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Philosophia Mathematica (III) 16 (2008), 354373.

doi:10.1093/philmat/nkn002

Advance Access publication March 4, 2008

Wittgenstein on Circularity in the Frege-Russell Denition


of Cardinal Number
Boudewijn de Bruin

1. Introduction
In 63 of The Foundations of Arithmetic, Gottlob Frege attributes to David
Hume the principle that
the number of objects falling under concept F is identical to the
number of objects falling under concept G iff there is a one-one
correlation between F and G.

Frege uses the principle to define the concept of cardinal number, but
he does so in a system that, as Bertrand Russell showed, contains an
inconsistent theory of concepts and extensions. Russell rescued Freges
definition, however, by having Humes principle play a similar role to define
number in his theory of types: the Frege-Russell definition of cardinal
number.1
This paper has benefited from detailed written comments of Juliet Floyd, Bob Hale,
and Allard Tamminga, as well as from discussions with Charles Chihara, Hans Sluga,
Martin Stokhof, and audiences in Amsterdam, Groningen, and Kirchberg.
University of Groningen, Faculty of Philosophy, Oude Boteringestraat 52, 9712 GL
Groningen, The Netherlands. b.p.de.bruin@rug.nl
1 The principle is more exactly stated in 73 of Foundations. I follow the adherents of
George Boolos by naming the principle after Hume, Treatise, Bk I, Pt III, i. In contemporary vocabulary, a precise statement about the role of Humes principle in a definition
of cardinal number is this (Freges Theorem): second-order logic plus Humes principle
as the sole nonlogical axiom suffices to derive the Dedekind-Peano postulates. See, e.g.,
[Boolos, 1987], [Wright, 1983]. See [Demopoulos and Clark, 2005] for more details on the
differences between Frege and Russell in this respect.
C The Author [2008]. Published by Oxford University Press.
Philosophia Mathematica (III) Vol. 16 No. 3 
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Several scholars have argued that Wittgenstein held the view that the
notion of number is presupposed by the notion of one-one correlation,
and that therefore Humes principle is not a sound basis for a definition of number. I offer a new interpretation of the relevant fragments
from Wittgensteins Nachlass, showing that if different uses of presupposition are understood in terms of de re and de dicto knowledge,
Wittgensteins argument against the Frege-Russell definition of number
turns out to be valid on its own terms, even though it depends on two
epistemological principles the logicist may find too constructivist.

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2 See [Dummett, 1978; 1991], [Floyd, 2001; 2005], [Marion, 1998], [Steiner, 1975].
Also see [ul Haque, 1978], and the lemma number in [Glock, 1996]. The primary sources
are: Philosophical Remarks, 118119; Philosophical Grammar, Pt II, Ch. IV, 21; Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, Pt I, 2540. Secondary sources include minutes of a meeting of the Trinity Mathematical Society at Cambridge, May 28, 1930 (James
Klagge was so kind as to bring this to my attention; see [Wittgenstein, 2003, pp. 373374]);
Friedrich Waismanns Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, especially the addenda to the
notes of a meeting with members of the Vienna Circle, January 4, 1931, Definition of
Number (see [Waismann, 1979, pp. 164165]), lecture notes of seminars at Cambridge,
19321935, edited by Alice Ambrose [Ambrose, 1979]; and lecture notes of seminars at
Cambridge, 1939, edited by Cora Diamond [Diamond, 1975]. The argumentation in the
lecture notes is based on Wittgensteins rejection of the notion of logical identity, which I
do not deal with here. See [Marion, 1998, pp. 5255].

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Throughout his philosophical career Ludwig Wittgenstein too was concerned with the notion of number. He first explained it as the exponent
of an operation (Tractatus 6.021), changed to a view aptly described by
Pasquale Frascolla as the arithmetic of strokes [Frascolla, 1994, p. 44],
which in turn paved the way for an account in terms of family resemblance
(Philosophical Investigations, 6768).
Apart from these positive contributions, Wittgensteins Nachlass contains an interesting critique of the Frege-Russell definition uncovered by
such scholars as Michael Dummett, Juliet Floyd, Mathieu Marion, and
Mark Steiner.2 Mathieu Marionwith whose interpretation this paper is
most concerneddiscusses at length various sources from Wittgensteins
intermediate period (ca. 19291933). He argues that Wittgenstein held
the view that the notion of number is presupposed by the notion of a oneone correlation, and that therefore Humes principle is not a sound basis
for a definition of cardinal number. While Marion does not evaluate the
plausibility of Wittgensteins view, he does credit him with having laid
bare a platonist assumption in Humes principle.
In this paper I give a different interpretation of the fragments from the
Nachlass. I argue that Wittgenstein thought of presupposition in terms
of knowledge, and that his distinction between knowledge about actual
and possible one-one correlations is to be understood as that between
knowledge that is de re and knowledge that is merely de dicto. Furthermore,
I argue that Wittgensteins argument is valid, even though it is dependent
on three epistemological principles, two of which the logicist may find too
constructivist.
Section 2 gives a brief survey of Marions interpretation. Section 3
gives the interpretation of presupposition in terms of de re and de dicto
knowledge. Section 4 gives the interpretation of Wittgensteins entire argument against the Frege-Russell definition of cardinal number. Section 5
discusses the plausibility of the argument. Section 6 relates the argument
to Poincares objections to logicism as well as to Wittgensteins earlier
views.

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2. Marions Interpretation of Wittgensteins Argument Against Frege and


Russell

Frege once said, A straight line is already drawn before it gets


drawn. This dictum sounds very paradoxical . . .
What Frege means is evidently that it is possible to draw a line.
But possibility is not yet reality. A straight line is drawn only when
it has been drawn. And this is how it is with numbers too. When
Frege and Russell attempt to define number through correlation, the
following has to be said:
A correlation only obtains if it has been produced. Frege thought
that if two sets have equally many members, then there is already a
correlation too. (Just as: if two points are given, then there is already
a straight line connecting them.) Nothing of the sort! A correlation is
there only when I actually correlate the sets, i.e. as soon as I specify
a definitive relation . . .
If Russell laid his cards on the table, then by correlation he would
have to mean something that is given by a list. [Waismann, 1979,
p. 165].

Given Wittgensteins nonstandard reading of the second-order quantifier in


Humes principle, the principle ceases to be applicable to arbitrary concepts
F and G, as the correlation has to be constructed within a particular

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Humes principle requires the existence of a one-one correlation between


two concepts F and G for them to be same in number. According to
Marion, Wittgensteins argument against the Frege-Russell definition of
number consists of two claims. The first claim is that existence in Humes
principle can only be interpreted as requiring that a correlation is actually
constructed. This entails, however, that the principle fails to apply to cases
in which such a construction is impracticable. To save the general applicability, Wittgenstein rephrases Humes principle in modal terms requiring
that a one-one correlation can be constructed. The second claim is that the
modal version is circular.
Let us take a closer look. Underlying the first claimexistence is
constructionis Wittgensteins nonstandard view on what it means to
make second-order quantification statements about the existence of oneone correlations. In Marions words, Wittgensteins own viewpoint is to
the effect that there is nothingno one-to-one correspondenceexisting
before one has effectively correlated the Fs to the Gs [Marion, 1998, p. 83].
The key source for this interpretation (quoted by Marion at length) is notes
taken by Friedrich Waismann of a meeting of Wittgenstein with members
of the Vienna Circle in 1931. If Waismanns report is correct, Wittgenstein
said that:

CIRCULARITY IN THE FREGE-RUSSELL DEFINITION OF CARDINAL NUMBER

357

representational system. Accordingly, Marion says, Wittgenstein suggests


the following modal reformulation of Humes principle:
the number of objects falling under concept F is identical to the number of objects falling under concept G iff it is possible to establish a
one-one correlation between F and G.

Marion bases his interpretation on Waismanns notes:

Following Marions interpretation, Wittgensteins second claim is that this


modal reformulation is circular. To begin with, Wittgenstein asks what
kind of possibility could be involved here:
What does the word Can mean here? If I mean it in the physical
sense, that is to say, if I mean that I have the physical strength to
distribute the spoons among the cupsthen you would tell me, We
already knew that you are able to do that. What I mean is obviously
this: I can allot the spoons to the cups because there is the right
number of spoons. [Waismann, 1979, p. 164]

This reeks of circularity as


to explain this I must presuppose the notion of number. It is not
the case that a correlation defines number; rather, number makes
a correlation possible. This is why you cannot explain number by
means of correlation. [Waismann, 1979, p. 164]

All in all, Marion takes Wittgenstein to argue that the possibility of establishing a one-one correlation cannot be explained without reference to
numbers, i.e. without any circularity [Marion, 1998, p. 79]. The notion of
number, that is, is presupposed by the notion of one-one correlation.
3. An Epistemic Interpretation of Presupposition
Not without any circularity, all right. But circular in which sense? What
does Wittgenstein mean by saying that the notion of number is presupposed by the notion of one-one correlation? Philosophical Remarks, 118,

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Imagine I have a dozen cups. Now I wish to tell you that I have got
just as many spoons. How can I do it?
If I had wanted to say that I allotted one spoon to each cup, I
would not have expressed what I meant by saying that I have just as
many spoons as cups. Thus it will be better for me to say, I can allot
the spoons to the cups. [Waismann, 1979, p. 164] (emphasis added)

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as well as Friedrich Waismanns Introduction to Mathematical Thinking


support an interpretation in terms of knowledge.3 Waismanns monograph
is an important source as he acknowledges inspiration from an unpublished
manuscript by Wittgenstein. In particular, Waismann writes that he has
taken from this [manuscript] . . . the criticism of Freges and Russells definition of the notion of numerically equivalent [Waismann,
1951, p. 245].4

In a passage remarkably close to the one above from Wittgenstein and the
Vienna Circle, Waismann summarizes Wittgensteins entire argument. I
give a rather lengthy quotation to add to the plausibility of using this text
as a basis of an interpretation of Wittgensteins notion of presupposition,
and also because it is in its own right a nice way to state the argument.
Later in this section I examine the textual evidence Philosophical Remarks,
118, gives for my interpretation.5
Two sets are said to be numerically equivalent [i.e, same in number]
if they are related to one another by a [one-one correlation]. How
then shall we establish that two sets are numerically equivalent?
Evidently we must exhibit such a relation. If I wish to establish, let
us say, that I have as many spoons as cups, according to this precept
I must find a [one-one correlation] which associates each spoon to
a cup. For example, such a relation could be: every spoon lies in a
cup and no cup is left empty. But, suppose the spoons are in a box
and the cups in another? Is there a relation which associates them to
one another in this case, too? We could say that If there isnt one,
it is at any rate very easy to set one up; I only have to distribute the
spoons among the cups. We merely remark that this would mean
that the relation at least did not exist beforehand. Consequently, we
would have to say that as long as the spoons were not in the cups the
3

A third source is Louis Goodstein, one of Wittgensteins five favorite students according to Ray Monk, who also combines the epistemic reading with a similar view
on relations of presupposition. See [Goodstein, 1951, p. 19] for the epistemic reading,
[Goodstein, 1951, pp. 6970] for the view on presupposition, and see [Monk, 1990, p. 336]
for the biographical detail.
4 The Austrian edition, with the same acknowledgements, was first published in 1936
[Waismann, 1936]. Waismann may have referred to a manuscript on which Philosophical
Remarks, 118119, was based. Marion says, The MS must have been an early one
(19291931), possibly that which was published under the title Philosophical Remarks
[Marion, 1998, p. 45n]. Waismann repeated the argument in [Waismann, 1982, pp. 4546].
5 For reasons of consistency I use one-one correlation where Benac translates
Waismanns ein-eindeutige Relation as single-valued relation.

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3.1. Knowledge

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What on the face of it only seems to restate what was already contained
in Waismanns reports about the meetings of the Vienna Circle reveals,
upon closer inspection, an essential ingredient missing there: knowledge.
Waismann writes that in order to recognize whether the correspondence
is possible, I must already know that the sets are numerically equivalent,
and this strongly suggests an epistemic interpretation of presupposition.
Wittgensteins objection to the Frege-Russell definition of number, then,
amounts to the claim that knowledge about cardinalities is entailed by
knowledge about one-one correlations.
This interpretation is supported by first-hand evidence from Philosophical Remarks, 118. Wittgenstein relates knowledge about cardinalities to
knowledge about one-one correlations:
Can I know there are as many apples as pears on this plate, without
knowing how many? And what is meant by not knowing how many?
And how can I find out how many? Surely by counting. (emphasis
added)

Wittgenstein sketches a picture of one horizontal line separating or connecting two sets of many vertical lines

and asserts that it shows that


It is obvious that one can discover by correlation and without counting the classes that they are the same in number.

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two sets were not numerically equivalent, which is an interpretation


that does not correspond to the sense in which the word numerically
equivalent is used.
One will reply that this was not the intention of the explanation;
it does not depend on whether I actually place the spoons in the
cups but whether I can place them in the cups. Very well! But
what does the expression I can mean here? Is it that I have to be
physically able to distribute the spoons among the cups? This would
be entirely uninteresting. Obviously, what we wish to say is that I
can distribute the spoons among the cups because there are just as
many samples of both sorts. That is, in order to recognize whether
the correspondence is possible, I must already know that the sets
are numerically equivalent. Therefore the numerical equivalence is
not determined by the correspondence, but the numerical equivalence
makes the correspondence possible. [Waismann, 1951, pp. 108109]
(emphasis added)

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3.2. Knowledge De Re and De Dicto

If the lengths are lengths in the visual field we can say the two lengths
are the same, without in general being able to name them with a
number.

This fragment of Wittgensteins Nachlass precedes his discussion of


Humes principle and the Frege-Russell definition of number. Hence it
is reasonable to say that Wittgenstein was keenly aware of the fact that
there is a difference between knowing sameness of number via knowledge
about the exact cardinalities (where the cardinality can be named with
a number), and knowing sameness of number without knowing the exact
cardinalities (without being able to name them with a number).
I use K as the usual operator from epistemic logic. So K means that is
known.7 One has de re knowledge that there is some object with property
P iff there is an object of which one knows that it has the property. In
formalism, xK P x. One has de dicto knowledge that there is an object
with property P iff one knows that there is an object with property P.
Formally, Kx P x. It is a relatively uncontested principle that knowledge
de re entails knowledge de dicto. Knowledge de dicto which is not also de
re I call merely de dicto; that is, the conjunction Kx P x xK P x.
6

The contrast is between Waismann reporting that in order to recognize whether the
correspondence is possible, I must already know that the sets are numerically equivalent
[Waismann, 1951, p. 109], and Wittgenstein writing in Philosophical Remarks, 118, that
it is obvious that you can discover that there are the same number by correlation, without
counting the classes.
7 The epistemic subject is suppressed here in line with the non-psychological interpretation of Wittgensteins critique of logicism (see below).

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This quotation supports my epistemic interpretation of Wittgensteins use


of the notion of presupposition, but it also reveals that this interpretation is as yet unfinished. Where I first represented Wittgenstein as holding the view that knowledge of cardinalities is presupposed by knowledge about one-one correlations, in Philosophical Remarks, 118, he
in fact states that knowledge of cardinalities is not always so presupposed.6 I show now that we need not attribute this to Wittgensteins
changing his mind or even to an inconsistency of his views but rather
that exploiting the difference between de re and de dicto knowledge yields
a way to see that both statements are perfectly compatible with each other.
I start by introducing a little formalism the purpose of which becomes
clear once it is put to use. I then present my interpretation and show how
it accommodates both Waismanns reports and Wittgensteins writings. To
begin with, though, I give a quotation from Philosophical Grammar, Pt II,
Ch. IV, 21, where Wittgenstein writes:

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361

Kn(N x:F x = n N x:Gx = n) nK(N x:F x = n N x:Gx = n).


I know that there exists some number n that is the cardinality of F and G,
but I do not know exactly what number; I cannot name it.8
And how can I find out how many? Surely by counting. That goes
without saying. The corresponding change in knowledge is, of course, a
transition from merely de dicto to de re knowledge about sameness of
cardinalities. Having counted the number of apples and the number of
pears, one knows of some specific number n that it is the cardinality of the
apples F and of the pears G. That is,
nK(N x:F x = n N x:Gx = n).
There is some number n of which I know that it is the cardinality of F and
G. I can name it.
Knowledge de dicto does not require the knower to have in mind the
specific cardinalities of the concepts. He only knows they are identical.
Knowledge de re involves a specific number which the knower singles
out as the cardinality of both concepts. As a result two different readings
of knowledge about sameness of cardinality can be set apart, and this is
also true for knowledge about one-one correlations. It is obvious that one
can discover by correlation and without counting the classes that they are
the same in number, Wittgenstein asserts in the penultimate paragraph of
Philosophical Remarks, 118. The picture of many vertical lines and one
horizontal line is sufficient ground for de re knowledge about a one-one
correlation between the lines F on the upper side and the lines G on the
8 Cf. Philosophical Grammar, Pt II, Ch. IV, 21, for a very similar logical analysis of
sameness of number. (The gist of the argument in which it is used there is different, though.)

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The number of objects falling under concept F will be written N x:F x,


and F1-1 R G will mean that R is a one-one relation correlating concepts
F and G.
Wittgenstein asks, in Philosophical Remarks, 118: Can I know there
are as many apples as pears on this plate, without knowing how many?
The answer is affirmative. Wittgensteins picture, in the same section, of
many vertical lines and one horizontal line serves to show this. One knows
that there are as many vertical lines above the horizontal line as there are
vertical lines below the horizontal line. Their number being large, however,
one cannot at once see how many.
And what is meant by not knowing how many? he continues. The
answer is: knowing there to be equally many, but not knowing how many,
is merely de dicto knowledge about sameness of the cardinalities. In formal
terms,

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lower side. That is,


RK(F1-1 R G).
I know of some particular relation R that it is a one-one correlation between
concepts F and G. On the other hand, knowledge de dicto about a one-one
correlation would be
KR(F1-1 R G).

3.3. Intuitionism
To conclude my epistemic interpretation of presupposition, let me note a
striking similarity between results from intuitionistic logic and Wittgensteins constructivist ideas, in particular, his conception of knowledge,
existence, and provability.10 Wittgensteins constructivism in a way antic9 Note that the distinction between actual and possible is not that of certainty versus
probability. That a one-one correlation is possible does not mean that one exists with some
probability.
10 See [Marion, 1998], especially Ch. 34. On p. 83, for instance, Marion says that
Wittgensteins attitude towards numerical equivalence is supported by his view that it is
the proof which fixes the content of a mathematical proposition. Two pages later, Marion
says that, for Wittgenstein, the proposition x F(x) can be asserted only if one knows
already a specific number a of which one can show that it satisfies the predicate F. It is

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I know that there is some one-one relation correlating F and G, but I cannot
name it.
Stated more precisely, the interpretation I propose is that whenever
Wittgenstein speaks about presuppositions of actual one-one correlations,
what he in fact means is knowledge de re about a particular one-one
correlation; and when he speaks about possible such correlations he means
knowledge about a correlation that is merely de dicto.9
This reading easily accommodates Wittgensteins writings on the FregeRussell definition and Waismanns reports about Wittgensteins remarks.
When Wittgenstein writes, in Philosophical Remarks, 118, that you can
discover that [two concepts] . . . are the same [in] number by correlation,
without counting [them] he should be read as saying that de re knowledge
about the cardinalities of two concepts (the typical kind of knowledge obtained by counting them) is not presupposed by de re knowledge about a
one-one correlation between them. When Waismann writes that in order
to recognize whether the correspondence [between two concepts] is possible, I must already know that [they] are [the same in number] [Waismann,
1979], he means that de dicto knowledge about the one-one correlation
between the two concepts presupposes de re knowledge about their cardinalities.

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363

ipates embeddings of intuitionistic logic in S4 modal predicate logic. To


survey briefly, it is well known that under a translation g defined by:
g = P (for atomic )
()g = P g
( )g = g g
( )g = g g
( )g = P( g g )
(x)g = xP g
it holds that
IQC  iff QS4  g
where IQC is intuitionistic predicate logic and QS4 the quantified version
of the modal logic S4. P here stands for I have a proof that .
Wittgensteins conception of actual one-one correlationsor the actual
existence of other mathematical objects, for that matteras involving de re
knowledge clearly coincides with the last clause of the translation mapping
existential statements to statements about provability de re. The distinction
between constructive and nonconstructive knowledge or proof becomes
the distinction between de re and de dicto knowledge. Knowledge de re of
some existential mathematical statement requires that you come up with a
specific mathematical object; knowledge de dicto does not require you to
do that.11
4. An Alternative Interpretation of Wittgensteins Argument Against Frege
and Russell
Let us take stock. I first summarized Marions two-step reconstruction of
Wittgensteins argument against the Frege-Russell definition of cardinal
number. Then I proposed an epistemic interpretation of Wittgensteins notion of presupposition, and argued that his distinction between actual and
safe to extend this to second-order quantification. See also the second chapter of [Frascolla,
1994], especially pp. 5960.
11 In fact, Wittgenstein could be seen as anticipating the epistemic reading of the provability operator P pioneered by Stewart Shapiro and part of epistemic arithmetic. Shapiros
reading of the operator concerns potential knowledge of ideal epistemic subjects, and in
a way this emphasizes the fact that my interpretation does not ascribe psychologism to
Wittgenstein [Shapiro, 1985].

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(x)g = Px g

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(Kn(N x:F x = n N x:Gx = n)


nK(N x:F x = n N x:Gx = n)) RK(F1-1 R G).
5. The Plausibility of Wittgensteins Argument Against Frege and Russell
Mathieu Marion hesitates to evaluate the plausibility of Wittgensteins
argument against Frege and Russell, but he believes that the argument
reveals nonetheless a platonist assumption underlying the logicist definition
of number:
Although Wittgenstein was perhaps not able to provide a convincing argument against the notion of numerical equivalence, he detected with characteristic flair an important Platonist assumption
. . . , namely the assumption that the correspondence between the Fs
and the Gs already obtains before the correlation has been carried
out. [Marion, 1998, p. 83].

In this section, I argue for the rather opposite claim that Wittgensteins
argument is valid, but fails to demonstrate platonism. I show that Wittgensteins argument depends on three epistemological principles. The first

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possible one-one correlations is one between knowledge about such correlations that is de re and knowledge about such correlations that is merely
de dicto. It is now time to set to work my interpretation of presupposition
to revisit Wittgensteins entire argument against the logicist conception of
number. This can be done without much further ado.
The first step of Marions reconstruction was to show that Humes
principle is unacceptable as it refers to actual one-one correlations, while
the second step was that phrasing the principle in terms of possible oneone correlations makes it circular. The interpretation I suggest builds on
the two-step format, adding the epistemic interpretation of presupposition.
This yields the following alternative.
According to Wittgensteins first claim, Humes principle requires
actual one-one correlations: de re knowledge about such correlations.
The modal reformulation, in turn, requires possible one-one correlations:
merely de dicto knowledge about a one-one correlation. The modal version,
however, leads to circularity. Under the interpretation of presupposition in
epistemic terms, and of the difference between actual and possible one-one
correlations as one between de re and merely de dicto forms of knowledge,
the kind of circularity is easily describedand it is here that we can reap
the fruits of the preceding interpretative work. The modal reformulation of
Humes principle leads to circularity because, Wittgenstein holds, merely
de dicto knowledge of one-one correlation presupposes de re knowledge
about sameness of cardinality. That is,

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365

(1) for something to exist means that it be constructed.


This entails that Humes principle ceases to be universally applicable,
and therefore Wittgenstein proposes a modal reformulation in terms of
possible constructions. It is in this reformulation that Wittgenstein situates
the circularity: merely de dicto knowledge about a one-one correlation
between two concepts presupposes de re knowledge about their precise
cardinalities.
Quite in line with Wittgensteins constructivist inclinations, a plausible
candidate for an epistemological principle underlying this circularity claim
is:
(2) every piece of knowledge must eventually rest on some constructive
piece of knowledge.
What this principle yields is that merely de dicto knowledge about a oneone correlation eventually rests on some piece of de re knowledge.12 It
does not, however, determine that it is de re knowledge about cardinalities,
because merely de dicto knowledge about one-one correlation may rest on
de re knowledge about something entirely different from a particular oneone correlation or particular cardinalities. In addition, an epistemological
principle is needed to the effect that
(3) there are precisely two independent ways to obtain knowledge
about a one-one correlation between two concepts, one involving
one-one correlation, one involving cardinality.
12

Michael Dummett has suggested a completely opposed epistemological principle


according to which predicative de re knowledge rests on propositional de dicto knowledge.
D.E. Over has developed a constructivist refinement of this principle which, to some extent,
comes close to the principle I attribute to Wittgenstein. See [Dummett, 1978, p. 125],
[Over, 1982].

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two are unproblematic for those with constructivist sympathiesmany,


if not all, Wittgensteiniansbut logicists will typically resist accepting
them. The third one, I argue, is problematic only under a psychologistic
reading of the argument. Altogether, this shows that I have reconstructed
the relevant fragments of the Nachlass in such a way that we end up with
a consistent argument against the logicist conception of number that is
coherent within the broader framework of Wittgensteins philosophy of
mathematics without attributing psychologism to him.
As we saw, for Wittgenstein existence of a one-one correlation means
construction of an actual such correlation. This is a simple consequence of
an epistemological principle that may plausibly be attributed to Wittgenstein:

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13

See [Marion, 1998, p. 81]. Dummett knew the argument via Waismanns Introduction
to Mathematical Thinking, and rejects it in [Dummett, 1991, pp. 148149].
14 I am indebted to Bob Hale for pressing me on this point.

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Now, if I have merely de dicto knowledge about one-one correlation, I have,


by principle (2), de re knowledge about something. Since, by definition of
merely de dicto knowledge, this cannot be de re knowledge about a one-one
correlation, I have, by principle (3), de re knowledge about cardinalities.
If this is Wittgensteins argument, is it convincing? And if so, for whom?
It will be hard for the logicist to accept principle (1) unless he is willing
to adopt quite a bit of constructivismif doing so is possible in the first
placeand consequently he will not be inclined to go along with the
argument. Marion, explicitly following Michael Dummett here, agrees as
much.13 Yet, as I said, he believes that the argument can still be used to
reveal a platonist assumption underlying the logicist conception of number.
I am not so sure, however, and the reason is that my reconstruction shows
that Wittgenstein needs two, not one, anti-platonist principles. A logicist
would probably put the burden of proof on the other side.14 On the other
hand, while Marion does not evaluate the plausibility of Wittgensteins
argument, explaining the argument in terms of these three epistemological
principles makes it possible to do exactly that, and although the first two
principles presuppose a particular outlook on mathematical existence, the
third principle is, I believe, completely unproblematic unless one looks at
it from the point of view of the psychology of human number perception.
To argue this claim, I discuss a possible objection to the third principle,
and show that this objection is only convincing if one takes the argument to
involve the psychology of number judgments. The next, historical, section
adds to this by showing, first, how Wittgensteins argument contrasts with
Poincares quite similar attacks on logicism that, some argue, are plagued
by psychologism, and, second, how it connects to a Tractarian argument
against the logicist account of number that was recently reconstructed by
Juliet Floyd.
An obvious way in which principle (3) may be attacked is to observe
that one-one correlating and counting are not epistemically independent.
If counting is the practice paradigmatically illustrated by the index finger
hitting objects while saying One, two, three, and so on, counting two sets
of objects of the same number establishes a one-one correlation: the two
ones are correlated, the two twos, and so on. In the terminology of my
reconstruction of Wittgensteins argument, de re knowledge of sameness of
cardinalities obtained by counting entails de re knowledge about a one-one
correlation. It was Wittgensteins claim that merely de dicto knowledge
about one-one correlation entails de re knowledge about cardinalities. If
de re knowledge about cardinalities established by counting entails de re
knowledge about one-one correlation, then we do have reason to doubt

CIRCULARITY IN THE FREGE-RUSSELL DEFINITION OF CARDINAL NUMBER

367

whether it is possible to possess merely de dicto knowledge about oneone correlation. Basing a critique of Humes principle on principle (3) is
flawed. Or so the objection would go.
This objection, however, takes epistemology too psychologically. Principle (3) is nowhere dependent on actual human practices of obtaining
knowledge about number, whether counting or otherwise. Rather it is completely neutral as to how human beings establish de re knowledge about
cardinality. To underscore this point, let us turn to another way to obtain
knowledge about cardinality that Wittgenstein himself seems to have been
aware of. Pasquale Frascolla ascribes to Wittgenstein the view that

To substantiate his claim, Frascolla refers to a passage from Philosophical


Grammar, Pt II, Ch. IV, 21, where Wittgenstein quite clearly describes
other ways to obtain knowledge about cardinality. There are
different criteria for sameness of number: . . . the number that one
immediately recognizes; . . . the criterion of correlation; . . . count
both groups; . . . recognize the same pattern. (Of course these are
not the only cases.)

Of these criteria, the first is quite interesting here as it connects to psychological research on number perception. Psychologists have found that
human beings can determine the number of elements of a certain set, say
the number of cups on a table, without actually counting; they just see
that there are, say, four of them. This phenomenon, called subitization,
has been studied quite extensively, and there is wide agreement that most
adults can subitize sets of up to six elements.15 While counting is a human
practice to obtain knowledge about cardinality that may bring about knowledge about one-one correlation simultaneously, subitization is decidedly
different: if I have come to know by subitization that there are four cups
on the table and four saucers in the cupboard, that does not give me de re
knowledge about one-one correlation.16
15

The term seems to have been coined by Kaufman et al. [1949].


Yet another way to obtain de re knowledge about cardinality without obtaining
de re knowledge about one-one correlation is testimony (someone tells you that there
are fifty chairs and fifty tables in the room, but you have not counted them yourself).
Testimony is not a primary source of knowledge though, as it always has to be grounded in
16

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processes to determine whether a given set of empirical objects


has three members can vary (and, according to Wittgenstein, the
setting of a 1-1 correlation . . . is only one procedure among many).
[Frascolla, 1994, p. 46] (emphasis added)

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6. Other Arguments Against Frege and Russell


To conclude, I compare my interpretation of Wittgensteins criticism of
the logicist account of number with Poincares remarks about circularity
in logicism as well as with Wittgensteins earlier views.
Poincare searched for non-logical presuppositions in what the logicists
saw as a purely logical definition of cardinal number just as much as
Wittgenstein did, and Poincare, too, took a decidedly epistemic starting
point for his critique. Warren Goldfarb, and more recently Janet Folina,
have identified quite a few different lines of reasoning in Poincares
writings, ranging from the well-known vicious circle or impredicativity
argument to four different petitio arguments [Folina, 2006], [Goldfarb,
1988]. Three of the four petitio arguments attempt to show that mathematical induction is presupposed in the logicist definitions of number,
well-formed formula, and derivation (proof), while one of them attacks the
Frege-Russell definition itself in a way that comes quite close to Wittgensteins, claiming as it does that the concept of number is presupposed
by the allegedly purely logical notions in which the definition of number
is cast.
To say, in logicist vocabulary, that there are at least two cups on the
table is to say that there are an x and a y such that x and y are cups and
x = y. According to the logicist such a rendering is purely logical and
does not presuppose the number two. Poincare, however, writes that one
cannot speak of x and y without thinking two.17
To bring out the difference from Wittgensteins objection while emphasizing its epistemic character, Poincares critique can be phrased as
someone elses counting, subitization, or what have you; so it would not be right to include
it, even in a psychological version of principle (3).
17 [Poincare, 1906, p. 294] quoted by Goldfarb [1988, p. 66].

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The upshot of this is the following. If we rephrase principle (3) in a


way that takes care of the human psychology of number perception, then,
indeed, a problem arises because counting two sets of the same cardinality
establishes a one-one correlation between them. If we incorporate counting
in principle (3), however, we should incorporate subitization as well. But
subitization does not establish one-one correlation, and moreover it only
works for the first six natural numbers or so. As a result, a psychological
reading of principle (3) does not make the argument invalid, but it restricts
its validity to the first six natural numbers or thereabouts. In addition,
as shunning psychologism in discussions of logicism is considered an
argumentative virtue anyway, a truly epistemological reading of principle
(3) has much to recommend it.

CIRCULARITY IN THE FREGE-RUSSELL DEFINITION OF CARDINAL NUMBER

369

follows:
K(xy(F x F y) xyz(F x F y F z)) nKN x:F x = n,

18 This emphasizes the originality of Wittgensteins argument. It is also an indication of


the fact that Wittgenstein was fully aware of important mathematical details of logicism,
such as the crucial role Humes principle plays in its set-up, which was later formally
expressed in Freges Theorem. The Tractatus comes closer to Poincares other petitio
arguments when Wittgenstein accuses the definition of the successor function of circularity
(4.1273), although the Tractatus does not mention mathematical induction.
19 See, e.g., [Steiner, 1975, p. 55] and [Floyd, 2005, p. 99].
20 See [Goldfarb, 1988]. Folina argues contra Goldfarb that logicism cannot completely
ignore human psychology because the logicist enterprise to establish a rigorous logical
justificatory system for mathematics only makes sense for fallible human beings. If no
one ever erred, logicism would be pointless. But while Folina is more sympathetic to
Poincare, she agrees with Goldfarb that the petitio about the number two is unconvincing.
Colin McLarty cautions against too much psychologism, too, and seems more optimistic
about Poincares petitio about two, without, however, giving the details of his interpretation
[McLarty, 1997].

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where I use the Wittgensteinian convention that different variables get different interpretations. If I know that there is a cup x and a cup y and no
cup z on the table, then I have de re knowledge about cardinality n = 2 of
is a cup on the table]. The consequent of this statethe concept F = x[x
ment is rather similar to the consequent of the statement that expresses
Wittgensteins critique (that is, de dicto knowledge about one-one correlation entails de re knowledge about cardinalities), but the antecedent is
different, because it involves knowledge about two objects falling under
concept F rather than about a one-one correlation between F and another
concept G.
This shows that, while Poincare and Wittgenstein both tried to spot
non-logical presuppositions in the logicist framework of the Frege-Russell
definition, they zoomed in on different places. Wittgenstein unearthed
mathematical presuppositions in Humes principle itself, thus attacking at
a rather abstract level the key principle underlying the logicist conception
of number. Poincare, by contrast, zoomed in on the propositions about
numerals that can be made in the logicist framework, thus finding fault
with logicism at the concrete level of the Frege-Russell definition itself.18
But although they may differ with respect to the precise logical form
of their attacks on logicism, Wittgenstein and Poincare do seem to share
their epistemic motivation.19 If this is right, the next question to answer is
whether Wittgensteins objection carries the psychologism that Poincares
epistemic critique is sometimesbut not alwaysaccused of.20 Goldfarb,
for instance, argues that Poincare failed to see that logicism was only
concerned with the question of how mathematical beliefs can be justified,
and not with the question of how human beings actually adopt mathematical

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xy(F x F y) xyz(F x F y F z),


thus reflecting the idea that number is an internal property of propositions. Furthermore, Floyd observes, that concepts F and G can be one-one
correlated is shown, not said, by the formal similarity between the above
21

here.

This section was inspired by a discussion with Juliet Floyd. I follow her [2001; 2005]

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beliefs [Goldfarb, 1988, p. 67]. It may be that human beings as a matter of


psychological fact always think of two when they read xy(F x F y),
but that does not show that, logically, the number two is being presupposed
in that statement.
Does the argument I have reconstructed on the basis of Wittgensteins
Nachlass suffer from psychologism? The obvious place to look for psychologism is principle (3). A psychological reading of principle (3) would
incorporate subitization and counting as human practices to obtain knowledge about cardinalities. Such a reading, however, would attribute the
same misunderstanding to Wittgenstein as Goldfarb sees in Poincares
petitio argument, namely, that it is irrelevant to the question about logical presupposition of number in one-one correlation that merely de dicto
knowledge about one-one correlation in actual human beings only arises by
means of subitization. The claim that Wittgenstein makes, however, is that,
if we abstract from the human psychology of number perception, merely
de dicto knowledge about one-one correlation presupposes de re knowledge
about cardinality. In making that claim, he does not commit a psychologistic mistake.
In the Tractatus Wittgenstein develops a view of number as the exponent of an operation (6.021), making number an internal property of
propositions rather than, as in logicism, an object about which propositions
can say things. He also explicitly criticizes the logicist account of number, claiming that Russells ancestral definition of the successor function
contains a circulus vitiosus (4.1273), and that the theory of classes is
altogether superfluous (6.031). This indicates at least that the fragments
from the Nachlass with which I am concerned here do not constitute a
substantial breach with his earlier views.
Nevertheless, while Tractatus and intermediate-period writings may
reveal similar claims, the argumentation is quite different. Juliet Floyd has
reconstructed a Tractarian argument against Humes principle along the
following lines.21
In the Tractatus, that concept F has two objects falling under it is
shown, not said, by the existential statement

CIRCULARITY IN THE FREGE-RUSSELL DEFINITION OF CARDINAL NUMBER

371

existential statement and the existential statement


xy(Gx Gy) xyz(Gx Gy Gz).

22 The argument from the intermediate period was, as we saw, threatened by the same
objection, and it was countered by adopting a non-psychological, yet truly epistemological,
interpretation of the argument. Such a move would of course not make sense for the
epistemic version of the Tractarian argument. No psychology can be removed.

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The Tractarian argument amounts to observing that what shows the possibility of a one-one correlation between F and G shows their cardinalities
(one-one correlation presupposes number), but that showing cardinality
has to be possible before talk of one-one correlation is cogent [Floyd,
2005, p. 98] (number does not presuppose one-one correlation).
Both the Tractarian argument and the argument from the intermediate
period are phrased in terms of possible one-one correlations, but while the
reasons for doing so are similar, the means are very different. The Tractarian
argument grasps possibility explicitly rather than by means of the epistemic
terms of the later argument. According to the Tractatus the difference
between actual and possible one-one correlation seems to be one of saying
and showing. While the proposition that all the cups are placed on all the
saucers says that there actually is a one-one correlation between the cups
and the saucers, it is the shared form of the two propositions above involving
F and G that shows that they can be one-one correlated. Furthermore, the
distinction between de re and de dicto, of which Wittgenstein was aware
when he wrote Philosophical Grammar, Pt II, Ch. IV, 21, was not available
in the Tractatus. In fact, such a distinction is quite an untractarian idea in the
first place, since showing cardinality and showing possibility of one-one
correlation is, if one wishes to use that terminology, always de re.
Nor would a Tractarian argument plausibly position circularity in
Humes principle if cast in epistemic terms. It would state that knowledge
about one-one correlation entails knowledge about cardinalities, and the
argument would be that, if one obtains knowledge about the two propositions that show that F and G can be one-one correlated, one simultaneously obtains knowledge about their cardinalities. While correct, the
converse would be correct, too: knowledge about the cardinalities of F
and G obtained from what these propositions show simultaneously yields
knowledge about one-one correlation. As a result, cast in epistemic terms
the Tractarian argument would not detect any priority here, only a certain
equivalence.22
The Tractarian argument does not so appeal to knowledge, though. As
a result, two really different lines of critique of Humes principle come
into sight. An early one builds on the distinction between saying and
showing and is cast in terms of the picture theory, while the later one

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exploits the distinction between de re and de dicto and is phrased, nonpsychologically, in terms of knowledge. Substantially, the two arguments
may not be compatible, but they consistently lead up to locating a problem
of the logicist account of cardinal number in Humes principle, and this, I
believe, is a mark of Wittgensteins originality.
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