Words fail me. And I’m still torn between solemnly staring into the middle distance and making silly jokes. For historians of philosophy like me, Susanne Bobzien’s paper “Frege plagiarized the Stoics” is a sort of landing on the moon, nothing short of a sensation. But reading comments on the matter here and there, I also begin to worry that the implications of her findings might tempt people to dismiss them out of hand. Why? Because they shatter a much cherished historiography. Frege is famously considered the “founder of modern analytic philosophy”. If Frege copied crucial parts of his later works from (Carl Prantl’s presentation of) Stoic logic, then these parts of the foundation are not Fregean but Stoic. This shifts a number of things, in our understanding of our history, of crucial tenets that held various generations of analytic philosophers captive, but also assumptions of authorship or originality. In this post, I simply want to highlight some implications that I think need elaboration in years to come.
Let me begin with why this moves me personally. After finishing my PhD on Ockham’s account of mental language in 2001, I was mainly driven by one question: What is it that makes us assume that sentences are complete units? Working on a project proposal on “Sentences, Senses, and States of Affairs: Conceptions of Semantic Identity from the Middle Ages onwards”, I studied ancient, medieval and modern texts by philosophers and grammarians. Although I started out from Abelard’s theory of the dictum and began to look for paths to 14th-century authors such as Adam Wodeham and Gregory of Rimini, it was entirely natural to read some Stoic material as well as Frege. All these authors attempt to spell out an account of what complete sentences say in opposition to words or other smaller linguistic units. In my project on this longue durée of sentence theories, I tried to pursue three different questions: (1) What are conceptual similarities between these accounts? (2) Are there lines of historical influence between these accounts? (3) Why did the issues tackled in these accounts seemingly disappear (if they did) in the 13th, and after the 14th century, until coming up again in the 19th century?
Now when presenting my research to historical audiences, they often warned me that my approach was prone to anachronism: “What does Frege have to do with medieval or ancient accounts?” The similarities in the theories were often shrugged off by pointing out similarities between the questions asked. Conversely, when presenting in front of philosophers they mostly weren’t moved by the historical accounts: “Of course, Frege is still interesting. But these earlier accounts are of mere historical interest.” So without clear sources that allowed for connecting the dots my question (2) for historical lines was often seen as either anachronistic or trivial. An idea shared by most historians and philosophers, then, was that, despite some striking similarities, Frege’s account of sentences was to be seen as entirely different from the endeavours in the ancient and medieval contexts. So what did I think? Although I was hopeful to find some direct historical lines, I wouldn’t have dreamed of Frege as having copied Stoic material. Susanne Bobzien’s paper has has shattered my entire picture of the matter. What have I been looking at when reading Frege? Have I, in fact, (at least partly) been reading the Stoic account in the wake of which we understand Abelard and others? Have I been preempted from seeing this by the silly but pervasively linear timeline of history at the back of my mind? What are we really talking about when we invoke the “Fregean account” of sentences? What do these names refer to?
Why is Bobzien’s discovery groundbreaking? – Looking at some first reactions to Bobzien’s paper, it’s disheartening to see how some people try to debunk these findings. Two main lines of defence seemed to emerge very quickly: (a) One line is that “we have known this for a long time”. Pointing to earlier research, some people emphasise that certain conceptual similarities have already been studied very well. (b) The other line is that “Frege still deserves credit for having invented … [add a list of venerable items manifesting the status of the genius father].” What these defences miss is the historical claim of the paper: Bobzien makes a compelling case that Frege took the Stoic accounts from Carl Prantl’s Geschichte der Logik im Abendlande. This answers a large part of question (2) of my former project. It is not merely an account of striking similarities; it is historical evidence for a direct influence. For any historian of philosophy, that’s the best you can get. Given that most accounts deny such a direct influence and given that most protagonists in 20th-century analytic philosophy take Frege’s work as their point of departure, much of our history needs to be rewritten.
People wishing to defend Frege’s status as a founder of analytic philosophy seem to misconstrue Bobzien’s findings in a different way. They don’t emphasise that the similarities were known, but that they don’t mean much, in the sense that Frege is still vastly different. But Bobzien does not claim that Frege is deprived of this status. She acknowledges clearly that Frege thought through carefully what he took over. But we would deprive ourselves of our understanding of Frege’s foundational work, if we ignored that it is in fact of Stoic origin. Frege’s work needs to be rethought, too. And reading Frege might hold more for reserachers on pre-modern philosophers than the staunch hunters of anachronisms care to admit. – In this sense, Bobzien’s paper does not end but open conversations about the history of philosophy.
Finally, we need to see how we wish to tackle the issue of plagiarism. Bobzien herself opts for a “benign” understanding, involving acts of “appropriation” when taking over the ideas as “being freely available to anyone to help themselves to”. Of course, certain jokes at the expense of the Fregean idea of “grasping thoughts in the third realm” or at the expense of analytic philosophers considering the history of philosophy as a resource for “mining it for ideas” suggest themselves. However, there remains the more serious issue of how we want to conceptualise the fact, yes, it is a fact, that we tend appropriate ideas of others. Given that most of us do professional work on texts, I am struck by an often rather simplistic understanding of what constitutes authorship or originality. In my piece on philosophy’s adversarial culture I suggested a more fluid attitude towards authorship: “If you discuss an idea among friends, tossing out illustrations, laughing away criticism and speculating about remote applications, whose idea is it at the end of the night? Everyone might have contributed to an initial formulation, of which hardly anything might be left. In this sense, ideas very often have multiple authors. In such friendly settings, a common reaction to a clarifying criticism is not defence, but something along the lines of: ‘Right, that’s what I actually meant to say!’ ” What is lacking in cases where we detect copying, appropriation or plagiarism is often not a misconstrued form of originality, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of our interlocutors and of the fact that thinking is not a lonely grasping of abstract thoughts but a social process.