Frege on thoughts, truth, and facts

Debbie asked:

Frege said ‘a fact is a thought that is true. Does that mean that truth is factual thoughts?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You can’t just turn the sentence around and draw conclusions from the spurious fact that the same words appear in the sentence! You should note that Frege says nothing about truth: he is speaking of facts.

You should accordingly attend to how Frege defines ‘fact’. As a thought first; then as a thought that is true. This order tells you something important about facts, though nothing at all about truth.

What it tells you is that facts are things and events which we can perceive and understand. But perceiving and understanding is in some way connected to our thoughts. So a fact relates to this understanding. For example you see a chair, you sit on it and verify that it is actually a chair. Thereby you have ‘understood’ a fact, which is now part of your empirical experience and sedimented in your memory, so that you may think about it. Similarly with events.

Those issues in the world which we have ascertained, verified and perhaps experimentally proved we may call ‘facts’. But you know that this ‘factuality’ is a judgement of your mind. You also know that sometimes your assessments are mistaken. The ball you play with might be made of plastic, but you call it a rubber ball. So this is not a fact, and not a true thought. But we often speak that way, for convenience. Convenience and convention turns many facts into little falsehoods, which generally do no harm at all. But it means that these are not facts; and then, according to Frege, our thoughts about them do not meet the facts of the world.

Bear in mind also that Frege was a mathematician. So we must include certain kinds of facts which do not occur in the world, but only in minds. What is the square root of 81? There is only one answer: The thought ‘9’. So you can then make the claim that it is factual to entertain the thought, ‘the square root of 81 is 9’.

‘Truth’ is a much wider concept than factuality. A poor boy is hungry; he has no money and steals a bread roll from the baker while no one is looking. Does that make him a thief? Questions like this are too often settled along the lines of a rigid truth. The boy may not ever in his life steal again, so where does that leave the ‘truth’ of the word thief? What is the truth in this very human context, which arbitrarily divides people in such a way that children sometimes have to suffer and end up on the wrong side of ‘truth’?

So, to finish: Frege is not talking about the truth. He is concerned with ‘truth’ as a concept which sometimes meets actuality in a one-to-one correspondence, as above. It is actually a very dangerous attitude to turn such claims around and make them say something which they don’t say and don’t mean!

Especially ‘truth’, on which too many people in the world have rigid opinions, mostly based on insufficient experience to guard from mistaking it for something which it isn’t.


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