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What is a Begriffsschrift?

Jonathan BARNES
ABSTRACT
Before Frege, the term Begriffsschriftwas used to indicate (i) a language the expressions of
which adequately represent the structure of the judgements or concepts which they signify, and
(ii) a language the written signs of which designate ideas rather than sounds. In 1879 Frege follows (i). Later he adopts (ii) and with it the Aristotelian theory of language in which it is
embedded.

In 1882 Frege published a short paper on the scientific justification for a


Begriffsschrift.1 Language, he observed, is a thing of beauty and a joy etc; but
natural languages lay snares for the scientist: they contain dangerous ambiguities, they encourage vagueness, they cut logical corners in brief, they suffer from such grave and such chronic maladies that they are unfit for scientific purposes. Since science cannot rest dumb, a new language must be
invented and that is the task which Frege had undertaken in Begriffsschrift.
An ingenuous reader will wonder whether Freges heroic remedy is appropriate to the mundane complaints which he diagnoses (and which he was by
no means the first to diagnose): amputation for chilblains. Elsewhere, to be
sure, Frege identified more virulent diseases, and his therapy is not as violent
as it may appear. But I am concerned with the nature, not with the appropriateness of the therapy. And this in its most general terms is clear. We must
design a new language. German will not do, nor will French; nor even English. Frege thus belongs to a tradition which goes back to Leibniz and beyond,
and which in the nineteenth century had produced such genial fantasies as
Esperanto (which is still alive), and Volopk (which was invented in the year

Universit de Genve, jonathan.barnes@lettres.unige.ch


The term Begriffsschrift is a common noun, not a proper name (though it is also
sometimes used as a proper name for Freges monograph). The phrase the Begriffsschrift,
which scholars often use to designate Freges new language, must be taken as elliptical for
Freges Begriffsschrift.
1

Dialectica Vol. 56, N o 1 (2002), pp. 65-80

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Jonathan Barnes

of Begriffsschrift), and Latino sine flexione (in which Peano sometimes wrote
and sometimes lectured), and how can I resist it? La langue bleue or
Bolak.2
To be sure, Freges new language did not have the aspirations of Bolak.
Most artificial languages were supposed to possess the power and flexibility
of a natural language: you can write verse in Volopk, you can make love in
Latino sine flexione. Their pretensions are social and political: like the flags by
which ships communicate, they are supranational; a Frenchman and a German
will chat with one another in Bolak and had Bismarck and Napoleon so chatted, the Franco-Prussian War might have been prevented. Nor was Leibniz less
optimistic: once his universal language is adopted, science will march forward
and men will quarrel no more all will be resolved in a calculemus.3
Freges language had a more modest aim and a more restricted scope: it
was to be a language of science (and in the first instance of arithmetic); it was
to be capable of expressing all that a scientist might want (in his scientific
moments) to express and nothing more. Just as a microscope is superior to
an eye for certain scientific purposes and useless for most of the ends of everyday life, so Freges new language is superior to German in the study or in the
laboratory and perfectly out of place in the salon or the boudoir. (The inept
comparison with a microscope was perhaps a nod to Ernst Abbe.4)
I have heard it denied that Frege was out to create a new language: he
speaks in that vein but surely it is a rhetorical exaggeration, a faon de par ler? Well, you might decide that something in which you cannot write a billet
doux or tell a joke does not deserve the name of language. But if Frege did not
invent a language, what did he invent? Two possible answers to the question
must be scouted.
First, Frege did not invent a code or a notation he and Sam Morse were
not in the same line of business. A Morse formula a certain sequence of dots
and dashes is a funny way of writing or sounding an English (or German or
French) expression. You understand the formula only when you know which
English (or German or French) expression it encodes. A Fregean formula is
not like that: in order to understand a Fregean formula you do not have to find
some corresponding English formula no more than, in order to understand
a German formula, you have to discover a corresponding English formula.
2

For a history of these things see Couturat and Lau, 1907; for Leibniz contributions
see Trendelenburg, 1867; Knecht, 1981.
3
See esp. Leibniz, 1673 (quoted in Trendelenburg, 1867, pp. 32-37). The calculemus
occurs in a note printed in Leibniz, 1890, p. 200.
4
Or was it taken from Leibniz? See Leibniz, 1673, p. 241 (cited by Trendelenburg,
1867, pp. 36-37).

What is a Begriffsschrift?

67

Secondly, Frege did not invent an adjunct or supplement to natural language. All the sciences have their jargon and the arts ape them. Jargon is not
a substitute for English: it is a superaddition to English. A scientist will write
English afforced. Freges invention is not like that. Consider the following
sequence of signs, three of them Fregean and three English:
Frege is French

The sequence is strictly comparable to:


It is not the case that Frege franzsisch ist.

The two sequences are not sentences, they are not well-formed, they belong
to no language: they are macaroni. (To be sure, they are intelligible enough;
but then plenty of nonsense is perfectly intelligible.)
Freges invention, as the title of Begriffsschrift proclaims, is modelled on
the formular language of arithmetic. To what language does the following
sequence of signs belong?
2 + 4 = 6.

To English? Is it not a brief way of writing


Two plus four make six?

If so, then had this paper been written in German, the sequence would have
abbreviated a German sentence; and in general, one and the same sequence of
symbols will belong to an indefinitely large number of languages and, by a
felicitous coincidence, will express the very same thought in each of the languages to which it belongs. According to Frege, the sequence
2+4=6

does not belong to English or to German or to any natural language: it belongs


to lingua arithmetica, to the formular language of arithmetic. Freges view has
its own oddities; but I suppose that he is right. If we may call lingua arith metica a language, then we may call Freges invention a language.
However that may be, let us return to the essay of 1882. Once we have
decided that science requires a new language,
the question now arises whether signs for the ear or signs for the eye deserve preference.
(p. 52)

That is to say, should the new language be a written language or a spoken language?
Frege offers three reasons in favour of preferring for scientific purposes
what he calls signs for the eye. First, visible signs are more sharply defined
than audible signs: they are less prone to be confused with one another ink

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Jonathan Barnes

is less labile than noise. Secondly, visible signs endure longer than audible
signs: you may look back to the top of the page or turn back to the start of the
chapter ink fades less fast than noise. Thirdly, visible signs are made on a
two-dimensional surface, so that their vertical as well as their horizontal order
may be made to carry significance: audible signs occupy one dimension, the
before and after of time.
The three reasons are repeated, in almost the same words, in the paper on
Peanos Begriffsschrift which Frege published in 1896.5 He presumably
thought that they were good reasons; and so they are: that is to say, they advert
to certain contingent facts which give to writing in certain contexts and for
certain ends an advantage over speech. But if Freges reasons are unexceptionable, the question to which they are addressed is queer.
Should the new language be spoken or written? shall we choose signs for
the eyes or signs for the ears? Well, why think that we must choose the one or
the other? why not have both? 6 When an improbable student assures me that
he has mastered a new language over the vacation, I do not ask him whether
it was a written or a spoken language; for I suppose that languages most ordinary languages are both written and spoken. Frege asks us to pick either A
or B, and he urges the advantages of A; but we might plausibly complain that
he has suppressed the most enticing option the conjunctive option of both A
and B. And a reason for preferring A to B is no reason for preferring A to both
A and B.
Frege did not overlook the conjunctive option. He did not suppose that
most languages are both written and spoken. He supposed that most languages
are spoken. The supposition was a commonplace, and ancient.
At the beginning of his de Interpretatione Aristotle observes that
items in the voice are symbols of passions in the soul, and written items of items in the
voice. (16a3-4)

That is to say, the written expressions of a language represent or stand for certain spoken expressions, just as the spoken expressions of a language represent or stand for certain psychological states or events. This thesis is one element in the semantic theory which commentators read into the opening
paragraph of the de Interpretatione. The theory invokes written items, or
inscriptions; items in the voice, or utterances; passions in the soul, which
later Aristotelians generally identified as thoughts or concepts; and things.
5
The second of the three reasons is found in Trendelenburg, 1867, p. 2 (who adds that
written signs are readily transportable).
6
The signs <of the universal language> must be not only visible but also audible
(Trendelenburg, 1867, p. 22).

What is a Begriffsschrift?

69

Inscriptions stand for utterances; utterances stand for thoughts; thoughts


resemble things. Suppose that Frege receives a letter which begins with the
inscription Dear Frege: what must he do in order to understand it? First he
must determine which sound the inscription Fregerepresents. Then he must
search his soul for the thought or concept which that sound represents. Finally
he must scout around in the world for a thing which the thought resembles.
With a bit of luck, he will hit upon himself.
The only part of this theory which concerns me here is the element which
connects inscriptions to utterances. I shall call this the Aristotelian thesis. I had
supposed that the thesis had long been exploded. But here is a passage from a
recent number of the Times Literary Supplement:
Modern Greek is a living reality that linguists can study directly, without the mediation of
writing. The written traces of the Greek language are just that, traces of linguistic realities,
not the realities themselves. (11.9.98: p. 22)

Aristotelianism dies hard.


The Aristotelian thesis was accepted by Frege. This is plain from various
casual remarks. Thus in Der Gedankewe find the following brief exchange:
What do we call a sentence [Satz]? A sequence of sounds [Lauten]. (1918/19, p. 60)

A sentence is not a sequence of expressions, whether written or spoken,


inscribable or utterable: a sentence is a sequence of sounds. Frege states this
as an uncontroversial truth. It is a consequence and a reflection of the Aristotelian thesis.
The thesis also finds explicit recognition both early and late in Freges oeu vre. The longer of the two unpublished pieces on Booles logic, which Frege
wrote in 1880, observes that a Begriffsschrift
differs from a word-language [Wortsprache] in an extrinsic way inasmuch as it is directed
at the eye rather than at the ear. This is indeed also true of a word-script [Wortschrift]; but
since a word-script simply imitates a word-language, it scarcely comes any closer to a
Begriffsschrift indeed, it is even farther removed from one inasmuch as it consists of signs
of signs rather than of signs of things.7

A word-language is a language-like German or English whose signs consist of words rather than of formulae; and a word-script is the written version of, or the inscriptional notation for a word-language. The word-script
merely imitates the language: the inscriptions are not the linguistic realities
themselves, and the signs which Freges printer has inscribed on the page are
signs of signs, they are signs of utterances.
7
1880, pp. 13-14. The phrase signs of signs occurs, in a similar context, in
Humboldt, 1826, p. 111. No doubt it was a common formula.

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Jonathan Barnes

Here, then, we have the Aristotelian thesis presented in all its simplicity
and presented as a commonplace. The thesis returns, near the end of Freges
life, in a qualified version:
A sentence which a writer inscribes is in the first place a recipe for the construction of a
spoken sentence in a language in which the sequence of sounds serves as a sign for the
expression of a sense. Hence at first there is only a mediated connexion between written
signs and an expressed sense. Once this connexion is established we can regard the written
or printed sentence as an immediate expression of a thought, hence as a sentence in the
proper sense of the word. (1923+, p. 280)

The Aristotelian thesis is here said to hold only in the first place: at first, I
must look for the sound associated with the inscription and then hunt the sense
associated with the sound; but as I get used to the game, I may learn to look
directly for the sense on seeing the inscription. The Aristotelian thesis is modified, but not abandoned.
A language is a system of significant expressions. I shall say that a language is Aristotelian if it is a system of significant sounds. A theory of meaning for an Aristotelian language will make reference to utterances, it will produce theorems of the form
Utterance U means such and such.

An Aristotelian language may, to be sure, make use of a written notation. In


that case, there will be orthographical rules of the form
Inscription I represents utterance U.

But the addition of a notation is an optional extra; and it will have no effect
on the semantic theory of the language.
According to the Aristotelian thesis, natural languages are Aristotelian languages.8
Whether or not the Aristotelian thesis is true, it is easy to conceive of the
contrary of an Aristotelian language, of an anti-Aristotelian language. An
anti-Aristotelian language is a system of significant inscriptions. A theory of
meaning for an anti-Aristotelian language will produce theorems of the form
Inscription I means such and such.

An anti-Aristotelian language may, to be sure, make use of a spoken notation.


In that case, there will be phonetic rules of the form
8
That is to say, most natural languages are Aristotelian: the Aristotelian thesis purports
to be a law of sublunar nature; and, like all such laws, it holds not universally but for the most
part.

What is a Begriffsschrift?

71

Utterance U represents inscription I.

But the addition of a sound-system is an optional extra; and it will have no


effect on the semantic theory of the language.9
Freges new language is anti-Aristotelian: it is a language for the eyes and
not for the ears. As far as I know, Frege never troubled to add a sound-system
to his language. (Peano did but unhappily.10)
Freges new language is anti-Aristotelian. Why call it a Begriffsschrift?
You might have guessed that the German compound would have been uncongenial to Frege, at least insofar as its first part carries an allusion to concepts.
Thus Schrder, falsely affirming that Frege had developed a logic of judgements and not a logic of terms or concepts, suggested that Urteilsschrift
would have been a more apposite label.11 Forty years later, Frege remarked:
I do not start from concepts and put together a thought or a judgement from them: rather, I
get to the parts of a thought by splitting up the thought. Here my Begriffsschrift differs from
similar creations by Leibniz and his followers despite its name, which was not perhaps
felicitously chosen by me. (1919, p. 273.)

Judgement is prior to concept, Urteil to Begriff and so the name Begriffsschrift may seem infelicitous. Freges reason for disliking the name is not
Schrders reason; but the implication is the same a better term for the new
language might have been Urteilsschrift.
Then why did Frege call his new language a Begriffsschrift rather than an
Urteilsschrift?
The term Begriffsschrift was not a Fregean neologism. Scholars refer to
Adolf Trendelenburg. In the introductory pages of a long piece entitled ber
Leibnizens Entwurf einer allgemeinen Charakteristik he says:
The human mind, which owes so much to signs, has here recognized the possibility of elaborating signs still further inasmuch as, instead of the words already present in the language,
it brings sign and thing, the form of the sign and the content of the concept, into direct contact, and devises signs which represent as separated or conjoined the characteristics which
are separated or conjoined in the concepts. Science has, in certain areas and for its own reasons, already produced the first beginnings of such a Begriffsschrift

9
The terms Aristotelian and anti-Aristotelian are contraries, not contradictories:
there may, in principle, be languages which are neutral, neither Aristotelian nor antiAristotelian. The semantic theory for such a language will produce theorems of the form
Expression E means such and such.
Where an expression is neither an inscription nor an utterance (or else it is one or the other,
indifferently). I suppose that natural languages are, in this sense, neutral; but I have no room
to explore the matter.
10
Letter to Frege, 14.10.96, in Frege, 1976, pp. 188-189.
11
In his review of Begriffsschrift known to me from Bynum, 1972, p. 224 n..

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Jonathan Barnes
Such a manner of designation will be, in contrast to word-signs which are more or less
indifferent to the content of the ideas, a characteristic language of concepts, and, in contrast to the particular languages of different peoples, a universal language of things.12

Frege had probably read this text before he published Begriffsschrift.


For in the Preface he refers to Leibniz and to his conception of a universal characteristic, a calculus philosophicus or ratiocinator; and he attaches a
note:
On this see Trendelenburg, Historische Beitrge zur Philosophie, 3rd volume. (1879, p. V, n.*)

Frege is alluding to a paragraph which occurs a couple of pages after the passage I have just quoted. Presumably he read the essay from the beginning; and
it seems likely that he read it to the end.13
Trendelenburgs paper was first published in the Abhandlungen of the
Berlin Academy for 1855. The word Begriffsschrift had made its Academy
dbut some thirty years earlier. The Abhandlungen for 1826 print an address
which Wilhelm von Humboldt gave in 1824 under the title: ber die Buchstabenschrift und ihren Zusammenhang mit dem Sprachbau. Having distinguished different forms and functions of linguistic signs, Humboldt declares
that
The individuality of words, in every one of which there is always something more than
merely its logical definition, is so attached to sound that this immediately awakens in the
soul their peculiar effects. A sign which strives after the concept and neglects the sound can
express this only imperfectly.A system of such signs merely reproduces the bare concepts
of the outer and inner world; but language is meant to contain this world itself, changed, to
be sure, into thought-signs but nonetheless in the whole plenitude of its rich, colourful and
living multiplicity.
But there never has been, and there never can be, a Begriffsschrift which is modelled purely
on concepts and which has not been profoundly influenced by the words, contained in determinate sounds, of the language for which it was invented. The undeniable advantage of
a Begriffsschrift the fact that it can be understood by people of different languages does
not outweigh the disadvantages which it brings in from other sides.14

In a later paper Humboldt remarks that a script represents either concepts or


sounds [Tne], it is either an idea-script or a sound-script [Ideenschrift oder
Lautschrift] . A page later he uses Begriffsschrift as a synonym for Ideen12
Trendelenburg, 1867, pp. 3-4. This passage contains the only occurrence of the word
Begriffsschriftin Trendelenburgs paper.
13
Heinrich Scholz was apparently the first scholar to point to the use of the word
Begriffsschrift in Trendelenburg: see Frege, 1977, p. 115. On Freges reading of
Trendelenburg see Sluga, 1980, pp. 48-52. See also above, n.4; and note e.g. the phrase nothing is left to guessworkin Trendelenburg, 1867, p. 45, and Frege, 1879, p. 3.
14
1826, pp. 112-113. (So far as I know, this passage was first brought to the attention of
Fregean scholarship by Thiel, 1995, p. 20).

What is a Begriffsschrift?

73

schrift.15 Humboldts theories do not concern me here: what matters is that


he uses the word Begriffsschrift, and uses it to designate a script which consists of signs for concepts rather than of signs for sounds.
Humboldt was an admirer, and a correspondent of Jean-Franois Champollion, the French linguist and Egyptologist.16 On the first page of the Letter
to M. Dacier, published in 1822, Champollion introduced his study of the
hieratic and the demotic Egyptian scripts by declaring:
I shall dare to hope that I have succeeded in proving that these two kinds of script are,
each of them, not alphabetic as has generally been supposed but rather ideographic, like
the hieroglyphs themselves; that is to say, they depict the ideas and not the sounds of a language. (1822, p. 1)

The French adjective is idographique(and the italics are Champollions). A


script is ideographic inasmuch as it consists of signs for ideas rather than of
signs for sounds.
According to Champollion, the signs of an ideographic script depict the
ideas and not the sounds of a language [peignant les ides et non les sons dune
langue]. He tacitly alludes to some celebrated French verses. Leibniz refers
to the same lines in a letter to Gallois, dating from 1677. He says of his universal language that
its true use would be to paint not words as M. de Brebeuf says but thoughts [peindre
non pas la parole ... mais les penses], and to speak to the understanding rather than to the
eyes.17

Frege quoted this text in his essay on Boole (1880, p. 14).


15
1838, pp. 39-40 but in practice he prefers Ideenschriftto Begriffsschrift; and for
a collateral adjective he uses ideographischand not begriffsschriftlich(e.g. pp. 86, 93, 99,
101, 102).
16
See esp. Humboldt, 1828, p. 145 n.*; cf. 1838, pp. 56-57, 78-106; Hartleben, 1909, I,
pp. 144-166; 332. Alexander von Humboldt was a friend and patron of Champollion (and
finally one of his pall-bearers: Hartleben, 1906, II, p. 528). On 8 March 1823 he sent from
Paris to his cher Bill a parcel of books including lessai curieux de Champollion sur les
hiroglyphes phontiques (Humboldt, 1880, p. 115 Hartleben, 1906, I, p. 442, states that,
before its publication on 5 November, a proof-copy of the Letter to M. Dacier had been rushed
to an impatient Humboldt in Berlin; but he cites no source). In a letter of May 1824 to Welcker,
Humboldt explained how the essay happily reached him in time to be used for his address to
the Academy (Humboldt, 1859, pp. 116-117): in gratitude, he had dispatched a box of scarabs
and a copy of his address to Champollion (Hartleben, 1909, I, p. 146, n.1).
17
In Leibniz, 1987, p. 229; cf. the reference in Nova algebrae promotio to what de
scriptura eleganter dixit poeta Gallus (Leibniz, 1863, p. 160). Georges du Brbeufs translation
of Lucans Pharsalia appeared in 1654/5. The pertinent lines are these (luyrefers to Cadmus
who introduced the alphabet into Greece):
Cest de luy que nous vient cet art ingenieux
De peindre la parole & de parler aux yeux,
Et par des traits diuers de figures traces
Donner de la couleur & du corps aux penses.
See Knecht, 1981, p. 181; and esp. Starobinski, 1990, who documents the renown of the quatrain.

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Jonathan Barnes

The genial metaphor dates from the 1650s: the idea behind it is older. Sir
Thomas Browne:
Certainly of all men that suffered from the confusion of Babel, the gyptians found the
best evasion; for, though words were confounded, they invented a language of things, and
spake unto each other by common notions in Nature, whereby they discoursed in silence,
and were intuitively understood from the theory of their Expresses. (1646, p. 419)

(the theory of their Expresses: the observation of their written signs.) And
my Lord Bacon, having duly cited the de Interpretatione for the Aristotelian
thesis, adds:
And we understand further that it is the use of China and the kingdoms of the high Levant
to write in Characters Real, which express neither letters nor words in gross, but Things or
Notions (1605, p. 121)

He then adduces the better known example of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.


The line stretches back to antiquity. Here is Plotinus:
The Egyptian sages do not use written signs which set out phrases and sentences, they
do not use marks which imitate sounds and utterances of propositions; rather, they write
pictures, and inscribe one picture for each thing. (Enneads V viii 6)

The Egyptian sages were masters of a sacred language; their script depicted
things, not sounds; theirs was a Bilderschrift or picture-script and a Bilderschrift is a kind of Begriffsschrift, a sort of ideography.
Not everyone shared the enthusiasm of Browne, or of Plotinus, for the theory of expresses;18 but the hieroglyphs were recognized, from antiquity, as an
exception to the natural rule that languages are Aristotelian. Champollion
characterized such anti-Aristotelian languages by way of the word idographique. Humboldt used ideographischin the same sense; and for a noun
he employed Ideenschrift and also Begriffsschrift(which perhaps was his
own invention).
As for Frege, in the essay on Boole he implies that the signs of a Begriffsschrift are signs of things [Sache](1880, p. 14). A sentence in Berechtigung
is more explicit:
The formula-language of arithmetic is a Begriffsschrift since it expresses things [die Sache]
immediately, without the mediation of the sound. (1882, p. 54)

And in 1904, insisting on the need for a special mathematical language,


Frege says that a Begriffsschrift would be best suited to that end that is, a
18
Picture-scripts, to some eyes, were out-moded and out-classed by syllabaries and
alphabets; and the letter-script was judged the most perfect type of script, since it analyses
words into their simplest parts and hence makes do with the smallest number of signs(Krug,
1832, I, p. 357, s.v. Bilderschrift). Note that in this article words are explicitly said to be
articulated sounds [Tne].

What is a Begriffsschrift?

75

system of rules in accordance with which you may express thoughts immediately without the mediation of sound, by written or printed signs (p. 666).
That is to say, Frege uses the word Begriffsschrift in pretty much its standard German sense. 19
I say pretty much for two reasons. First, an ideography expresses ideas
or concepts, a Fregean Begriffsschrift does not. Rather, the expressions of a
Fregean Begriffsschrift express things (in 1880 and 1882) or thoughts (in
1904); and no doubt we should say though I do not think that Frege himself
ever said so that the signs of a Fregean Begriffsschrift express senses. Now
senses are not concepts but objects. This is no trifling fact about Freges
semantic ideas, and it might be taken to induce a significant difference
between Freges Begriffsschrift and a Champollionic ideography.
Secondly, an ideography is a script: a Fregean Begriffsschrift is a language.
Hieroglyphics is not a language: it is a way of writing Egyptian. The Fregean
Begriffsschrift is not a way of writing German: it is a language. Nor should it
be thought that a Begriffsschrift is simply a language whose script is ideographic. If a language is a Begriffsschrift, then its script is ideographic that
much is an evidence. But if the script of a language is ideographic, it does not
follow that the language is a Begriffsschrift; for from the fact that the script
of a language is ideographic, nothing follows about the semantic status of any
spoken utterances.
Freges use of the term Begriffsschrift does not, for these two reasons,
coincide with the Champollionic use of idographie or with Humboldts
use of Begriffsschrift. Nonetheless, you might reasonably believe that the
differences are less important than the similarities. Freges use of the term to
designate a language rather than a script is readily intelligible. Frege implicitly corrects Champollions false, Aristotelian, notion that linguistic signs
signify ideas or thoughts. But at bottom Champollion and Frege agree; for the
essential feature alike of an ideography and of a Fregean Begriffsschrift is the
fact that inscriptions are immediate bearers of sense.
Then why did Frege call his new language a Begriffsschrift? He called it
so because it was an anti-Aristotelian language because it was a Begriffsschrift.
This answer is comfortingly banal; and it carries a moral: the correct English translation of Freges word Begriffsschrift is ideography. The first
reported occurrence of any member of the ideographic family dates from 1823
in an anonymous review of Champollions Letter to M. Dacier:
19
Frege lectured on his Begriffsschrift almost every year of his academic life. It is natural to guess that each time he will have explained what the word Begriffsschriftmeant but
Carnaps notes (Frege, 1996) record no such explanation.

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Jonathan Barnes
In the course of his ten years lucubrations, he has produced two Memoirs to prove, that
neither the hieratic or sacerdotal, nor the demotic or vulgar, writing is alphabetical, (as, he
says, was generally thought,) but ideographic, like the pure hieroglyphics; that is to say,
that they are, like the latter, the signs or pictures of ideas, and not the representation of
sounds. But neither is this a discovery due to M. Champollion, nor are his results quite correct.20

The English ideographyhas the same origin as the German Begriffsschrift.


Jourdain used ideographyfor Begriffsschriftin his 1912 paper on Frege:
he used it without explanation, as though it were evidently the correct translation; and Frege offered no objection.21 Yet few anglophone scholars now
speak of Freges ideography. Some use concept script or concept writing
or conceptual notation or the like; many treat the German Begriffsschrift
as an English word (as I have myself done in the preceding pages). The English formulas attempt to do justice to the two parts of the German compound.
But they are ugly; they are false to the German (as well use railway courtfor
Bahnhof); and they are scarcely intelligible (concept script has no discernible sense unless you know that it is meant as a counter for Begriffsschrift). As to Begriffsschrift as an English word, I am all in favour of linguistic imports but why import what you grow at home? Ideographyis the
English for Begriffsschrift.
So much for the moral. I return to the comfortingly banal thesis which
does not tell the whole truth. For I have hitherto suppressed the earliest text in
which Frege says anything about the word Begriffsschrift:
In the expressions <of the new language> everything is omitted which has no significance
for inference. In 3 I have designated as conceptual content the only thing which interests
me Hence the name Begriffsschrift. (1879, p. IV)

The only sort of content or meaning possessed by the expressions of the new
language will be the sort of content or meaning which is pertinent to inference.
Frege will dub this sort of meaning conceptual content, begriffliche Inhalt.
Hence Begriffsschrift is an appropriate appellation for the new language. A
language is a Begriffsschrift if and only if the only content which its expressions possess is conceptual content.
20

anon, 1823, p. 189. With the last sentence cf. Humboldt, 1880, p. 116: Mr.Young,
who is nice about questions of literary property, admires the work of Champollion but claims
that it does no more than extend his own ideas. For the story of the decipherment, and the jealousies and intrigues which surrounded it, see Hartleben, 1906, I, pp. 345-500.
21
On the first page of his article Jourdain speaks of the Begriffsschrift; in a footnote
to the same page he uses this ideography; and thereafter he always uses ideography, except
that the title of Freges monograph remains in German. For the comments which Frege sent to
Jourdain before the publication of the article and which Jourdain largely incorporated into
the published version see Frege, 1983, pp. 116-124.

What is a Begriffsschrift?

77

This is a clear explanation clear, I mean, to the extent that the notion of
conceptual content is clear.Yet it is not only different from the Champollionic
explanation which Frege was to offer a year or so later it is not even equivalent to that explanation. For it is plain that an ideography, in Champollions
sense, need not be restricted to the expression of conceptual content (Egyptian hieroglyphics was a colourful script); nor, conversely, is there any reason
why the restriction to conceptual content should be the exclusive property of
ideographies.
It is evident why the explanation which Frege offered in 1879 was later
replaced: the phrase conceptual content, on which it is based, was soon repudiated by its inventor. But how did Frege hit upon the Champollionic explanation as a replacement? And why did he offer the 1879 explanation in the
first place? I have nothing to say on the former question: perhaps Frege looked
up the term Begriffsschriftin a dictionary, perhaps he came across the word
in a book he was reading, perhaps it was a topic of conversation at one of Ernst
Abbes intellectual soires.22 In any event, he must have been peculiarly
pleased to find that he could redefine the term in a manner which both did justice to German usage and fitted his new language to a T.
Whence came the 1879 explanation? Trendelenburg offers no explicit definition of the word Begriffsschrift. But his text gives a hint. It does not hint
at the Champollionic explanation on the contrary, the signs of a Begriffsschrift must be not only visible but also audible.23 Rather, the text suggests
something like this: a Begriffsschrift is a language in which the form and structure of the signs, uttered or written, correspond to the structure and form of
the ideas which they present. This is certainly not identical with Freges 1879
explanation; and it is certainly less than pellucid. But it is easy enough to imagine how Frege might have arrived at his explanation on the basis of what he
found in Trendelenburg. It does not follow, but it is an economical supposition, that Frege did indeed take the term Begriffsschriftfrom Trendelenburg.
Then whence came Trendelenburgs un-Champollionic notion? (It is clear
that he did not invent it.) I have not hit upon any earlier and pertinent use of
Begriffsschrift; but the word was surely calqued on idographie (or perhaps on Ideographie) and about the family to which that term belongs there
is a little more to be said.24
In his philosophical Handwrterbuch, the first edition of which was done
in 1827, Wilhelm Traugott Krug explains that
22

On which see Auerbach, 1918, pp. 162-163.


See above, n.6
24
I owe the following references to Thiel, 1995, p. 20.
23

78

Jonathan Barnes
ideographics is the art of expressing ideas the word here signifies, quite generally,
all common representations or concepts by means of a script intelligible to all men.

And an ideography may be termed a pasigraphy if


it is a truly universal language (a lingua characteristica universalis), i.e. a script which
expresses, in a universally intelligible fashion, not only concepts but also all connexions
and relations, and further all their possible modes of combination in judgements or propositions. (1832, II, pp. 500-501)

Krug refers to Leibniz, among many others, as a practitioner of idiographics.


In Carl Friedrich Hindenburgs commentary on Brmanns fragmentary
Essai de caractristique combinatoire, the German noun Ideographie and
the verb ideographiren are found; and Brmann himself uses the noun in
a letter to Hindenburg: Chinese, he says, is an imperfect ideography.25 In the
French Essai, Brmann uses idographie or idographie universelle. Neither Hindenburg nor Brmann offers a definition each takes the terminology
to be familiar. But Brmann describes an ideography as an unmediated script
[criture immdiate] for the sciences of the geometer and of the philosophical
grammarian (1803, p. 1). It is plain that a script is unmediated if its signs
signify ideas and not sounds if it is an ideography in Champollions sense.
(But Brmann also, and inconsistently, talks of a universal ideography which
is mediately and unmediatedly speakable (p. 4).) The word idographie
surely existed before 1803. 26 I do not know who invented it.
These texts indicate that the notion of an ideography contained three elements. First, an ideography is a universal language, a language intelligible (in
principle) to all men regardless of their nationality. (Krug contrasts ideography with idiography.) Secondly, an ideography is a language the written signs
of which designate ideas rather than sounds. Thirdly, an ideography is a caracteristic, a language the expressions of which adequately represent the structure of the judgements or the concepts which they signify.
These three elements are logically independent of one another; but they
were closely associated in the minds of several proponents of ideographies,
and in particular the first element was thought to be closely connected to the
25
See Hindenburg, 1803, pp. 132, 143; and p. 144 for the letter from Brmann.
Hindenburg (1741-1808) was a mathematician best known for his work in combinatorial
mathematics. He was a professor at Leipzig first of philosophy and then of physics.
Brmann was a professor at the Handelsakademie in Mannheim. I do not know if his Essai, of
which Hindenburg prints fragments, was ever completed; but in 1807 he published a
Programme de la Pangraphie, partie fondamentale de la caractristique syntactique, systme
de notation universelle dduit dlments simples, mthodiquement combins. The Deutsches
biographisches Archiv gives him no dates and no forenames; but perhaps he is to be identified
with the mathematician Heinrich Brmann, who died in 1817.
26
French historical dictionaries, which cite Champollion as the first to use any word
from the ideographical family, must be corrected.

What is a Begriffsschrift?

79

third. I am not sure whether the word idographiewas implicitly defined by


the conjunction of the three elements, or whether one, or two, of the elements
were taken to constitute the definition and the others, or the other, construed
as a corollary. But since the three elements are distinct, it would make for clarity to speak of three separate notions of what an ideography is, of three senses
of the term ideography.
What is all this to Frege? Well, the first of the three notions has nothing to
do with his conception of a Begriffsschrift. The second notion corresponds to
what I have called the Champollionic explanation; and it thus matches Freges
revised account of what a Begriffsschrift is. The third notion answers to Trendelenburgs conception, and hence lies behind Freges 1879 account of the
matter. Frege called his new language a Begriffsschrift because it was a
Begriffsschrift; but in 1879 it was a Begriffsschrift in one sense and in quite
another thereafter.27
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27
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