Textual and historical subtleties aside, let's call the idea that numbers are properties (or classes) of equinumerous sets ‘the Fregean thesis.’ In a recent paper, Palle Yourgrau claims to have found a decisive refutation of this thesis. More surprising still, he claims in addition that the essence of this refutation is found in the Grundlagen itself – the very masterpiece in which Frege first proffered his thesis. My intention in this note is to evaluate these claims, and along the way to shed some light on relevant passages of the Grundlagen. I will argue that Yourgrau does not make his case.
The arguments with which we are concerned are found in the last three sections of Yourgrau's paper. A pervasive difficulty in these sections is that it is not clear exactly what Yourgrau is arguing against. The stated object of his attack is the Fregean thesis (d. 581-6), a thesis about what numbers are; however, instead of a frontal assault, his strategy is to embark on a foray into the ill-defined issue of what it is that numbers number (586ff.), where, roughly speaking, a number n numbers an object x just in case n can be legitimately assigned to x. The reason for this shift in emphasis appears to be rooted in a misconception. As we’ll see in more detail shortly, Yourgrau's argument against the Fregean thesis is based on an extension of a well known argument of Frege's found in §§22-3 of the Grundlagen, which Glenn Kessler has tagged the ‘relativity argument,’ (henceforth ‘RA’). According to Yourgrau, this is an argument ‘to the effect that what is literally numbered cannot simply be concrete objects’ (586). This is incorrect. Frege himself clarifies the point of the argument in §21 with the following preface:
In language, numbers (i.e., numerals] most commonly appear in adjectival form and attributive construction in the same sort of way as the words "hard" or "heavy" or "red," which have for their meanings properties of external things. It is natural to ask whether we must think of the individual numbers too as such properties, and whether, accordingly, the concept of number can be classed along with that, say, of color.