Frege holds in Der Gedanke that the Thought is the unity of existence because he considers Thought and proposition to be the very same thing, and our cognition of non-propositional objects is secondary - we know through propositions rather than objects or ideas single-handed.

Apparently it was because of the picture theory of meaning that the later Frege rejected the identification of thinking with having ideas "alone", but considering the picture theory he identifies thinking not with ideas but with "grasping a Thought."

The existence of Thoughts is puzzling, since the argument that Frege uses to hold the existence of this Thoughts or propositions is the relation of dependence that they have with the world and how there are no major differences between this relations and the one that "normal" objects have. It seems that Frege expalins by means of this Thought the impossibility of putting into action things we "think" (like when we are unable to explain an idea we have), and successfully "think" when we "grasp" the Thought. I would conclude out of Frege's writing, that the reality of Thought is as real as the reality of objects, which is strange because it give us a seemingly platonic theory of knowledge: the unity of knowledge are abstract entities that exist "beyond" ourselves, "beyond" meaning that while these are dependent of a mind they exist even whey they are not "grasped" by the mind in which they are. But what is the activity of grasping? How does a person 'grasps' a thought?

A Wittgenstenian answer would be that the use of a certain word is correct if there is a community in which a rule is followed and the many users of the same language game can agree with the use of the word, but Frege is not thinking about words, he is thinking about propositions following the idea of the Tractatus which the later Wittgenstein rejects. I don't remember if there is an explanation in the TLP of the meaning of "grasping" or "understanding" a proposition or Thought. The later Frege seems to be between the early and later Wittgenstein, but his theory seems hard to hold unless there is a more or less explicit definition of the meaning of "grasping" a Thought.

  • You can see Gregory Currie, Frege on Thoughts (1980) as well as Tyler Burge, Truth Thought Reason : Essays on Frege (2005). Sep 21, 2016 at 16:57
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA The latter note regarding theory of meaning was an error of my part. I did read the first paper you linked, Frege on Thoughts by Currie. In this paper Currie says that what Frege rejected is the "picture theory of ideas". I mistakenly took it to be the same as the picture theory of meaning. Where is this picture theory developed? If it is not a theory like the one developd in the TLP, it is the first time I hear about its existence. Maybe is was a reference not to W. but to Hume? Hume developed a picture theory of ideas, but I fail to see the connection here.
    – Gabriel
    Sep 21, 2016 at 17:37
  • Yes: Hume and Locke. See Concepts as mental representations : "Early advocates of representational theory of the mind (e.g., Locke (1690) and Hume (1739)) called these more basic representations ideas, and took them to be mental images." Sep 21, 2016 at 18:11
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA Descartes is usually described as the father of the modern notion of idea. He did have a kind of picture theory. About Locke I'm not sure. Berkeley's and Hume's theories of ideas were not representational. For them, physical reality was something that we construct, not represent. Sep 21, 2016 at 22:27

1 Answer 1


Long comment

"Grasping a Thought" (or a sense) is a sort of "primitive" in Frege's philosophy; it is a basic assumption that is not analyzed further.

Frege says that thoughts are real ("wirklich") because they act on the mind, like a physical object acts on the eye. The act of "seeing" performed by the eye is the (visual) perception of the object; in a similar way, we may say that the act of "grasping" performed by the mind is the (mental) understanding of the thought (or sense).

It can be frustrating ... bu Frege has no "theory of mind", nor a thpoery of language aquisition.

A corresponding primitive in his thought is reference ("Bedeutung") and in the same way Frege does not explain how the relation of denotation (i.e. the relation between a name and an object) works.

Only some philosophers may think that we lear it "by ostension"...

Regarding "the picture theory of meaning that the later Frege rejected", we have to consider the fundamental Context principle that Frege formulated already in 1884 and that is present also in Wittgenstein's TLP.

There is a discussion of TLP in the Frege-Wittgenstein correspondence [1918-1919; see: Burton Dreben and Juliet Floyd, Frege-Wittgenstein Correspondence, into : Enzo De Pellegrin (editor), Interactive Wittgenstein : Essays in Memory of Georg Henrik von Wright (2011), with a reference by Frege in a footnote to Der Gedanke], but it seems to me that there is no discussion of this topic.

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