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Frege–Geach Objection
Mark van Roojen
The Frege–Geach objection is a problem for non-cognitivist metaethical theories
that posit a non-descriptive semantics for moral or normative domains of discourse.
Such theories typically focus in the first instance on simple indicative sentences or
utterances. They say of these sentences that their meaning is importantly different
from the meaning of similar sentences employing non-normative predicates (see
non-cognitivism; semantics, moral). Early emotivists (see emotivism), for
example, suggested that simple moral sentences expressed non-cognitive attitudes
toward their objects rather than beliefs that predicate a property of their objects.
Most early non-cognitivist accounts had little to say about more complicated
and  non-indicative sentences. The Frege–Geach objection (or problem), as highlighted by Peter Geach (1965) and John Searle (1962), can be seen as the problem of
supplementing the account provided for simple sentences so as to cover other,
more complex constructions containing moral language. And it is part of that problem that the extension should meet certain conditions of adequacy. Among these
conditions are: (1) generating a meaning for the complexes that fits with their
ordinary use to express attitudes; (2) explaining how the meanings of the more
complex constructions are a function of the meanings of their parts; and (3) doing
this in a way that preserves and explains the logical relations that intuitively
hold between moral sentences. Let’s call these conditions (1) semantic completeness;
(2) compositionality; and (3) logical adequacy.

Semantic Completeness
Ordinarily non-cognitivists deny that the semantics of normative expressions is like
the semantics of ordinary non-normative expressions with the same surface  grammar. Yet normative predicates occur in all of the same constructions in
which non-normative predicates do. Just as sentences employing ordinary, run-ofthe-mill predicates get embedded in more complex sentences, so do moral and other
normative predicates. We use sentences such as the following, and many more:
Eating meat is not wrong.
Eating meat is wrong and wasting food is wrong.
If eating meat is wrong, he’s sure to do it.
Is eating meat wrong?
It is true that eating meat is wrong.
Sally believes that eating meat is wrong.

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Edited by Hugh LaFollette, print pages 2037–2046.
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/ 9781444367072.wbiee313

Any complete non-cognitivist theory must somehow recognize this if it is to provide a plausible account of the way speakers use these terms. such as ‘Fred is alive. So they need another way of explaining the compositionality of sentences that use moral predicates. Since many of these sentences are used by people with no negative attitudes toward eating meat. such as ‘and’ and ‘or. Logical Adequacy This brings us to the third desideratum – to make the account consistent with the logical relations between diverse sentences.’ . ‘Ridiculing children is fun’ contradicts ‘Ridiculing children is not fun. The problem with this. and ‘is alive’ contributes to it a property – that of being alive. Furthermore. conjunction. and so on. Sentences negating a sentence will be true just in case the original sentence is false. so long as they already know how to understand the sentences they embed and the connectives employed. Conjunctions will be true just in case both conjuncts are true. Compositionality Speakers are able to understand the meanings of sentences they have not previously encountered. and so on. will be in a position to interpret novel sentences that combine those constituents. for nondescriptive semantic theories. the point seems to generalize: embedded sentences need not express the attitudes they would express in free-standing use.’ The same relation obtains when we replace ‘fun’ with ‘wrong. This militates in favor of the second desideratum – compositionality. A person who knows what properties first-order predicates stand for and what objects are picked out by subject terms. that supplementation must avoid saying that these more complex uses express such attitudes. In general.2 A simple non-cognitivist theory that says. The meanings of the complex sentences will be a function of the constituents contributed by the terms of which they are composed.’ predicate a property of a subject.’ that it expresses a negative attitude toward eating meat needs supplementation to cover these locutions. Similar results hold for all the other sentential connectives. From this kind of starting place. of ‘Eating meat is wrong. arises because such theories reject one way of meeting this desideratum. competent speakers of a language can understand the meanings of novel moral sentences upon first encountering them. conditionals embedding normative claims in their antecedents can be used in all of the patterns of reasoning that non-normative conditionals allow.’ Furthermore. the meanings of more complex sentences can be explained as a function of the meanings of their constituents. sentences containing normative predicates seem to have the same logical forms as sentences containing non-normative predicates. Such sentences are true just in case the subject in fact has the property in question. simple sentences of subject–predicate form. as well as the rules for negation. On standard cognitivist views. But nondescriptivists deny that normative predicates work in this way. ‘Fred’ contributes a person to the proposition expressed by the sentence. As a general matter.

Standard non-cognitivist theories explained the meanings of normative terms in declarative sentences by telling us that they served to express a non-cognitive attitude of disapproval or to mark that the speaker is performing a speech act. (1965: 463–4) Our problem gets its name from the fact that Geach attributes this point – that embedded claims must mean the same as their unembedded counterparts – to Frege.’ ‘and. for example condemnation.’ ‘or. the sentence ‘Sally is tired’ is inconsistent with the sentence ‘Sally is not tired. Non-cognitivists have heeded Geach’s and Searle’s warning and developed sophisticated nondescriptive accounts of normative semantics that avoid the charge of equivocation.3 As we noted above. the hypothetical antecedent in a conditional expresses no such attitude and performs no such speech act. they cannot adopt this relatively simple story for parallel explanations in the normative domain. Early non-cognitivist accounts of the meanings of unembedded sentences made it hard to see how normative expressions retain a single meaning across a range of different sentences. Similarly for ‘Sammy is corrupt’ and ‘Sammy is not corrupt. Ergo. Still. shift from an evaluative to a descriptive or conventional or inverted-commas use. But in the major premise the speaker (a father. let us suppose) is certainly not uttering acts of condemnation: one could hardly take him to be condemning just doing a thing. and these propositions involve the properties corresponding to the predicates in the sentences. Tormenting the cat is bad. Sentences employing logical vocabulary such as ‘not. as noted above.’ just because its content – the proposition that must be true if the sentence is true – cannot be true if the content of ‘Sally is not tired’ is true.’ ‘if … then. along with some problems encountered by each. getting your little brother to torment the cat is bad. Some Standard Non-Cognitivist Strategies Non-cognitivists have not been without resources or ingenuity in pursuing this task. The sections below sketch some of the various approaches that have been tried. To take the simplest case. non-cognitivists typically have to complete their account of the whole of normative language without using many of the resources that make semantics relatively straightforward for the cognitivists with whom they disagree. descriptive semantics allows indicative sentences to represent propositions that must be true for the sentences to be true. getting your little brother to do it is bad.’ Insofar as nondescriptivists deny that simple normative sentences of the same syntactic form predicate genuine properties and express propositions. The whole nerve of the reasoning is that “bad” should mean exactly the same at all four occurrences – should not. for example. . Here’s Geach: Let us consider this piece of moral reasoning: If doing a thing is bad.’ and so on stand in the logical relations that they do because they express or represent propositions that stand in analogous logical relations to one another. This puts descriptivist accounts in a relatively good position to explain logic for all domains. Yet.

On one such view. m. Such predicates are useful because they allow us to say things like ‘Everything that Fred said is true’ without having to repeat everything that Fred said. There is in principle no reason why nondescriptive sentences cannot stand in logical relations to other sentences. hare. The example generates grounds for non-cognitivist optimism about the possibility of an explanation of the logic of nondescriptive expressions. But its main motivating idea was pretty intuitive. There seem to be no natural English constructions embedding imperatives in the antecedents of conditionals. Deflationist theories of truth suggest that truth is not a robust or a substantial property. were we to assert it. at least in the first instance. syntax. Nor is this logic unrelated to the logic of descriptive sentences that are apt for truth and falsity. One kind of minimalist might say that we understand what the truth predicate does when we understand that sentences of the form ‘X is true’ are appropriately assertable just when ‘X’ would be assertable. Minimalism. were we to extend natural language so as to allow them. You will take an umbrella. ethics and). Both of the following two arguments strike us as sound. If it is raining. and for related reasons: If it is raining. Still. the imperative also occurs sometimes in conditionals – as when we ask someone to close the door if it is raining. and discipline Minimalist or deflationist theories about truth and truth-aptness have had some currency in recent years. Rather. a truth predicate helps us to say things of a sort we say anyway. Just as natural language includes descriptive conditionals. and some proponents have suggested that they might help with the Frege–Geach problem. r. . and that truth predications are not to be understood. nor is it obvious how to interpret such embeddings. The mere fact that such sentences aren’t straightforwardly apt for truth or falsity or that they don’t represent the world as being in a certain way does not disqualify them from having a logic. Hare (1952) was at work trying to offer a normative semantics that assimilated the logic of normative utterances to the logic of imperatives (see prescriptivism. It is raining. or even to know everything that Fred said. M. but it allows us to generalize or expand the range of this ability. it isn’t obvious how to make this sort of proposal fully general. Take an umbrella. as predicating a substantial property of the objects to which they are applied (see minimalism about truth. R. and that such sentences say no more than what ‘X’ would have said. It is raining. Hare’s work was sophisticated in many ways. Some theorists also favor minimal accounts of the difference between truth-apt discourse and discourse that does not admit of either truth or falsity. you will take an umbrella.).4 Imperative logic Even before Geach and Searle highlighted the issue. take an umbrella.

Compositionality can then be achieved if the attitudes expressed by complex sentences are a predictable function of the attitudes expressed by free-standing occurrences of the atomic sentences of which the complexes are composed. Some minimalists think that we can go further than that. It is not at all obvious how that would help us understand the meaning of ‘Either Sally is Hello. If that is correct. Perhaps. It is pretty easy to see how minimalism about truth will yield a meaning for one sort of complex normative construction. however. so that I could greet Sally with ‘Sally is Hello. Not every sort of speech act – not even one with a highly regulated character and employing a specific form of words to be accomplished – seems to be of the right sort to give an enlightening story about the meaning of a complex that disjoins words of that form. expressivists hope to explain the logic of certain linguistic expressions as falling out of the logical relations among the attitudes that those expressions express. and some non-cognitivists have proposed that the resulting view can help with the Frege–Geach problem (Horwich 1993. Nor do things seem to get much better if the form of words is syntactically in the indicative mood. approval of murder is incompatible with disapproval of murder. namely constructions predicating truth of a normative sentence or claim. Given that atomic normative sentences are in the indicative mood and that non-cognitivists typically tell us the speech acts they are conventionally used to perform. expressivists contend that certain attitudes. ‘Lying is wrong’ is true just in case lying is wrong. Expressivism Most recent non-cognitivist theories have been expressivist. Suppose we started to greet one another by using ‘hello’ in the predicate position. . for example. from here we can use a truth-functional account of the meanings of various logical connectives to explain the meanings of more complex expressions. Stoljar 1993). Those sentences say just what an assertion of the free-standing embedded claim would say. And. For example. however expressed. they are “minimally” truth-apt and we can generate a minimal truth condition for them. the proposal goes. The hope is that the attitudes expressed by such sentences already stand in certain logical relations to one another.’ and that this convention became universally adopted.’ We can add this  rule to any theory of the meaning of atomic normative sentences to give a compositional account of such sentences. are logically incompatible with certain other attitudes.5 all it takes for an atomic sentence to be capable of truth or falsity is to be in the indicative mood and to have a standard use to perform a recognizable speech act. A sentence such as ‘It is true that lying is wrong’ says no more and no less than the sentence ‘Lying is wrong. or Jim is Lazy’ (Dreier 1996). In other words. There are some reasons for skepticism. by putting minimalism about truth-aptness to work alongside deflationism about truth. Very often the two views are held together. The basic expressivist idea is to satisfy the completeness constraint by pairing each grammatical naturallanguage sentence with an attitude that provides its meaning.

There is something incoherent and self-defeating about accepting and asserting sentences like G. Various critics have argued that the proposal is inadequate by virtue of conflating one kind of incoherence (perhaps pragmatic incoherence) with another kind – the kind involved in genuine logical inconsistency. For example. First. E. we explain that attitudes are inconsistent when they display this sort of incoherence. Terry Horgan. ‘It is raining and I don’t believe that it is. might express disapproval of the following combination: disapproving of lying without also disapproving of telling one’s brother to lie. and also with respect to the nature of the sort of inconsistency that is logically relevant. Second.6 Different theorists have proposed different analyses of this broad sort. not easily expressible (if at all) by using non-normative vocabulary. It could be true. there would then be a kind of incoherence in holding that attitude while at the same time disapproving of lying but not disapproving of telling one’s brother to lie. Similar accounts would have to be given of other sentential connectives to make the story fully general. Higher order attitude expressivism One expressivist strategy has been to generate a compositional semantics for the relevant domains by suggesting that certain logical connectives help to form sentences that express higher order attitudes toward the attitudes expressed by the claims that the resulting complex embeds. Allan Gibbard at one point worked with normacceptance. we explain the inconsistency of sentences as falling out of their expressing attitudes that are themselves inconsistent in this sense. One way to pursue this argument is by showing that higher order attitude accounts are apt to overgenerate instances of putative logical inconsistency. whereas more recently he has suggested that the state of mind in question . If that’s correct.’ when sincerely uttered. Partly in response to worries about Frege–Geach. and Mark Timmons. Yet. Moore’s example. then. Committing attitude expressivism Simon Blackburn has coined the term quasirealism for the research program of explaining the realist-seeming nature of moral discourse by using only the materials to which non-cognitivists are entitled (see quasirealism). not all such sentences or attitudes involve logical inconsistency (van Roojen 1996). Simon Blackburn (1984) proposes that conditionals express an attitude of approval or disapproval toward conjunctions of attitudes. Different theorists have proposed different versions of the idea. That incoherence. So the inconsistency is something other than true logical inconsistency. these critics maintain. Fellow travelers worthy of the name include Allan Gibbard.’ But the claim it makes is not logically inconsistent. ‘If lying is wrong. can be used to explain the inconsistency of sentences that express the attitudes in question. each differing from the next with respect to the attitudes involved. telling your little brother to lie is wrong. several of these theorists have postulated something of the order of a new attitude type. They will consider inconsistent any attitudes that display the requisite incoherence and any sentences that express those same attitudes. It has been known for a long time that not every set of incoherent attitudes involves accepting beliefs with inconsistent contents.

So the following discussion will oversimplify to some extent and still be difficult going. So the attitudes it rules out can be represented by the set of pairs pairing each of those ruled-out worlds with every possible plan. Allan Gibbard’s (2003) proposal is the most developed.” These proposals all postulate that the target attitudes commit a person to reasoning in certain ways if she reasons with them at all. He suggests that we can capture both ordinary descriptive beliefs and normative (or planning) states by determining the set of states of mind with which they disagree. descriptive. Disjunctive judgments rule out any attitude ruled out by all the conjuncts. When I disagree with an ordinary descriptive belief of yours. so they can be represented as ruling out the corresponding world/plan pairs. but no plans. but no beliefs. From this we get an isomorphic story about the logical relations between sentences.7 is a kind of planning attitude. But extant non-cognitivist proposals don’t generate contents that are complex enough to allow this sort of explanation – one that generates disagreement or inconsistency just when we hold an attitude of a single type toward contents that are inconsistent (Schroeder 2008). these theorists can be very strict about the kind of inconsistency in question. Instead. A descriptive belief rules out all the possible worlds in which it is false. The attitudes expressed by simple normative and descriptive sentences can thus be represented by the set of such judgments that they rule out. so they rule out the set of world/plan pairs ruled out by any conjunct. Ordinary beliefs are inconsistent just when their contents are. The proposals are diverse. and detailed plans to represent the normative attitude of being committed to a plan. Sentences expressing those judgments will be inconsistent with one another just when the judgments they express are similarly inconsistent. Conjunctive judgments are inconsistent with any attitude that a component judgment rules out. He uses possible worlds to represent belief contents. Horgan and Timmons (2006) postulate “ought-beliefs. Gibbard exploits this idea to construct a formal system for tracking and explaining the logical relations between simple and more complex judgments and the sentences that express them. More complex judgments are composed of combinations of such simple cognitive and normative judgments. and much of their payoff for Frege–Geach turns on relatively technical features of the resulting accounts. and that certain combinations of such attitudes generate genuinely inconsistent commitments. The negation problem Unwin (2002) raises a general worry about extant quasi-realist proposals of this sort and their treatment of negation: at some level they help themselves to that which they should be trying to explain. A purely normative judgment rules out all the plans inconsistent with the plan it commits one to. The payoff is that we can use these rules to capture the logical relations between judgments of all kinds – normative. Importantly.” which are propositional attitudes of a sort distinct from the ordinary non-normative beliefs that they dub “is-beliefs. I do so by believing something – something that is inconsistent with what you believe. so that Moore-type incoherence does not count as logical inconsistency. So the attitudes it rules out can be represented by the set of pairs of worlds and plans where the plan-member of each pair is inconsistent with the plan it commits one to. Similar accounts are given of the other logical connectives. and mixed. .

If the normative content of the sentence is contributed by the predicate ‘wrong. Placing this suggestion within a .’ And the second is compatible with having no view about lying whatsoever. one we normally call believing that lying is wrong. So. It is the attitude we normally attribute when we say that a person believes that lying is not wrong. at least when it is generalized to negations of negations and beyond. which one expresses when one accepts the negation of a normative claim (Horgan and Timmons 2006). there must be an attitude that corresponds to it. (Note: nothing here really turns on the fact that we have chosen disapproval as our attitude type. Its negation. But the first doesn’t seem to be what we want. Suppose we want to figure out which of Sally’s possible states of mind would be expressed by ‘Lying is not wrong. one of which is expressed by atomic normative sentences and the other of which is expressed by their negations. He goes on to suggest a way forward for expressivism – to allow normative terms to contribute a normative attitude plus something more. Analogous problems seem to arise whenever we try to make do with just one attitude type and an unstructured attitudinal semantics for normative terms. for each sentence whose logical properties we aim to explain. it looks as if the attitude can’t be of the same sort as the un-negated judgment. of each distinct attitude type. non-cognitivists are forced to postulate at least two distinct attitude types.) Expressivists can and do try to generate an extensionally adequate story by postulating a distinct attitude type. why it stands in the relations of inconsistency in which it stands. such as a property or a relation. Then ‘Lying is wrong’ will express the attitude Sally has when she disapproves of lying. It is fair to ask. Sally does not disapprove of lying. What is her state of mind when she accepts its negation? It looks like we have the following possibilities: Sally disapproves of not lying. ‘Lying is not wrong. Take the sentence ‘Lying is wrong.’ We can correlate it with a state of mind that it expresses. because other connectives raise related problems.’ and suppose we think that sentences employing ‘wrong’ express attitudes of a type we’ll call disapproval. because Sally can think neither ‘Lying is wrong’ nor ‘Not lying is wrong’ consistent with accepting the negation of ‘Lying is wrong. but which non-cognitivists will want to treat as importantly different from non-normative beliefs.8 Unwin argues. He also suggests that the problem is not confined to the treatment of negation.’ should then express an attitude that contradicts it.’ and if the way that predicate contributes the content is by expressing a certain practical attitude toward the act type contributed by the rest of the sentence. Recall that the expressivist program is to explain the logical properties of sentences as falling out of the logical properties of the attitudes they express. Schroeder (2008) presses this objection especially clearly. The additional complexity can then be used to provide an additional place for negation to operate. This seems to give up on the compositionality desideratum.

Advocates of these theories try then to use the postulated descriptive content to explain the logical relations that hold among such utterances. which at the same time it predicates of an object. See also: ayer. The Language of Morals. Metaethics After Moore. r. hybrid theories of moral statements. prescriptivism. and Mark Timmons 2006. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Dan 2008. Hybrid theories and fictionalism Some theorists partial to non-cognitivism have attempted to employ descriptivist resources to handle the Frege–Geach problem while at the same time suggesting that non-cognitivism is right rather than wrong. vol. Horgan. MA: Harvard University Press. moral. R. Cambridge. For instance. non-cognitivism. a moral sentence might express disapproval of a property. M. there may be no special problem with explaining how they stand in relations of implication to one another (Kalderon 2005. Oxford: Clarendon. the identity of the predicated property is a function of the non-cognitive attitude that the sentence also expresses (Ridge 2006).. Gibbard. hare. pp. minimalism about truth. j. moral terms function more like epithets with constant descriptive content (Boisvert 2008). in a context. Another way is to combine descriptive and nondescriptive elements in the semantics (see hybrid theories of moral statements). 83.9 compositional semantics for the whole of a language requires the acceptance of some  surprising claims. On other such views. 1952. . semantics. Peter 1965. pp. Oxford: Clarendon. emotivism. James 1996. Dreier. who suggest that indicative moral sentences have a descriptive semantics even while they are normally used by speakers to express attitudes other than belief in their contents. 169–203. Thinking How to Live. vol. The extent to which these theories succeed is a matter of some controversy. Allan 2003. pp. moral REFERENCES Blackburn. 29–51. One version of this idea is adopted by fictionalists. moral). and the terrain is too complex to be surveyed here. If the sentences have just the descriptive content they seem to have. pp.” Philosophical Studies. m.” in The Philosophical Review. see fictionalism. about purely descriptive semantics as well as about normative semantics.). a. But they need not deny that these statements. “Expressive-Assertivism. 255–98. “Assertion. expressivists are right to think that moral terms function to express a non-cognitive attitude. 89. have descriptive content. vol. 74. Boisvert. “Cognitivist Expressivism. On some such views. 449–65. quasi-realism. Schroeder (2009) offers an extensive overview of various hybrid theories and of the potential problems for each. Hare. fictionalism.. According to such views. Simon 1984. “Expressivist Embeddings and Minimal Truth.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.” in Horgan and Timmons (eds. Spreading the Word. ethics and. Terrance. Geach.

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