Sense and reference

In the philosophy of language, the distinction between sense and reference was an innovation of the German philosopher and mathematician Gottlob Frege in 1892 (in his paper "On Sense and Reference"; German: "Über Sinn und Bedeutung"),[1] reflecting the two ways he believed a singular term may have meaning.

Die Gleichheit fordert das Nachdenken heraus durch Fragen, die sich daran knüpfen und nicht ganz leicht zu beantworten sind. Equality gives rise to challenging questions, which are not altogether easy to answer.

The reference (or "referent"; Bedeutung) of a proper name is the object it means or indicates (bedeuten), whereas its sense (Sinn) is what the name expresses. The reference of a sentence is its truth value, whereas its sense is the thought that it expresses.[1] Frege justified the distinction in a number of ways.

  1. Sense is something possessed by a name, whether or not it has a reference. For example, the name "Odysseus" is intelligible, and therefore has a sense, even though there is no individual object (its reference) to which the name corresponds.
  2. The sense of different names is different, even when their reference is the same. Frege argued that if an identity statement such as "Hesperus is the same planet as Phosphorus" is to be informative, the proper names flanking the identity sign must have a different meaning or sense. But clearly, if the statement is true, they must have the same reference.[2] The sense is a 'mode of presentation', which serves to illuminate only a single aspect of the referent.[3]

Much of analytic philosophy is traceable to Frege's philosophy of language.[4] Frege's views on logic (i.e., his idea that some parts of speech are complete by themselves, and are analogous to the arguments of a mathematical function) led to his views on a theory of reference.[4]