“On Sense and Reference” opens as follows:
Equality [i.e., identity, and more specifically, quantitative identity] gives rise to challenging questions which are not altogether easy to answer. Is it a relation? A relation between objects, or between names or signs of objects? (9)
Assuming that identity is a relation, is it
(1) a relation between the things our words mean, or
(2) a relation between those words themselves?
Another way to put the question is as follows: Is the sentence “the Morning Star = the Evening Star” about...
(1) a relation that Venus has with itself (namely, the relation of being the same object as), so that the statement “the Morning Star = the Evening Star” means “The Morning Star is the same object as the Evening Star”;
or is it about
(2) a relation between the name “the Morning Star” and the name “the Evening Star” (namely, the relation meaning the same thing as), so that the sentence “the Morning Star = the Evening Star” means “The name ‘the Morning Star’ means the same as the name ‘the Evening Star.’”
In 1879’s Begriffschrift, Frege had maintained that (2) was the correct answer: statements of identity express a relation between pieces of language.
· His view was that the sentence “a = b” does not make a claim about the thing that “a” and “b” stand for. Rather, it makes a claim about the names “a” and “b” themselves, namely, that those names refer to the same thing.
And Frege thought that this is the only way to explain how “a = b” and “a = a” can differ in cognitive value when a really is identical to b:
The sentence “a = b” says that the name “a” and the name “b” refer to the same thing—and this is not obviously true; you can’t necessarily know that this is true just by understanding the meaning of “a = b”. For example:
· you cannot know that the names “the Morning Star” and “the Evening Star” refer to the same thing just by understanding the sentence “The Morning Star is the Evening Star.”
· you cannot know that “Lady Gaga” and “Stefani Germanotta” refer to the same person just by understanding the sentence “Lady Gaga is Stefani Germanotta.”
On the other hand, the sentence “a = a” says that the name “a” and the name “a” refer to the same thing—and this IS obviously true. For example:
· it is obviously true that the name “the Morning Star” and the name “the Morning Star” refer to the same thing... since they are the same name;
· it is obviously true that “Lady Gaga” and “Lady Gaga” refer to the same person… since they are the same name.
So on Frege’s earlier view, in order to explain the difference in cognitive value between “a = a” and “a = b” when a is identical to b, we need to understand identity as a relation between names of the same object, rather than as a relation that the object has with itself:
What is intended to be said by a = b seems to be that the signs or names ‘a’ and ‘b’ designate the same thing, so that those signs themselves would be under discussion; a relation between them would be asserted. (9)
[2.5.2.] Frege’s Objection to His Earlier Solution.
By 1892’s “On Sense and Reference,” Frege had changed his mind.
He describes the problem with his original solution as follows:
On his earlier interpretation of “a = b,” that sentence makes a claim about the names “a” and “b.” The claim that it makes is that those names refer to the same thing.
But (says Frege) a speaker can use whatever he or she wants as a name of something. “Nobody can be forbidden to use any arbitrarily producible event or object as a sign for something.” (9)
· For example, I could take the expressions “the Eiffel Tower” and “Mitt Romney” both to name the man Barack Obama.
· And when I do this, I can say “the Eiffel Tower = Mitt Romney” and this would be true... since all I would be saying is that “the Eiffel Tower” and “Mitt Romney” are both names of Barack Obama.
So if sentences like “a = b” are about names, they do not express “proper knowledge.”
But such statements do express proper knowledge.
An identity statement like “The Morning Star = the Evening Star” expresses something more important, something more substantial, than a mere claim about two expressions being names for the same object. It expresses an important astronomical discovery, something more important than the trivial fact that humans have just happened to use the expression “the Morning Star” and the expression “the Evening Star” to refer to the same thing.
If Frege’s original solution were correct, then that identity statement would express an extremely trivial fact about how people use two different expressions. But it doesn’t. It expresses an important, non-trivial astronomical discovery. So in “On Sense and Reference,” Frege says that his original solution (given in Begriffschrift) cannot be correct.
[2.5.3.] Frege’s New (1892) Solution: The Sense / Reference Distinction.
The new solution Frege proposes in “On Sense and Reference” begins with his distinction between two different aspects of meaning:
It is natural, now, to think of there being connected with a sign (name, combination of words, letter), besides that to which the sign refers, which may be called the reference of the sign, also what I should like to call the sense of the sign, wherein the mode of presentation is contained. (10)
The distinction that Frege is making here is one of the most famous in all of Western philosophy: the distinction between sense and reference:
reference [Bedeutung] (df.): the thing that an expression refers to. For example,
· the reference of “Barack Obama” is the man Barack Obama;
· the reference of “the Eiffel Tower” is a large steel structure in Paris, France;
· the reference of “Lady Gaga” is a woman whose birth name is “Stefani Germanotta.”
sense [Sinn] (df.): the way an expression picks out its reference. Frege says that it contains the expression’s “mode of presentation.” The sense of an expression is given by one or more definite descriptions...
definite description (df.): a descriptive phrase that uniquely picks out a single individual or that appears to do so, e.g., “the tallest student in this class,” “the first dog in space,” “the winner of the 2012 Oscar for Best Motion Picture,” etc.
So the sense of the name “Barack Obama” is given by the following list of definite descriptions: “the 44th President of the United States, who is married to Michelle Obama, and who is a former Senator from Illinois.”
Frege applies this distinction to solve the puzzle about identity statements…
“The Morning Star” and “the Evening Star” have the same reference but different senses, i.e., they refer to the same thing, but they have different ways of picking out that reference...
“the Morning Star”
the planet Venus
“the last star to disappear in the morning”
“the Evening Star”
the planet Venus
“the first star to appear at night”
The fact that “the Morning Star” and “the Evening Star” have different senses explains why “The Morning Star = the Evening Star” is informative in a way that “The Evening Star = the Evening Star” is not.
· To learn that the a posteriori sentence “The Morning Star is the Evening Star” is true, is to learn that the last star to disappear in the morning is the first star to appear at night, an important astronomical fact.
· To learn that the a priori sentence “The Morning Star is the Morning Star” is true, is to learn something utterly trivial, that the last star to disappear in the morning is the last star to disappear in the morning; in fact, you can tell that it is true without knowing anything about astronomy.
Stopping point for Thursday August 30. For next time, read “On Sense and Reference” pp.12-16 (to the end of the first paragraph in the second column). MAKE SURE THAT YOU ARE READING THE ENDNOTES (WHICH ARE ON PAGES 20-21) AS YOU GO. Questions that you should be prepared to answer at the beginning of class:
· According to Frege, what is the sense of a declarative sentence?
· According to Frege, what is the reference of a declarative sentence?
 Joan Weiner explains the objection as follows:
The use of a particular name to designate a particular object ... is arbitrary. If identity statements can express astronomical discoveries, then they cannot simply be statements about our arbitrary choices of which symbols to use for which objects. (92)
 Frege introduced his distinction between sense (Sinn) and reference (Bedeutung) in an earlier paper, “Function and Concept,” but did not elaborate on it at that point. His treatment of this distinction in “On Sense and Reference” is his first extended examination of it.
 This is an English translation of Frege’s German word “Sinn.” Sometimes, English translators translate “Sinn” as “meaning.” If this is how the word is translated, then Frege’s article “Über Sinn und Bedeutung” gets translated as “On Meaning and Reference” instead of “On Sense and Reference.”
This page last updated 8/30/2012.
Copyright © 2012 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.