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Frege's Target

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2010


‘Hostility to psychologism’, John McDowell writes, 'is not hostility to the psychological. ‘Psychologism’ is an accusation. But it may be either of several.

The psychologism McDowell is master of detecting is, as he sometimes puts it, a form of scientism. It is a priori psychology where, at best, only substantive empirical psychology would do. It often represents itself as describing the way any thinker (or any empirical, or language-using one) must be; as describing requirements on being a thinker at all. But it misses viable alternatives. It is just speculation as to how we are.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2002

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1 McDowell, John, ‘On the Sense and Reference of a Proper Name’, in his Meaning, Knowledge and Reality, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 181Google Scholar.

2 Gottlob Frege, Grundgesetze der Aritmetik, introduction, reprinted as The Basic Laws of Arithmetic, translated and edited by Montgomery Furth, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967, p. 15 in this translation.

3 Of factive meaning, as I prefer to conceive it, or of representation, depending on how one conceives logical relations. Frege speaks of the most general facts of truth (‘Guiding principles for thought in the attainment of truth’ (Grundgesetze, p. 101)), which suggests that he thought of logic as about representation.

4 Frege, G., The Foundations of Arithmetic, Austin, J. L., translator, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978Google Scholar, p. x.

5 See My ‘What Laws of Logic Say, Pragmatics and Realism: Hilary Putnam, Zeglen, U. and Conant, J., eds., London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 188208Google Scholar.

6 Frege, , Grundgesetze der Arithmetik, p. 13Google Scholar.

7 Frege, G., ‘Logic’ (1897), in Posthumous Writings, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1979, p. 129Google Scholar.

8 Frege, , ‘Logic’ (1897) in Posthumous Writings, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979, p. 147Google Scholar.

9 In Knowledge of Language (New York: Praeger, 1986Google Scholar, especially chapter 2), Chomsky puts much the same view in different terms. There he distinguishes between what he calls an E(external)-language and an I(internal)- language. An E-language simply is, by definition, whatever any two grammars would agree on in meeting our first, lower, goal. An I-language is (at least) what a grammar that met our second, higher goal, would say it is. So, for example, an E-language sentence is a string of words (contrary to our ordinary notion of a sentence), whereas an I-language sentence is a particular syntactic structure, not identifiable with a string of words. An Ilanguage is thus, for example, English, as we are able to see it. The only change in view here is that Chomsky no longer regards such notions as English, or German, as scientifically respectable. None of the reasons he adduces, though, seem good reason not to take ‘English’ or ‘German’ as indicating sufficiently (though not perfectly) determinate I-languages—as, I think, a proper appreciation of our mental lives requires.

10 The idea that there might be a universal seeing, hearing, …, thinker is reinforced by the rationalist view of our cognitive capacities (as exemplified by Leibniz) in traditional 17th and 18th century debates. One distinct strand in 17th century rationalism is the felt need to posit unmissable, cognitive capacities, though more specific and complex than what the empiricist typically would countenance. There is, presumably, an interesting point of agreement here, worth exploring if one aims for a general picture of psychologism in all its manifestations.

11 Descartes, in his animal automatism, suggests a non-epistemic rationale. This turns on his way of drawing the distinction between intelligence and brute instinct. I doubt, though, that this line of thought held much sway with, say, Locke, or Hume or Quine.

12 That there is such a thing is, of course, questionable.

13 I abstract here from questions as to whether it is the child learning its first language, or mature humans approaching a strange language, who does this.

14 For further discussion of knowledge-gaining capacities see my ‘The Face of Perception’, in Putnam, Hilary, The Philosopher Responds to His Critics, Conant, J., ed., Vanderbilt University Press, forthcomingGoogle Scholar.

15 McDowell, John, ‘The Role of Eudaimonia in Aristotle's Ethics’, Mind, Value and Reality, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1998, pp. 1819Google Scholar.

16 McDowell, , ‘Virtue and Reason’, Mind, Value and Reality, p. 62Google Scholar.

17 McDowell, , ‘In Defence of Modesty’, Meaning, Knowledge and Reality, Harvard University Press, 1998, p. 94Google Scholar.

18 Ibid., p. 99.

19 To assign sensibilities this role is not to deny that we may always have principled reasons for classifying as we do. ‘The back's too low for it to be a chair. Anything with that low a back is a stool, not a chair.’ A perfectly acceptable principle, perhaps, and one that decides cases, including the one at hand. Nor is it to deny that our particular exercises of sensibility are subject to rational criticism, and may be shown wrong, in the light of recognisably acceptable principles. But such statable principles, which elaborate, perhaps correctly (in given circumstances), our conception of a chair, are ones we are prepared to abandon if confronted with the right cases. Our commitment to them always leaves room for the possibility that the right object, in the right situation, may show us how, indeed, a chair's back may sometimes be so low. We thus exercise our sensibility in seeing when, and when not, a given principle is to be adhered to.

20 I have benefited greatly from discussion of these issues with Peter Sullivan and Michael Martin, who have shaped this tract of philosophical reality (without thinking its contents so) perhaps more than they are aware. I would also like to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Board of the United Kingdom for their generous support of this research.

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