By: Kenneth BestForty years ago, the publication of Frege: Philosophy of Language by Michael Dummett signaled a landmark shift in the intellectual view of Gottlob Frege, whose work was largely ignored when he first published his ideas and theories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Frege is known as a founder of modern logic and a major contributor to our understanding of the foundations of mathematics.
This July, the first complete English translation of Frege’s major work, Grundgesetze der Arithmetik or Basic Laws of Arithmetic, will be published by Oxford University Press. Having the entire body of Frege’s work available in English is expected to again transform the scholarly landscape in the study of writings by the German philosopher, mathematician, and logician.
Marcus Rossberg, assistant professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is co-editor of the new translation.
“Frege scholarship won’t be the same after this comes out,” Rossberg says. “English-speaking scholars who did not have access to the German text before can now start working with this material, and we will learn much more about Frege as a philosopher.”
Rossberg says Frege’s work was initially dismissed for nearly half a century because it turned out that one section of his work in the philosophy of mathematics was contradictory, specifically Basic Law V of his system. In the 1980s, the studies of Crispin Wright and George Boolos remedied the flawed law with what became known as Hume’s Principle – that one-to-one corresponding concepts have the same cardinal number – which then provided a consistent theory to develop classical number theory. It gave rise to increasing interest in Frege’s philosophy of mathematics.
The subsequent interest in Frege’s work over the years led to several partial translations of Basic Laws of Arithmetic, Rossberg says, though these did not amount to even half of the two-volume, 600-page text, and both lacked consistency in translation and omitted critical information.
“It takes a very peculiar set of skills to be able translate a book like that, because it’s a mixture of a mathematics book and a philosophy book,” Rossberg says. “In order to do justice to a translation, to really capture what Frege was doing, you not only need to be a philosopher and understand philosophy, especially Frege’s philosophy: More is required.”
Further, he adds, translating the work requires the ability to read German and write in English, as well as to understand mathematics and be able to translate what Frege did with mathematical rigor to prove his theorems.