Thursday, November 8, 2018

Reprehensible social views

‘One can acknowledge that there are Jews of the highest respectability, and yet regard it as a misfortune that there are so many Jews in Germany, and that they have complete equality of political rights with citizens of Aryan descent.’ This is the great German mathematician and philosopher, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, born 170 years ago today, writing in a diary he kept for a month in the last year of his life. Although his academic work was largely ignored during his life time, it became better known in the 20th century, and his ideas and books are now considered to have made a seminal contribution to the development of the philosophy of language and mathematics and of modern logic. However, according to its translator, the diary fragment, which was not published until the 1990s, showed him to have ‘reprehensible social views’.

Frege was born on 8 November 1848 in Wismar, Mecklenburg-Schwerin. His father founded a girls’ high school, and when he died his mother took it over. 
Friedrich profited from a good schooling himself, and went on to study maths and physics, mentored by the mathematician Ernst Carl Abbe, at the University of Jena, matriculating in 1869. He moved to continue his postgraduate studies at the University of Göttingen, receiving a PhD in 1873 for a thesis on the geometrical representations of imaginary forms in a plane. Thereafter he returned to the University of Jena as a lecturer, and Abbe helped him progress to a post as associate professor. He was appointed a full professor in 1896.

Frege lectured in all branches of mathematics and also on his own logical system, though many of his publications were philosophical in character - On Sense and Reference, for example, and The Thought. He is credited by many as the father of ‘analytic philosophy’; his work on logic and language underpinned the rise of the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy. Some of his books - such as Begriffsschrift and Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik - are today considered seminal texts. He married Margarete Lieseberg in 1887, and the couple adopted one son.

In 1907, Frege was awarded the prestigious title of Hofrat; and during the early 1910s he was visited several times by Ludwig Wittgenstein. However, his work was largely ignored during his lifetime, and only became more widely known when given attention by the British  philosopher Bertrand Russell and the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano. In 1918, Frege retired to Bad Kleinen in the north of Germany (near Wismar), and he died in 1925. For further information see Wikipedia, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Encyclopaedia Britannica and

In 1973, the British philosopher Michael Dummett published Frege: Philosophy of Language which was soon accepted as a definitive work on Frege’s philosophy. Dummett’s preface drew attention to a diary that Frege had kept in the last year of his life, and which proved something of a shocking find. (In fact, the original diary no longer exists, and it is a transcript, prepared by Frege’s son in the late 1930s, that can be found in the Frege Archives at the Institut fur mathematische Logik und Grundlagenforschung at Munster University.)

‘There is some irony for me,’ Drummet says, ‘in the fact that the man about whose philosophical views I have devoted, over years, a great deal of time to thinking, was, at least at the end of his life, a virulent racist, specifically an anti-semite. This fact is revealed by a fragment of a diary which survives among Frege’s Nachlass [collection of manuscripts, notes, correspondence], but which was not published with the rest by Professor Hans Hermes in Freges nachgelassene Schriften. The diary shows Frege to have been a man of extreme right-wing opinions, bitterly opposed to the parliamentary system, democrats, liberals, Catholics, the French and, above all, Jews, who he thought ought to be deprived of political rights and, preferably, expelled from Germany. When I first read that diary, many years ago, I was deeply shocked, because I had revered Frege as an absolutely rational man, if, perhaps, not a very likeable one. I regret that the editors of Frege’s Nachlass chose to suppress that particular item. From it I learned something about human beings which I should be sorry not to know; perhaps something about Europe also.’

It would be another 20 years, in 1996, before the diary was translated into English by Richard L. Mendelsohn and published in Inquiry (Volume 36 of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy) as, Diary: Written by Professor Dr Gottlob Frege in the Time from 10 March to 9 April 1924. This is available to read online at the Taylor & Francis website for a fee, or, currently, it can be read for free at the Yumpu website. A discussion of Frege and his diary can also be found in When Reason Goes on Holiday: Philosophers in Politics by Neven Sesardic - see Googlebooks.

According to Mendelssohn’s preface in Inquiry, the views expressed by Frege in the diary were shared by many in his day: ‘What the diary shows more clearly than ever is how much Frege was a creature of his time, and how much more closely than we had previously been able to discern he was involved in and influenced by the philosophical activities of his time. There is, I know, a rather sharp difference between an individual’s philosophical views and his political views, and this is especially true when the philosophical views are so far removed from anything practical, as is the case with Frege.  The reprehensible social views expressed in the diary shake neither the truth nor the inventiveness of his philosophical achievements. But they do make it more difficult to read his texts with the same ease and sympathy - and admiration. I find myself deeply confused and troubled by the diary, and compelled to work to disseminate it as widely as possible.’

Here are several extracts from Mendelsohn’s translation of the Frege diary fragment.

24 March 1924
‘From our earliest education onwards we are so accustomed to using the word ‘number’ and the number-words that we do not consider our use to require justification. To the mathematicians it appears beneath their dignity to concern themselves with such childish matters. But we find the most diverse and contradictory statements about number and numbers among them. Indeed, after prolonged occupation with these questions, we come to suspect that our way of using language is misleading, that number-words are not proper names of objects at all and words like ‘number’, ‘square number’, and the rest are not concept-words; and that consequently a sentence like ‘Four is a square number’ simply does not express that an object is subsumed under a concept, and so just cannot be regarded like the sentence ‘Sirius is a fixed star’. But how then is it to be regarded?’

2 April 1924
‘Already before the war, the view that the economic condition of the poor employees could and had to be improved at the expense of the employers infected a wide circle of the German people, far beyond the boundaries of Social Democracy, like a contagious disease, and this infection of the German people continues up to the present. Until it recedes, one cannot hope for a real recovery of the German people. Only by improving the economic condition of the whole nation can the economic condition of the poor social stratum be permanently improved. How can that happen? The debts and other obligations of the Reich are, if at all possible, not to be increased. Against this, a Reich treasure is to be accumulated.20 This project must be held to tenaciously.’

22 April 1924
‘When I was a child, my native town Wismar had a position in Mecklenburg similar to that which later Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen had in the Reich. That is to say, it enjoyed great internal independence. There was a law at that time that Jews were permitted to stay overnight in Wismar only in the time of certain annual fairs. Then, they would first be rung in by the bell and then rung out. I suppose that this decree was old. The old inhabitants of Wismar must have had experiences with the Jews that had led them to this legislation.

It must have been very much the Jewish way of doing business together with the Jewish national character that is tied closely to this way of doing business. One had also probably seen that little was achieved through laws which forbade such business practices. So it came that I could not have bad experiences with Jews. This was changed only in 1866 with the establishment of the North German Confederation. There came universal suffrage, also for Jews. There came the freedom of movement, also for Jews, presents from France. We make it so easy for the French to bless us with gifts. If one had only turned to noble and patriotic Germans, and instead of persecuting them in the time of the reaction, used their help in producing decrees and institutions arising from the German spirit and heart! The French had treated us nastily enough indeed before 1813, and nevertheless we have this blind admiration for all things French. We reckoned the French so far in front of us that we believed we could hardly catch up with them with seven-league boots. Was there yet perhaps also a seed in us from which something German could have been developed? I have only in the last years really learned to comprehend antisemitism. If one wants to make laws against the Jews, one must be able to specify a distinguishing mark [Kennzeichen] by which one can recognize a Jew for certain. I have always seen this as a problem.’

30 April 1924
‘One can acknowledge that there are Jews of the highest respectability, and yet regard it as a misfortune that there are so many Jews in Germany, and that they have complete equality of political rights with citizens of Aryan descent; but how little is achieved by the wish that the Jews in Germany should lose their political rights or better yet vanish from Germany. If one wanted laws passed to remedy these evils, the first question to be answered would be: How can one distinguish Jews from non-Jews for certain? That may have been relatively easy sixty years ago. Now, it appears to me to be quite difficult. Perhaps one must be satisfied with fighting the ways of thinking [Gesinnung] which show up in the activities of the Jews and are so harmful, and to punish exactly these activities with the loss of civil rights and to make the achievement of civil rights more difficult.’

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