Saturday, May 19, 2012

Philosophy and the expressive arts: Frege

One of my goals between now and the end of October is to write an essay on philosophy and the expressive arts. I have about two weeks before my kids get out of school for the summer, and hope to have a (probably very) rough draft by then that I can return to about once a month until it's done or my time is up. What I think I would most like to do is to offer a reading of Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country as philosophy, but I doubt that's really what the organizers of the competition are looking for. Maybe I can incorporate elements of such a reading in the essay, but for the most part I think it ought to be about Frege and Wittgenstein (and possibly Davidson and maybe Rorty) and what we can learn from them. What follows is preliminary notes (really just a series of quotations) on Frege on hinting. Perhaps I should have called this post "Wink, wink, nudge, nudge," but I won't.

Here's the relevant part of the explanation of the competition:
From Plato on, philosophy has had an uneasy relationship with expressive arts such as narrative, poetry, drama, music, painting, and now film. If philosophy today can learn from science, can it learn from the arts as well—or even instead? If so, what can it learn?
Does expressive art access truths, particularly ethical truths, that cannot be expressed any other way? If it does, what can ethicists and other philosophers say about these truths? If it does not, what differentiates expressive from merely decorative art?
Some philosophers insist with Wittgenstein that “whatever can be said at all can be said clearly”. In that case, are artistic uses of language such as metaphor and imagery just "colour", as Frege called it - just ways of dressing up thoughts that philosophers, by contrast, should consider in their plainest possible form?
We welcome submissions of 8,000 words or fewer addressing these or other questions about philosophy and the expressive arts.  
The penultimate paragraph seems like a good starting point. In "On Sinn and Bedeutung," Frege distinguishes between Vorstellung (idea), Sinn (sense), and Bedeutung (reference), all three being kinds or aspects of meaning.
The idea is subjective: one man's idea is not that of another. There result, as a matter of course, a variety of differences in the ideas associated with the same sense. A painter, a horseman, and a zoologist will probably connect different ideas with the name 'Bucephalus'. This constitutes an essential distinction between the idea and the sign's sense, which may be the common property of many people, and so is not a part or a mode of the individual mind. [Beaney, p. 154]
Frege is not very interested in ideas (understood as here), but they surely are important to the expressive arts. He identifies three "levels of difference" that can exist between "words, expressions, or whole sentences" (Beaney, p. 155). These are differences in ideas only, in (ideas and?) sense but not reference, or in reference as well (in which case, presumably, there will be differences in sense and ideas too).
The difference between a translation and the original text should properly not overstep the first level. To the possible differences here belong also the colouring and shading which poetic eloquence seeks to give to the sense. Such colouring and shading are not objective, and must be evoked by each hearer or reader according to the hints of the poet [nach den Winken des Dichters] or the speaker. Without some affinity in human ideas art would certainly be impossible; but it can never be exactly determined how far the intentions of the poet are realized.
In what follows there will be no further discussion of ideas and intuitions... [Beaney, p. 155]
Hints are fundamental in Frege's work, though. In "Function and Concept" he writes that he cannot give a regular definition of what he is calling an object:
I regard a regular definition as impossible, since we have here something too simple to admit of logical analysis. It is only possible to indicate that is meant [gemeint]. [Beaney, p. 140]
Gemeint could also be translated as 'intended', I believe. Reluctantly, Frege is seemingly doing (what he regards as) the work of a poet here, hinting at his intentions in uncertain hope that the reader will share enough affinity with him to receive what he is trying to evoke. He resorts to similar hinting in "On Concept and Object":
Now something logically simple is no more given us at the outset than most of the chemical elements are; it is reached only by means of scientific work. If something has been discovered that is simple, or at least must count as simple for the time being, we shall have to coin a term for it, since language will not originally contain an expression that exactly answers. On the introduction of a name for something logically simple, a definition is not possible. There is nothing for it but to lead the reader or hearer, by means of hints, to understand the words as is intended. [Beaney, p. 182]
He goes on over the page:
...we cannot understand one another without language, and so in the end we must always rely on other people's understanding words, inflexions, and sentence-construction in essentially the same way as ourselves. As I said before, I was not trying to give a definition, but only hints, and to this end I appealed to the general feeling for the German language. [Beaney, p. 184]
The essay concludes:
'Complete' and 'unsaturated' are of course only figures of speech; but all that I wish or am able to do here is to give hints.
It may make it easier to come to an understanding if the reader compares my work 'Function and Concept'. For over the question what it is that is called a function in Analysis, we come up against the same obstacle; and on thorough investigation it will be found that the obstacle is essential, and founded on the nature of our language; that we cannot avoid a certain inappropriateness of linguistic expression; and that there is nothing for it but to realize this and always take it into account. [Beaney, p. 193]
Two more quotations to fill in the picture of Frege on the necessity of 'poetic' hinting:
We come to definitions. Definitions proper must be distinguished from elucidations [Erläuterungen]. In the first stages of any discipline we cannot avoid the use of ordinary words. But these words are, for the most part, not really appropriate for scientific purposes, because they are not precise enough and fluctuate in their use. Science needs technical terms that have precise and fixed Bedeutungen, and in order to come to an understanding about these Bedeutungen and exclude possible misunderstandings, we provide elucidations. Of course in so doing we have again to use ordinary words, and these may display defects similar to those which the elucidations are intended to remove. So it seems that we shall then have to provide further elucidations. Theoretically one will never really achieve one’s goal in this way. In practice, however, we do manage to come to an understanding about the Bedeutungen of words. Of course we have to be able to count on a meeting of minds, on others’ guessing what we have in mind. But all this precedes the construction of a system and does not belong within a system. In constructing a system it must be assumed that the words have precise Bedeutungen and that we know what they are. ["Logic in Mathematics" in Beaney, p. 313, quotation cut and pasted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] 
Finally, from a footnote in "Thought":
I am not here in the happy position of a mineralogist who shows his audience a rock-crystal: I cannot put a thought in the hands of my readers with the request that they should examine it from all sides. Something in itself not perceptible by sense, the thought is presented to the reader – and I must be content with that – wrapped up in a perceptible linguistic form. The pictorial aspect of language presents difficulties. The sensible always breaks in and makes expressions pictorial and so improper. So one fights against language, and I am compelled to occupy myself with language although it is not my proper concern here. I hope I have succeeded in making clear to my readers what I want to call ‘thought’. [Beaney, pp. 333-334, quotation cut and pasted from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy] 
This last quotation rings a bell, I think because either Kelly Dean Jolley or James Conant quotes it in something I read not too long ago. I'll have to investigate. But throughout there are Wittgensteinian themes here: battling with language, philosophy needing to be written on the model of poetry, and the essentialness to a certain (attempted) task of an obstacle or impossibility, for instance. Not all that glisters is gold, but these apparent foreshadowings are surely worth investigating (which will involve, of course, looking at what others have written about this--I know it's not uncharted territory).

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