why assume that there's one real essence (which may contain a set of properties) of an object and no more?

Perhaps it all depends on the modes of presentation of that object.

Each different mode of presentation may determine its own essence. For example, under a mode of presentation that's supplied by physics, an object may have an essence specified in terms of its molecular or atomic structure. This would be a constitutional or inherent essence. However, under the mode of presentation of people who relate to - or use - the object under scrutiny, the essence may be specified in terms of that object’s role or its relation to the scrutiniser.

Many people will have different ways of individuating the very same object. It will depend on how that object is seen - both literally and metaphorically. It will depend on our particular relation to that object. It will also depend on the cognitive baggage which we bring to the object under scrutiny.

People with different beliefs - or different agglomerations of knowledge - will individuate the very same object in different ways. We could of course have a God’s eye view of an object. Wouldn’t that view involve an infinite conjunction of properties and relations which belong to the scrutinised object? Alternatively, perhaps a God’s eye view of an object would entail an infinite disjunction of properties instead. That is, an infinite set of possible characterisations or individuations of the object. Mortal individuaters can't of course use infinite conjunctions or infinite disjunctions. Mere mortals can't even comprehend them. Thus a God’s eye view of the object at hand would only be of use to the person with God’s eye – viz., God himself.


Frege, Gottlob. (1892) Über Sinn und Bedeutung ('On Sense and Reference').

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