What Do We Mean? On Frege’s ‘Sense & Reference’


There are many theories surrounding the meanings of words and names: some are simple and some are complex; some are well defined and some are poorly explained by their creators. The theory I will be discussing in this paper is that of Frege and his idea of the ‘sense’ of a word. In my understanding of Frege’s theory, and his definition of the ‘sense’, I see a very elegant solution to many of the problems posed by the referential theory of meaning. In particular, I see a way in which Frege’s ‘sense’ picks out only the most definite description of a name. Because the ‘sense’ identifies only the most unique character associated to a name it is hence the most accurate way in which to discuss that name and its referent.

The concept of the ‘sense’ itself is a fairly straightforward theory, on the surface; it was very loosely explained by Frege himself, for which he has received much criticism; yet, in its simplicity and abstract nature lays its strength as a theory and its refined attraction. For Frege, the ‘sense’ is “the sort of meaning a linguistic expression has over and above its (putative) referent” (Lycan, pg.204); this ‘sense’ can be seen as a definite description since it picks out something particularly unique to the referent; yet we can still arrive at the same referent by several distinct senses, as long as each points to a unique characteristic of the referent. In layman’s terms, the ‘sense’ can be thought of as the description present in our minds when a reference is made; although many descriptions may present themselves to our minds, the sense is the definite description that identifies uniqueness. It is my belief that names hold no power of description inherent to them except for the sense that the name, or the context in which the name is used, incurs. The referent is a function of the sense; but we can still identify referents in common because our senses often overlap. Even more useful for us is the fact that we find a sense in cases where no actual referent exists. This allows us to speak about non-existents and negative existentials perfectly rationally and, hence, we can discuss abstractions and the imagination without fear of being misunderstood.

This having been said, though, we are still subject to the communication problem: indeed, this is a problem that we will probably never be able to escape entirely. Simply put, the communication problem stipulates that, though we may all be using the same name for a referent (and thus should, logically, be speaking of the same thing), we can never be entirely sure that we all share the same sense of that referent (thus we may actually be speaking past one another).

Here I call for a revaluation of our concept of a referent: a ‘semantic referent’ is termed as “the individual, if one exists, that a description purports to pick out in virtue of the individual’s fitting the description” (Lycan, pg. 204). I feel that this is, in effect, the same as the most commonly agreed upon sense of a name. It is undoubtedly true that there are discrepancies between the two terms—for example, the semantic referent must, by its very essence, be an existing ‘thing’, while the sense makes no such claim. However, I feel that with enough consensus between the individuals of a population we may, through the popularization of a sense, actually change the semantic referent and give to it the character of the sense we have all agreed upon. Take the example of the natural growth of a language over time. The meanings of words are bound to change over time depending on who uses them; if enough people use the same word in the same way there will grow a mutual sense that comes to stand in for the actual referent. While what we will be saying with these new meanings of words may not be technically accurate, or correct with regards to their original semantic referents, they are at least commonly understood; in this way the sense is not equal to the semantic referent, but equivalent.

Frege postulated that, since belief is a cognitive function, the truth-value of a belief sentence is derived from the sense, not the referent (Lycan, pg. 34). This is perfectly reasonable when we consider that our minds are the creators of our world: whatever exists independently of our minds is totally dependent upon our minds for entry into our world. This is crucial to my understanding of Frege’s theory as it allows us to discuss non-existents and negative existentials, since we can have beliefs about things that do not even exist; all that we need to discuss these things is someone else with an equivalent sense. Following this vein of thought we may progress to the conclusion that all sentences are effectively belief sentences; or, at least, the truth-value of all sentences are contingent upon our beliefs about them. It is invaluable to always bear in mind that what we each perceive to be the ‘actual world history’ probably has a lot of mistakes in it; in fact, it is quite likely just an amalgamation of many ‘possible world histories’. My ‘actual world history’ likely bears little similarity to those actual events that have occurred in the past (or even to what other people believe to be the ‘actual world history’); instead, history is written the way we believe it to have happened (or the way that the ancients would have us believe that it happened). What we believe to be the ‘actual world history’ is just that, only a belief. Enter Saul Kripke.

Kripke theorized that it is a contingent fact that any of the names that we make common reference to ever represented the actual things that we attribute to them now. From this follows the understanding that there is no description in a name except for the most commonly agreed upon sense that we derive from it. The meanings of words and names change all the time; but they change dependent upon the majority sense they incur. As highly personalized as a sense is, it is also highly specialized to pick out a unique referent. This is how many different people can arrive at a similar referent independently of one another: it is because any reference to that referent incurs a specific sense that is common to a population. So specific is it, in fact, that everyone in that population will understand the topic of discussion equivalently, despite it being only an abstract term. Also, it is part of that population’s shared history to attribute a particular sense to a common referent; this relationship between sense and referent is strengthened over the course of time, especially if it is unchanging, and eventually produces senses that are so similar in separate individuals of a population that they may be considered equivalent.

In this way of looking at language we can see many similarities to the way a code works. Specific code words are given specific meanings, much like a referent and its sense, but they are unintelligible to the individual unless the coding relation is known. Much like a language, the code depends upon the inter-relatedness of terms: one word by itself is just a word—it is once we string together sequences of words that we begin to achieve contextual meaning. Any given code-name will be absolute gibberish; but, if we are privy to the code-language, we will all get an equivalent sense of the coded semantic referent. The code itself is arbitrary, merely a formula into which we can insert words; it is the underlying meaning of what is being coded that has given us a reason to actually share the code. This gives a fundamental fluidity to the nature of language. It is not actually referents that give rise to sense; and, instead, as we speak we see that referents are chosen to match the sense that we mean them to have. We start with the sense and come up with referents, not the other way around. The words that come out of my mouth are nothing special and could just as easily mean anything else; it is the person to whom I deliver these words that is important, for they are the determiner of the words’ meaning. Assuming, though, that I do want my fellows to understand me, I must make absolutely sure that their sense of what I am saying matches my intended sense—otherwise we return to the communication problem. As much as the sense of a word is a function of its common usage in a language, it is still wholly up to the individual to derive meaning from words. And this can lead to tremendous difficulties when one considers the dynamic state of the sense of a word.

Ideally, a referent will be objective; it will be the same for everyone. As I have made clear above, though, when left up to the individual, not every reference will necessarily meet its referent. What stands between a reference and a referent is the subjective sense. I have already discussed how it can change with time, or with each new individual that contemplates it; but it can also vary within the same individual in different situations. Our minds are constantly subject to an infinity of influences; that any one name consistently gives rise to the same sense is extraordinary, let alone that we can communicate that sense to others and have them understand it using only that one word. This is because every name that we use comes with a hidden array of descriptions for its meaning; this is John Searle’s cluster theory.

In the cluster theory we see many possible descriptions of a name presented to us and followed by an ellipsis. This ellipsis is important since it represents the virtually infinite descriptions that we can ascribe to a name. Unless one (or more) of these descriptions matches the specific meaning in my mind, though, we have no purpose for the name; there is a reference but no sense attached to it and, thus, no single referent leaps to mind. We can only start to share words (and ideas) if something in that cluster of descriptions can give the name a meaning we share in common—a meaning unique to that name. We may never have the same exact cluster of descriptions and sense; but, with enough common overlap, we can take our senses (and hence our referents) to be equivalent…they will never be equal, though.

This is how we must be prepared to move forward with our understanding of names. It is of vital importance that we recognize we will never be able to establish a concrete sense for any referent. We will never unanimously agree on a sense; the closest that we can come to this is being able to share a cluster of similar descriptions denoting a similar sense (or senses). Once this move is made we will be able to converse freely with each other, understanding all the while that we can only ever attain a high percentage of mutual understanding, never one hundred percent. This means that it is up to the speaker to be as clear as possible with their references; and it is equally up to the listener to experience an equivalent sense to what the speaker intended. We must share in the responsibility of understanding each other equivalently. We must be equipped to change the referent in our minds that a sense incurs if it is wrong and we must be willing to alter our language as its use is altered around us.

There is much that one could say about Frege’s theory of the sense. Obviously objections can be made but I maintain that this concept has more to it than may originally meet the eye. One possible objection that creeps into my mind as I follow the implications of Frege’s theory is that it seems to cheapen the words that we use in of themselves. If the word is arbitrary to the meaning of the word, how do we even communicate at all? How do we get past the infinite cluster of descriptions that follows every name and word we speak? How can we accurately talk about anything definite if we must accept that there will always be some difference in our sense of what we are discussing? The answer is that we must continue by consensus: in truth, this is all that we have been doing all along—we just did not realize it to be so. Individual words and names, as presented to members of a common population, will present a common sense as a reflection of the shared history of that population. We can also rely on the sequences of words preceding and following the words that we question; these can contextualize a sentence and give it meaning, even in spite of our inability to understand an individual word therein. Imagine re-reading the previous sentence without a definition of the word ‘contextualize’: one could still understand the sentence; furthermore, one could even gain insight as to the meaning of the word ‘contextualize’ by the sense we derive from the sentence surrounding it.

The human mind is extraordinarily adept at recognizing and interpreting patterns: we should give it more credit than we typically do for being able to understand and analyze novel material based on its collected memories, logic, and experiences. Granted, we often individually misconstrue information and wildly extend the implications of what we know; but there seems to be a safety in the sharing of a common understanding. There will always be outliers of understanding—those whose understanding is so far removed from the common consensus that it bears little or no resemblance; yet there is typically a massive majority who share a common interpretation. It is with this massive majority that the sense of a word, name, or phrase can change even the semantic referent that was meant to be referred to. It is in this manner that languages evolve; as the sense of a referent changes, the way that we use the referent changes to reflect its altered meaning.

In a way (certainly not one expressed by Frege himself, though), the concept of the ‘sense’ pre-supposes many of the ideas expressed by other philosophers in establishing its own framework for a referential theory of meaning. Certainly, one can object that this reeks of mysticism: the idea that we surrender our theory of meaning to indeterminacy can obviously incite offence and spark indignation—but this is a theme common to many areas of philosophy…we can only ever pursue the rules of determinacy so far: eventually we hit a block. This is the plight of all pursuits of knowledge. We are chasing the infinite by finite means and, hence, will never be able to satisfy our curiosities…humanity is doomed to only ever be able to understand parts of what it faces. It is with this thought in mind that I beg of you to lend these thoughts the charity of a coherent sense. It is, after all, our equally shared responsibility to arrive at a common understanding: having made what is in my mind as clear as possible, it is now your duty to understand it by following those rules and referents that we hold in common. If I have done my job correctly, though, this should not be too much work for you. The precise meaning I had in mind while writing this should leap off the page and into your mind through the language I use. Still, as we pursue finer and finer details, indeed as we fall into the infinity of knowledge, we are bound to find it more and more difficult to relay understanding. This is the curse of humanity that I believe no theory of meaning can overcome.


                Lycan, William G. “Philosophy of Language: 2nd Ed.”. Routledge: New York. 2008.


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