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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 89-113

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Logic and the Inexpressible in Frege and Heidegger

Edward Witherspoon

FREGE AND HEIDEGGER LIE SO FAR APART on the philosophical spectrum that any suggestion that we might profitably discuss them together is apt to seem implausible. Frege's philosophical project is to clarify the foundations of mathematics; this leads him to a logical investigation in the course of which he invents most of the apparatus of modern symbolic logic. Heidegger embarks on a more general project, the elucidation of Being itself, which he approaches via an investigation of human life (and, famously, death). The projects and methods of the two philosophers are so different that there is no obvious arena for a fruitful dialogue between them. Indeed, it is fairly safe to suppose that each would have regarded the other's work as alien to his own: Frege would likely have regarded Heidegger's "existential analytic of Dasein" as a work of anthropology and social psychology that is of dubious relevance to philosophical questions, while Heidegger seems to have regarded the introduction of symbolic logic into philosophy as an attempt to reduce all thought to mere "calculation" and to avoid what Heidegger calls "essential thinking." 1

The differences between Heidegger and Frege can seem to be crystallized in their attitudes toward logic. For Frege, logic is the most general science--a science whose task is to articulate the principles that govern any investigation whatsoever. By contrast, it appears that Heidegger wants to displace and dismantle logic in favor of a more fundamental kind of investigation: [End Page 89]

[T]he destiny of the reign of "logic" (i.e., the traditional interpretation of thinking) in philosophy is . . . decided. The idea of "logic" itself disintegrates in the turbulence of a more originary questioning. 2

Heidegger seems to believe that this more fundamental investigation, which he calls "metaphysics," will be hampered by a rigid adherence to logical principles. Frege surely would have rejected Heidegger's idea of an investigation that is more fundamental than logic, and he would have regarded any attempt to pursue "metaphysics" (or any other investigation) without respecting the laws of logic as deeply confused.

Given the differences between Frege and Heidegger, how could the thought of one possibly throw light on that of the other? I will argue that despite their seemingly stark differences on the status of logic in philosophy, they both find that, in the course of analyzing thought and thinking, they are forced to engage in reflection that lies outside the bounds of logic. For each philosopher finds himself in possession of an insight that by his own lights cannot properly be stated. Moreover, this inexpressibility is in each case a consequence of the insight itself; in grasping the insight one sees why it cannot be expressed. Each philosopher considers it crucial to somehow convey his insight to his audience, despite its inexpressibility. Both Frege and Heidegger recognize the difficulty of conveying what is inexpressible, and they attempt to resolve this difficulty in ways that turn out to be deeply similar. By considering them together and recognizing these similarities, we can come to notice and understand aspects of their respective positions that have been missed by those who look at them separately.

My paper falls into three major parts, whose respective topics are Heidegger, Frege, and the parallels between them. My discussion of Heidegger emphasizes his treatment of "the Nothing" in Being and Time and in the lecture "What is Metaphysics?". A central concern of these works is to show that an understanding of the world as a whole is a condition for the possibility of making assertions or having thoughts about objects; I argue that when Heidegger makes remarks about "the Nothing"--remarks that have been criticized as illogical by many analytic philosophers--he is attempting to draw our attention to the logical difficulties inherent in his discussion of the world as a whole. Although he himself recognizes that his utterances are logically defective, he thinks that they can nevertheless convey his...


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