Frege as clickbait

Why would a respected historian of ancient philosophy, formerly a professor at Yale and now at All Souls, resort to claiming that Frege had “plagiarized” the Stoics? When you look at the paper more closely, you realize a number of things: (1) We’re not talking about Frege the inventor of modern predicate logic (the author of the Begriffsschrift and Grundgesetze), nor even about Frege the philosopher of logic, logicism, and arithmetic (the author of The Foundations of Arithmetic); we’re talking only about Frege the supposed “philosopher of language,” the later Frege who wrote “On Sense and Reference” and related papers. (2) Even in the case of this Frege, a case is made only that he was influenced by the Stoics, not that he “plagiarized” them (as the author herself recognizes perfectly well, e.g. on pp. 202-4). (3) Most of her case rests on evidence of Frege’s borrowing from the Stoics that had previously been documented in some detail in a 2009 HPL paper by Gabriel, Hülser, and Schlotter, which she dismissively makes fun of in the beginning of her paper and claims to have refuted. (4) Her supposed refutation of that paper concerns none of the details of the Stoics’ influence on Frege, but consists merely in showing — ostensibly — that Frege’s use of Stoic motifs derives not from Frege’s friendship with the scholar of ancient Stoicism Rudolf Hirzel (Frege’s tenant of an apartment in his house in Jena), but from Frege’s own reading of Prantl’s history of logic. Her case here remains (as she admits) circumstantial and far from clear-cut.

Why then does she (as she puts it, p. 202) “bumptiously” accuse Frege of plagiarism? Why does she give her paper the obnoxiously agit-prop title “Frege plagiarized the Stoics”? One could be forgiven for suspecting it was a strategic feint to distract attention from her own plagiarism of Gabriel & Co — given that she could confidently assume no one would have read them since their paper was in German. But I won’t go there, especially since it seems that the more obvious motive was simply to grab some attention. Her title (whose “bumptious” claim she relativizes and essentially takes back at the end of the paper) is, in other words, clickbait. Why would someone who has arrived at the pinnacle of her profession — an FBA and fellow of All Souls — stoop to such cheap tricks? Because evidently the respect and attention of the (ever-shrinking) classics profession wasn’t enough; she apparently wanted to diversify into the somewhat larger pool of analytic philosophers, among whom Frege counts as a major hero, so much so that even the revelation of his politically proto-Nazi proclivities in personal diaries did little to dent his reputation. Attempting to cancel him (or advertising such an attempt, while courting accusations of failing to deliver), then, even if it flops, is likely to get some attention in those circles.

And it seems to have worked, to some degree; even this present mention of it is likely to increase its circulation a little. Which is too bad, but a cost worth incurring to raise the larger question whether philosophy, too, is now succumbing to the economics of attention that now dictates everything else online, including what version of the NYT front page I see (which is different from the one you see, but is nonetheless also largely dictated by how many people click on what things). Traditional avenues to attention in academia were well-understood by everyone who went into those professions; the price of entry was that you respected the somewhat feudal power structure in your discipline, accepted its agenda, and tried to do whatever you could within those constraints to gain attention and respect. It certainly wasn’t the optimal system for producing the best possible research, but it was understood and accepted; and in some disciplines, at least (physics, math, chemistry, biology. . .), it’s been widely recognized as pretty successful by just about any standard.

I’m certainly not defending that old system; I’m only asking whether we really want to replace it with the Facebook system we now seem to be drifting toward (of which I regard the case cited above as an obvious example), where the most inflammatory claim gets the most attention (regardless of merit) — and thus eventually the most citations. The more scientific disciplines, it seems, are able to resist that syndrome, for the most part, while the rest of us are at the mercy of the algorithms. Perhaps we philosophers, of all people, should resist?

And while we’re on the subject of Frege’s “philosophy of language” (which, remember, is the only part of Frege’s output where he supposedly “plagiarized” the Stoics), I can’t resist pointing out that Joan Weiner years ago made a very good case that really there wasn’t such a thing, at least in the form Dummett had popularized it, and that supposing that Frege intended a “philosophy of language” in that Dummettian sense leads to serious misunderstandings. As far as I’m aware, no one ever responded to this paper of hers; it remains a defiant and unanswered challenge to (much of) the vast and rather complacent Frege industry.

PS: I was unaware when I wrote this that she’s just written a whole book on this subject; see the comment by Greg Lavers below (with link).

2 thoughts on “Frege as clickbait

  1. Just wanted to make a point about your last claim about Joan Weiner’s position. It is, of course true that she has been arguing this for a long time. But I thought it might be of interest to you and your readers that her new book (feb 2021) is a detailed defense of exactly this point.

    Taking Frege at His Word

  2. Thanks! I’m very glad to hear that she’s still at it, and will order the book right away!

Comment (I will respond, however old the post!):