Giant of the deep end in a class of his own

October 13, 1995

Gottlob who? The layperson who wants an intelligent entree into contemporary philosophy would do well to read about the philosophy of Gottlob Frege. Frege was a German philosophy professor, whose work spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was little known in his own day, either to the general public or to most of his professional colleagues. He did correspond with Bertrand Russell, in which correspondence Russell first formulated the famous paradox about classes as a criticism to Frege's own views. However, aside from a small circle of philosophers interested in such matters, his death went unnoticed. But in the 70-odd years following his death, he has come to be seen for what he truly was: a philosophical giant of the very first rank, and a founder of modern analytic philosophy.

Anthony Kenny addresses his book on Frege to the general reader who will be largely ignorant of contemporary philosophy. Kenny could not have selected a better author for these purposes; Frege was a seminal figure in the history of philosophical thought. Indeed, so much of Fregean ways of seeing things has crept into philosophy as standard fare that it is sometimes difficult to recall just how original and profound his ideas were.

Kenny's reference to Frege as a Columbus is no exaggeration. Like Columbus, Frege did not get to where he wanted to go, which was to show that mathematics was analytic since it was reducible to logic; but, also like Columbus, he discovered sufficient along the way to have made the journey of the utmost importance. His so-called "logicist" programme could not be carried through, but what a wonderful, fecund failure! As Kenny points out, Frege largely set the style and a significant portion of the intellectual agenda for analytic philosophy as it is practised today. The book is a very good one, and Kenny deserves nothing but praise for his superb achievement.

The book treats Frege's thought in its chronological development, insightfully showing how his thought sometimes altered and matured over time. Kenny's own expertise is put to good use, when he argues that to some degree Frege picked up themes from medieval scholastic philosophy, which had been largely neglected since the Enlightenment.

Many of his greatest achievements, which (as Kenny says) managed to antiquate everything previously written on the same subjects, were in the philosophies of mathematics and logic, areas which might be somewhat recherche for the non-professional but curious reader. One can see why the merely philosophically curious might lazily overlook their significance, and prefer other authors and other themes. However, Frege's work also covered the philosophy of language and metaphysics, and Kenny discusses these more accessible themes as appropriate.

However, I doubt that Kenny will succeed in his aim of appealing to the general reader. The uncompromising purity of Frege's philosophical thought will not endear him to this audience. Frege is, alas, a philosopher's philosopher. Kenny's Frege will be useful as a distinguished companion for the student and professional alike, to help them through Frege's own texts. I suspect the majority of the curious will prefer less rewarding writers whose appeal is in inverse proportion to their lasting importance. (I hope that my judgement is wrong.) If true, that judgement reflects neither on Kenny nor Frege, but rather on the fact that, as Kenny himself is alleged to have once said, in philosophy there is no shallow end. Shallows are, by definition, not profound. To offer the reader the hope of such shallows would be to offer an illusion, although there are, sadly, plenty of popularisers willing to do that.

David-Hillel Ruben is professor of philosophy, London School of Economics


Author - Anthony Kenny
ISBN - 0 14 012550 7
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £7.99
Pages - 218

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