Frege a plagiarist? Really?

The subject of one of my diatribes got very worked up about my post alluding to her (without naming her) a couple of years ago, and wrote a detailed reply that is — justifiably — rude in response. It only came to my attention just now, hence this belated acknowledgement. Looking at my own post from this distance, I admit that I should not have speculated about her motives for claiming that Frege had “plagiarized” the Stoics. That was a mistake, and looks way ruder than I meant it to be. I should have figured out a more graceful transition from the example of her paper to the main point of the post.

(She also calls my post defamatory, though, and that seems disproportionate. The worst thing I accuse her of is — possibly — seeking attention, and she herself seems to think, in her reply to my post, that one possible motivation for pursuing an academic career is to seek attention. My post doesn’t link to her paper or even mention her name; the point of the post wasn’t her paper so much as my perennial gripe that philosophy, like so many of the traditional humanistic disciplines, is succumbing to the economics of attention. I thought her paper was an obvious example of that, but even if I was wrong, I doubt whether my opinion could count as defamatory, even in the more informal sense she probably had in mind.)

There remains a substantive difference, however, which her reply to my post serves to highlight. She says there “I do not accuse Frege of plagiarism. . . I just show that he plagiarized the Stoics. The title [“Frege plagiarized the Stoics”] is descriptive . . .” That claim, as I will now briefly argue, falls apart.

Since she is at Oxford, she is no doubt aware of the notion of “thick ethical concepts” as they were discussed by Philippa Foot and, perhaps most notably, by Bernard Williams in his 1985 book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (though much has been written since; the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on “Thick Ethical Concepts” by Pekka Väyrynen gives a good overview). These are ordinary-language concepts that are descriptive but have unmistakable evaluative connotations; typical examples are “tactful,” “boorish,” or “cruel.” These had long been discussed, and it had been assumed, e.g. by Hare, that it was possible in (all) such cases to effect a clean separation between the descriptive and evaluative components of such concepts. Since at latest Williams, that has been controversial. Many now think that the descriptive and evaluative components are so entangled in at least some such concepts that the previously imagined clean separation is a mirage.

Either way, “plagiarism” is clearly a thick ethical concept. It has obvious descriptive criteria (legal ones, in fact, in nearly all jurisdictions, though they vary widely), but is also evaluative; you can’t attribute an act of plagiarism to someone without also “accusing” them of it. Even if Bobzien belongs to the “separabilist” school of thought about thick concepts (like Hare), she can’t diagnose plagiarism in Frege without also “accusing” him of something nefarious. It is just not a merely descriptive word, it has a glued-in evaluative component that can’t be pried off. The word can’t be used in an evaluatively “neutral” way. If Bobzien wants to be evaluatively neutral and merely descriptive, as she claims, she has to choose different words, as “plagiarism” (like other thick concepts) is irrevocably contaminated. There is no way to jettison the normative component.

She might try to Humpty-Dumpty her way out of this, and insist that she only had the descriptive component of “plagiarism” in mind, and if anyone else chooses to understand the word in an evaluative way, that is their problem, not hers. But (to continue with Humpty Dumpty) she is not the master in that realm; by using the word, she is buying into its centuries of use in legal, literary, and academic contexts. By using English, one is agreeing to abide by its rules. Sure, one infraction isn’t going to exclude her from the linguistic community, and in exceptional cases even patent and systematic abuse of language, flying in the face of obvious facts, can be pulled off for decades, if it’s entertaining enough. Most of us boring academics and quasi-academics can’t afford to flout the rules so insouciantly, though (and can’t expect our surrounding communities to put up with it as tolerantly); we have to be more careful, and live by the rules we’ve bought into. “Plagiarism” can’t shed its evaluative component at will (or at all), and whether she likes it or not, Bobzien will be regarded — not just by busybody Kurrintenkacker who draw attention to it — as having a screw loose if she insists (Humpty-Dumpty-like) on her eccentric use of “plagiarism.” (Though as long as she doesn’t declare herself to be the Empress of All Souls she should be safe from anything much worse — lots of us have loose screws!)

“Rude” is another thick ethical concept (I do wish Williams had chosen a better name!). I admit I was rude in speculating about Bobzien’s motives for her linguistic eccentricity, and I apologize for that. Her accusations against me, though, are supposedly factual; she claims that what I said about her plagiarism paper is “false.” Some of it undoubtedly was, especially the stuff that speculated about her motives, but to claim that an assertion is false usually carries no moral implications. To give moral force to “false” she adds “defamatory,” another thick ethical concept. In analogy with her treatment of “plagiarism,” she could presumably claim that “defamatory” was merely descriptive, and that she was not “accusing” my post of being defamatory, just describing it.

The question whether Frege was “really” a plagiarist, or my post about it was “really” defamatory, will be classified differently by moral cognitivists and non-cognitivists. (Where a “quasi-realist” about normative statements like Blackburn would put them I’m not sure.) For non-cognitivists, there can be factual criteria for the descriptive component of the concept, but not for the evaluative component; for cognitivists, there can be both, though they would (for most moral realists) remain distinct and separate. Where everyone agrees is on the descriptive criteria, but note that in a case where they are not met, both components of the concept fail to apply.

Whether Bobzien’s case regarding Frege meets even these descriptive criteria for plagiarism is a different and more interesting question that I haven’t addressed, since it is completely outside my area of competence. I am informed, though, that the original authors of the paper she was supposedly refuting, joined by an authority on ancient logic, are publishing a reply to her plagiarism paper in History and Philosophy of Logic (in English this time), and that she will reply. That exchange, I’m sure, will be refreshingly low-key.

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