What Should We Learn From Philosophy’s Neglect of the History of Ideas?

by Joseph Shieber

Chrysippus, not long for this world, sees a donkey eating his figs

The philosophical world has recently been abuzz about Susanne Bobzien’s argument that Gottlob Frege — often taken to be one of the founding figures of what became 20th century analytic philosophy — plagiarized many of his logical positions from the Stoics.

Bobzien’s charge isn’t merely idle speculation. In her paper, descriptively titled “Frege Plagiarized the Stoics”, Bobzien brings the receipts. In painstaking detail, she demonstrates the ways in which many of Frege’s signature views — previously often thought to have been radical innovations in logic and philosophy of language — mirror almost verbatim the language of the chapter on Stoic logic in Carl Prantl’s influential Geschichte der Logik im Abendland (History of Logic in the West).

In painstaking detail, Bobzien lays out her case that not only was Frege strongly influenced by Stoic ideas, but also that he copied those ideas from one source, Prantl:

First, it is vastly more likely that Frege obtained his knowledge of Stoic logic from one text, rather than from browsing through the dozens of Greek and Latin works with testimonies on Stoic logic that Prantl brings together. (Of the hundreds of Stoic logical works, not one has survived in its entirety and we are almost completely dependent on later ancient sources.) Second, virtually all parallels between Stoics and Frege are present in Prantl, and some important elements of Stoic logic without parallels in Frege are missing in Prantl. … Third, there are several misunderstandings or distortions of Stoic logic in Prantl which do have parallels in Frege.” (pp. 8-9 of Bobzien’s paper linked above)

In one sense, it’s hard to exaggerate the significance of Bobzien’s findings. In the words of Ray Monk, the acclaimed biographer of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, “it is Frege who [of the triumvirate of Frege-Russell-Wittgenstein] is—100 years on from his retirement—held in the greatest esteem by the philosophers of today.”

Central to Frege’s status is his employment of logical rigor to the analysis of language. As Monk puts it:

His essay “On Sense and Reference” (1892) offered a philosophical account of linguistic meaning that broke new ground in sophistication and rigour, and it is still required reading for anyone who wants to understand contemporary philosophy of language. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that he invented modern logic: he developed the basic ideas (if not the symbols now in use) of predicate logic, considered by most analytic philosophers to be an essential tool of their trade and a required part of almost every philosophy undergraduate degree programme.

I wrote “in one sense, it’s hard to exaggerate the significance” of Bobzien’s — to my mind — dispositive evidence of the influence of Stoic logic on Frege. In another sense, however, it’s not clear that there is much of particularly philosophical — as opposed to historical — significance about this influence at all. Notably, philosophers in the analytic tradition to which I belong trumpet their focus on the logical and evidential support for the ideas and arguments central to philosophical questions — not on the sources of those ideas and arguments.

Indeed, it was Frege himself, through his critique of psychologism, who cemented this rejection of consideration of the genealogy of ideas as a core tenet of analytic philosophy. As Frege puts the point, “neither logic nor mathematics has the task of investigating minds and the contents of consciousness whose bearer is an individual person”. (Ironically, perhaps, Frege’s insistence that the contents of thought are shareable and hence not tied to the psychology of any particular thinker is one of the elements of his logic that Bobzien traces to the Stoics.)

I’m sympathetic to this line of thought. What excites me most about philosophy is the clash of ideas, not personalities. What drew me to the discipline in the first place was the avowed emphasis on the strength of an argument, rather than whose argument it was. (“Avowed emphasis” because I’ve spent enough time in the discipline to realize that this ideal is honored more in the breach than in the observance; as an academic field, philosophy is infected by cults of personality, fads, and the power of connections at least as much as other academic disciplines.)

It strikes me, however, that analytic philosophy has taken the wrong lesson from this focus on the content of ideas, rather than their genealogy. If it’s the ideas that matter, why are the sources used traditionally to teach our introductory students about those ideas so obviously limited by recency and geographic, to say nothing of racist and sexist biases?

Today I’ll begin another semester of teaching Introduction to Philosophy. In my course, however, we won’t only read Descartes on the nature of mind, Locke on the nature of persons, or Plato on the analysis of knowledge. We’ll also read the criticisms of Descartes by Elizabeth of Bohemia and Anton Wilhelm Amo. We’ll encounter skepticism about personhood from The Recorded Conversation of Zen Master Tixuan. And we’ll see how much more refined the analysis of knowledge can become when pursued by the author and commentators of the Nyāya Sūtras.

And, thanks to Bobzien, I might even throw in some Stoic logic.