Home > Book Review, Philosophy > Meaning and Interpretation – Assignment One: “Explain Frege’s distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung”.

Meaning and Interpretation – Assignment One: “Explain Frege’s distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung”.

In today’s paper we will be discussing a complicated work from an important analytic philosopher from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, Gottlob Frege.  He contributed major works to the philosophy of language and mathematics, and was posthumously dubbed ‘the father of modern analytic philosophy’ by Bertrand Russell.  Specifically today we will be looking at Frege’s “On Sinn and Bedeutung” from The Frege Reader, 1997 (original publication 1892) and the distinction between ‘Sinn’ and ‘Bedeutung’. We need, at the outset, to state the specific target of Frege’s investigation in this paper, Frege wrote this paper in the context of discovery of the truth-value of a sentence (or proposition), he considered this a scientific investigation, and an epistemological one about assertoric sentences. As we will see, being an analytic philosopher, this is a linguistic investigation for Frege. Before we can begin to delve into this interesting issue however, we must first begin by defining and unpacking a few terms.  If we can define how Frege used the words ‘Sinn’, ‘Bedeutung’, ‘proper names’, and ‘sign’  and perhaps give some examples of how these words are used, then we can and indeed, will,  as much as we are able in this short paper, explore the distinction between ‘Sinn’ and ‘Bedeutung’.

Frege defines each of our terms for us, but for our purposes here it might be enough to simply paraphrase his terms. When he uses the word ‘sign’ he means it to denote a reference, – otherwise known as a ‘proper name’, that Frege simply uses to refer to a ‘natural language’, which simply means a language spoken by everybody (English, Russian etc are examples of natural languages). Then there is the ‘Sinn’ or ‘sense’ of the sign, or the sense in which the sign is used, which contains the ‘mode of presentation’ of the sign.  Then we have the Beduetung of a sign, Frege considers the sense and Beduetung to be two different aspects of expression, with the Beduetung of a sign being that which contains the designation of it, or is its reference. Quite simply: a sign expresses a sense and denotes a reference.

At this point we might like to provide some examples of these terms, so as to concrete their meaning for you – Frege uses several examples in his paper to demonstrate them. Starting with identity, Frege asks if identity is a relation, if so, what relation? Between objects? Or between signs and objects? Frege believes it to be the latter, as in the example of Venus, or as he words it: ‘the ‘morning star = the evening star’ which is a statement with a very different sense from, say ‘the morning star = the morning star’, but not a different Bedeutung. Moreover, to Frege a statement of identity can only be informative if a change in sign corresponds to a change in the mode of presentation of what is designated. It is here, that we might like to look at a more involved example, that of Frege’s triangle:

Let a, b ,c  be the lines connecting the vertices of a triangle with the midpoints of the opposite sides. The point of intersection of a and b is then the same as the point of b and c. So we have different designations for the same point, and these names (‘point of intersection of a and b‘, ‘point of intersection of b and c‘) likewise indicate the mode of presentation; and hence the statement contains actual knowledge. (Frege, p. 152, “On Sinn and Bedeutung”, 1997)

We see from this example, the same relation described in our ‘morning star’ example – the Bedeutung of the points of intersection in ‘a and b’, and ‘b and c’ are the same, but their sense is different. Frege mentions, however that this does not exhaust the definition of Bedeutung, there is an aspect of it, which we may never attain, that of comprehensive knowledge of it, this would require us to be able to know immediately all senses of it, which we cannot do.

Now we might like to begin our discussion on the distinction between sense and Bedeutung, to Frege, a sense of a word is what we grasp when we understand a word, it is wholly different from a simple image in our minds, or the idea that we formulate of it, although it may have a corresponding tangible object (if we think of a real thing). The problem with the image notion, is that of subjectivity – if we liken a sense to our idea, or mental image (the example Frege uses is of Alexander’s horse ‘Becephalus’), the sense of a word will be different for me, and for you, if we liken senses, and indeed reference to proper names we remove that subjectivity, and it is the same with complete sentences.

It’s now we need to come back to our context, that of scientific investigation, or the ‘truth value’ of assertoric sentences. Here we see again why Frege does not like the idea of senses being related to thought, when in the context of assertion and predication. When we make judgements, we move from the level of thought or subjectivity, to the level of truth, reference and objectivity.  Frege argues that the reference of a sentence is determined by the reference of the constituent pieces of a sentence, when we want to see if a sentence is true or false we need to find a reference for it, otherwise we would only be interested in thought and subjectivity. The example Frege provides is that of Odysseus on the shore sound asleep, this sentence conveys a sense, but the reference is not inherent within, we cannot say for true or false if this statement expresses a specific person, hence we cannot count it as a true statement, in the scientific, or epistemological sense. Quite simply: If a sentence expresses thought, which is its sense, we find its value in truth or falsity, the reference of a sentence lies in its verification. Frege states from here that a sentence and its truth-value have the same relation between a name and its reference.

Now we can see some of the distinction between sense and Bedeutung – all names have a sense, distinguished from its reference, but because signs are arbitrary, we cannot simply look at signs, or even think about them, without sense, the sense points to the reference. Coming back to Frege’s original questions of identity, it holds for reference, but allows the sense to change.

In conclusion we have seen that Frege’s essay is an attempt to answer questions of meaning that have been around since Descartes (and earlier). It is a look at how we can justify internal, subjective thought, and give it grounding in external, objective reality. This informs our topic question, shows us why Frege felt the need to distinguish between “Sinn” and “Bedeutung”. In this paper, we have looked at the some brief definitions of “Sinn”, sign, ‘proper names’ and Beduetung, and the word sign refers to an object that denotes a reference, we use signs under the banner of ‘proper names’, these being what could mostly easily be called a natural language (that of the common language used – i.e. English, Russian etc).  The Beduetung of a proposition refers to the designation of such, its reference to an object. The examples we provided were of the ‘morning star = the evening star’ which contains a single sign, and Beduetung, but has two different senses. The more complex example we provided was that of Frege’s triangle with its points of intersection, this again goes to demonstrate how a sign can be used to portray different senses while retaining the singular Bedeutung. We see after this that Frege was interested in showing how senses and references can be separated from thought, but that senses can still express thought, it is in finding the Bedeutung that we find the ‘truth-value’ of a sentence, and that is the inherent distinction between the two – senses have to do with words, and Beduetung has to do with ‘truth-value’. A sense may change when the Bedeutung does not, but it is the Bedeutung which leads to the verification of assertoric sentences. If we cannot find the ‘truth-value’ in the reference of a proposition, regardless of whether we have a sense of it or not, Frege would not count it as meaningful, in the scientific sense, and would relegate such a statement to that of the likes of poetry or thought.


Frege, Gottlob. “On Sinn and Bedeutung”, Trans. Max Black. The Frege Reader. Ed. Michael Beaney. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd, 1997, 152.

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy
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