Frege plagiarized the Stoics
February 5, 2021 6:51 AM   Subscribe

Susanne Bobzien, philosophy professor at Oxford, has published a 30,000-word article that gives 120 examples of where the famous logician Gottlob Frege plagiarized the Stoics.

"In this essay, I argue that Frege plagiarized the Stoics --and I mean exactly that-- on a large scale in his work on the philosophy of logic and language as written mainly between 1890 and his death in 1925 (much of which published posthumously) and possibly earlier. I use ‘plagiarize' (or 'plagiarise’) merely as a descriptive term. The essay is not concerned with finger pointing or casting moral judgement. The point is rather to demonstrate carefully by means of detailed evidence that there are numerous (over a hundred) and extensive parallels in both formulation and content between the Stoics and Frege, so plentiful that one would be hard pressed to brush them off as a coincidence. These parallels include several that appear to occur in no other modern works that were published before Frege’s own and were accessible to him. Additionally, a cluster of corroborating historical data is adduced to support the suggestion, showing how easy it would have to been for Frege to plagiarize the Stoics. This (first) part of the essay is easy to read and vaguely entertaining, or so I hope."
posted by abecedarium radiolarium (22 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm afraid the Stoics will just have to grit their teeth and deal with this.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:54 AM on February 5 [47 favorites]

Holy shit imagine getting your intellectual legacy utterly demolished like this.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:24 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]

He would have saved a lot of fruitless effort if the Stoics had come up with the Barber paradox before Russell did.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:33 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]

Holy shit imagine getting your intellectual legacy utterly demolished like this.

I imagine I wouldn't care much since I would have been dead for about a hundred years.
posted by The Bellman at 7:34 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]

As a guy who considers himself a Epicurean Stoic or a Stoic Epicurean depending on the day … I am okay with this.
posted by indianbadger1 at 7:34 AM on February 5

The stoics were important pioneers of formal logic in the ancient world. I'm surprised they're considered plagiarizable, I would have thought they were just a common influence.

Lucian's satire the Sale of Philosophies has the stoic philosopher Chrysippus spouting confident pseudo-logic.
Chrys. What! Have you yet to learn that of indifferentia some are praeposita and others rejecta?

Seventh D. Still I don’t quite see.

Chrys. No; how should you? You are not familiar with our terms. You lack the comprehensio visi. The earnest student of logic knows this and more than this. He understands the nature of subject, predicate, and contingent, and the distinctions between them.

Seventh D. Now in Wisdom’s name, tell me, pray, what is a predicate? what is a contingent? There is a ring about those words that takes my fancy.

Chrys. With all my heart. A man lame in one foot knocks that foot accidentally against a stone, and gets a cut. Now the man is subject to lameness; which is the predicate. And the cut is a contingency.

Seventh D. Oh, subtle! What else can you tell me?

Chrys. I have verbal involutions, for the better hampering, crippling, and muzzling of my antagonists. This is performed by the use of the far-famed syllogism...

... Chrys. Ha! you jest with me? Beware of the shaft of insoluble syllogism.

Seventh D. What harm can that do?

Chrys. It cripples; it ties the tongue, and turns the brain. Nay, I have but to will it, and you are stone this instant.

Seventh D. Stone! You are no Perseus, friend?

Chrys. See here. A stone is a body?

Seventh D. Yes.

Chrys. Well, and an animal is a body?

Seventh D. Yes.

Chrys. And you are an animal?

Seventh D. I suppose I am.

Chrys. Therefore you are a body. Therefore a stone.

Seventh D. Mercy, in Heaven’s name! Unstone me, and let me be flesh as heretofore...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:37 AM on February 5 [14 favorites]

I use ‘plagiarize' (or 'plagiarise’) merely as a descriptive term. The essay is not concerned with finger pointing or casting moral judgement.

yeah, I'm not so sure you can just declare that. The word ‘plagiarize' (or 'plagiarise’) has evaluative judgement baked in, doesn't it? If you really want to document plagiarism-like things without "finger pointing or casting moral judgement", I think you need a different word.

Holy shit imagine getting your intellectual legacy utterly demolished like this.

That is probably not going to be the result of this article. People aren't going to say, well, first-order logic was nice, but now we have to throw it out, because Frege copied some stuff from Prantl. Here is one reaction, from the Daily Nous comments:

People wishing to defend Frege’s status as a founder of analytic philosophy seem to misconstrue Bobzien’s findings in a different way. They don’t emphasise that the similarities were known, but that they don’t mean much, in the sense that Frege is still vastly different. But Bobzien does not claim that Frege is deprived of this status. She acknowledges clearly that Frege thought through carefully what he took over. But we would deprive ourselves of our understanding of Frege’s foundational work, if we ignored that it is in fact of Stoic origin. Frege’s work needs to be rethought, too. And reading Frege might hold more for reserachers on pre-modern philosophers than the staunch hunters of anachronisms care to admit. – In this sense, Bobzien’s paper does not end but open conversations about the history of philosophy.
posted by thelonius at 7:39 AM on February 5 [12 favorites]

The argument is not quite "Frege plagiarized the Stoics"; it is, rather, "Frege plagiarized Carl Prantl's interpretation of the Stoics," with then further nuance about what Frege did with Plantl. So there is, in effect, a game of intellectual telephone going on, which is of interest because Plantl apparently gets some things wrong and neglects others.

Over in 19th-c. lit. studies, where I hang out, we've got a number of famed plagiarists--Coleridge at one end of the century (a whole lot of lifting from the German going on), Oscar Wilde at the other (one chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray is basically stolen from J.-K. Huysmans). For most scholars, once you've said "whoa, big plagiarism alert ahead," there just isn't much point in further censoriousness about it, I suppose? (It's one or more centuries ago, everyone involved is dead, nobody will attempt to demolish the plagiarized person's career and reputation, nobody is being graded, there's no academic dishonesty policy at work...) There's more interest in figuring out why the plagiarism happened, what it tells us about the authors' reading & why they may have settled on those texts, and how the plagiarized material functions in its new contexts. Which is the direction that Bobzien takes.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:51 AM on February 5 [7 favorites]

MetaFilter: A game of intellectual telephone going on

(sorry not sorry)
posted by Horkus at 9:56 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting about this! I wish I understood better what implications it will have. Bobzien is IIRC a real-deal heavy-duty scholar in both the Stoics and logic, and (not being any kind of specialist in this history myself) this seems like a big deal. (There is, or used to be anyway, among soooome analytic philosophers, a kind of bro-ish disrespect for the importance/interest of studying things like eg ancient Greek philosophy... and those people are often into Frege as the first historical person worth studying, to oversimplify a bit... and I can't help but feel this as a kind of comeuppance for those people, so that it's a little hard to compartmentalize. But.)

On the hot-button term "plagiarism" - it's funny and attention getting! (and maybe accurate) But also I guess I'd say, don't get grabbed by present-day controversies or scandals into thinking this is like "omg Frege is cancelled!!" or whatever; thinking that the main importance of this is to evaluate whether Frege was attributing correctly or abiding by present day academic ethics. I mean that's a question but it's not the question that's most interesting for philosophy about this.

There's two questions - first, a historical or intellectual-history question about what Frege thought, how Frege came up with his ideas, how original was he, where does he sit in the history of philosophy, etc. This paper obviously speaks to that.

Then there's a separate bigger question about whether Frege's right about things he says -- the correctness of his ideas and importantly of the large body of subsequent logic/philosophy of language/philosophical methodolgy stuff responding to/derived from them. It's logic, so the base expectation would be, its validity should be evaluable without reference to the historical context/questions about attribution. (That is, he might be right even if he was copying the ideas from someone who was also right.) Or it could be that there's some philosophical baggage that he brought over from the Stoics or the intermediary sources, maybe without realizing it, that somehow affects the rightness of the ideas or how we should understand them. So what I'm not feeling expert enough to assess is how and whether this stuff affects that question. Bobzien knows her stuff up and down, on both the historical scholarship and the logic side, so this is very much a thing she's aware of and will have offered ideas about - I just don't know enough to guess or summarize that here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:23 AM on February 5 [7 favorites]

This is just Disney arguing against allowing IP to go into public domain again isn't it?
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:54 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]

LobsterMitten, I was wondering if there was any school of thought taking Frege as right and the Stoics wrong, or vv.
posted by clew at 11:11 AM on February 5

> This is just Disney arguing against allowing IP to go into public domain again isn't it?

Oh, Disney loves IP going into public domain, as long as it's not their own. The company and its reputation is all but literally founded on swiping from public domain: Snow White, Pinocchio (which source material was less than 60 years old when the movie came out; if copyright laws ca. 2020 applied, they would have had to license it from Collodi's estate), most of Fantasia, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast...
posted by ardgedee at 11:20 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

I'm looking forward to read the article in order to make a more substantive comment, but have to admit my first thought was: "what's next, Anselm plagiarized the Psalms?"
posted by kmt at 11:40 AM on February 5

This is so interesting to find out. Why did Frege even do this? Did he think he wouldn't get caught eventually? Or were academic norms or incentives for giving credit different in those times? Or was it a cultural or intellectual prejudice in that they had something against ancient Greeks? Was he worried his own contributions wouldn't be original enough or something? Did he copy from and/or plagiarize other things?

And given the level of AI today it should be straightforward to run a plagiarism detector through all historical works...
posted by polymodus at 11:41 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]

Or was it a cultural or intellectual prejudice in that they had something against ancient Greeks?

I don't think anything like that was in play - iirc, Germany was the world center for Classical Studies in the 19th Century, and Frege's education would have been, I suppose, decades before Greek and Latin lost prominence in pedagogy. (That's assuming that German education was like in English-speaking countries in this regard. The University library here once had the curriculum from 100 years ago in an exhibit on display; the students took nothing but Greek and Latin, with a few math and science courses, until the third year). (Come to think of it, there must have been English Composition and Rhetoric in the first year too).
posted by thelonius at 2:30 PM on February 5

MetaFilter: Ha! you jest with me? Beware of the shaft of insoluble syllogism!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:47 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]

OK! Finally I started reading the actual paper:

...Frege, on the other hand, was in the best possible position of perhaps all German philosophers and logicians at the time to comprehend and appreciate the extraordinary treasure trove Prantl lays bare. First, Frege knew and could read both Greek and Latin. Kreiser 2001: 38-43, especially the figure on p.42, suggest that at school Frege had ten years of intensive Latin courses and eight years of intensive Greek courses. Generally, this would have been part of the education at a German ‘Gymnasium’ in the mid-nineteenth century and the norm for any professor in the humanities.

The point is that Frege could certainly read the original texts found in Prantl.

As advertised, the early part of the paper is very entertaining, and accessible for a non-specialist. Her characterization of Prantl's Stoicism chapter:

This volume contains a very long chapter on Stoic logic proper (401–96). More than half of the chapter consists of tightly printed footnotes that present a major part of the—then known—extant Stoic testimony on logic in the original Greek and Latin sources. The main text offers a relentlessly deprecating summary-cum-paraphrase of Stoic logic, based on the texts quoted in the footnotes. These ninety-five pages remained for almost a century and a half the best comprehensive source for Stoic logic in any language (and the only one in a work on the history of logic), despite the fact that Prantl tells us on every other page how idiotic (‘blödsinnig’) and piffling (‘läppisch’) the Stoic theory was.
posted by thelonius at 2:52 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]

Prantl tells us on every other page how idiotic (‘blödsinnig’) and piffling (‘läppisch’) the Stoic theory was.

Possible that Frege didn't advertise his debt to (er ... "theft" of?) Stoic logic because it had a bad reputation?
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:07 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]

> Why did Frege even do this? Did he think he wouldn't get caught eventually?

Arguably he got away with it for the last 35 years of his life, and then for another 100 years in academic legacy.

I guess this pivots on what you assume his motivation may have been. Judging from Bobzien's summary of Prantl's account of Stoic logic, it was neither well-known nor well-respected by those German philosophers who knew of it, so maybe Frege was attempting to propagate and popularize something that he believed was sufficiently important that he should use subterfuge to overcome his contemporaries' prejudices. Or maybe he found a resource free to stripmine because he knew nobody else would be looking there. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

As of 2021 Frege has been a part of the pedagogy for long enough that whether or not you make a charitable assumption about him, there's been a century of people reading and citing and building on his work. What's done is done. So to that extent, per Bobzien, it doesn't matter much (aside from whatever sort of character judgement you want to make of him).
posted by ardgedee at 4:40 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]

I was curious what that other great 19th century logician C.S. Peirce had to say about Prantl, and let me tell you, it is a treat. Some brief excerpts:
The Summulae Logicales of Petrus Hispanus, which Prantl, a writer of little judgment and overrated learning, whose useful history of Logic is full of blunders, misappreciations, and insensate theories, and whose own Billingsgate justifies almost any tone toward him, absurdly maintains that this book was substantially translated from a Greek book, which is manifestly from the Latin.
When the reader comes across anything about "Byzantine" logic, what is meant is that this book is supposed to be the relic of a development of logic in Constantinople, which in my opinion is an unfounded fancy of Prantl's taken up by many writers without sufficient examination, and solely because Prantl has looked into more logical books of the middle ages than anybody else. I am very grateful to him for what he has read and published in a most convenient form; but I find myself compelled to dissent from his judgment very many times. A more slap-dash historian it would be impossible to conceive.
Prantl's opinions about the Megarian philosophers, about what he calls the Byzantine logic, about the Latin medieval logic, about the Parva Logicalia, are wild theories, utterly untenable, and in several cases easily refuted by an easy examination of the MSS. Moreover, it is not a history of logic but mostly of the most trivial parts of logic. But I shall be asked whether I do not think his reading marvellously extensive. No, I do not. He had the Munich library at his hand. He had only to look into the books, and for the most part he has done little more than merely to look into them. He really often has no idea of what the real substance of the books is; and nothing is more common than to find in his notes passages copied out of one book which are nothing but textual copies of celebrated passages in much older works. I do not deny that the book is useful, because the rest of us haven't access to such a library; but I do not consider it a work of respectable erudition. There is no need of mincing words because he himself not only refers most disrespectfully to such solid students of medieval writings as Charles Thurot, Haureau and others, but frequently descends to what in English we should call the language of Billingsgate in characterising ancient opinions which he may or may not be aware are identical with those held today by analysts of logical forms whose studies are so much more exact than his that they are not to be named in the same day.
It's really a shame that Peirce (as far as we know) never read Frege. I would have liked to know whether Peirce would have spotted the plagiarism and how he would have reacted.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:18 PM on February 5 [9 favorites]

yeah, I'm not so sure you can just declare that. The word ‘plagiarize' (or 'plagiarise’) has evaluative judgement baked in, doesn't it? If you really want to document plagiarism-like things without "finger pointing or casting moral judgement", I think you need a different word.

On reflection, and considering what thomas j wise and others said above, I think I was wrong here. Bobzien says she means literal plagiarism, and she is right to say that: the paper presents a clear case for this, and the question of how to judge old Frege is a separate issue from whether he in fact plagiarized, which must first be established. While I do think it is unclear if you can fully bracket away the word's evaluative connotations, that is too bad for Frege. You could say the same about those times I "shoplifted" or did "insurance fraud": maybe there are mitigating circumstances, but I'm not entitled to some new vocabulary just because I prefer not to be judged for these actions.
posted by thelonius at 10:18 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

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