Frege’s “Despondency” and Academic Writing

I was struck by a passage in Frege’s foreword to Volume 1 of the Grundgesetze der Arithmetik (Basic Laws of Arithmetic). I suspect also that I was only struck by the passage in light of my own experience with writing a dissertation, and so a book-length academic work, of my own.

Here is the context. In 1879, Frege published Begriffsschrift (Concept-Script). In 1884, Frege published Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik (The Foundations of Arithmetic). Loosely-speaking, these works may be viewed as formal and philosophical antecedents, respectively, for Frege’s Grundgesetze. But it was published in 1893, almost ten years later. Why did it take so long?

Frege goes on for a couple pages explaining how his new work has new primitive notions and how the passing years “have seen the work mature.” This is fairly typical: philosophers, especially honest and deeply thoughtful ones like Frege, rehash their views. Then Frege writes something that really struck me (page XI):

…I arrive at a second reason for the delay: the despondency that at times overcame me as a result of the cool reception, or rather, the lack of reception, by mathematicians of the writings mentioned above [Begriffsschrift andGrundlagen], and the unfavorable scientific currents against which my book [Grundgesetze] will have to struggle. The first impression alone can only be off-putting: strange signs, pages of nothing but alien formulae. Thus sometimes I concerned myself with other subjects. Yet as time passed, I simply could not contain these results of my thinking, which seemed to me valuable, locked up in my desk; and work expended always called for further work if it was not to be in vain. Thus the subject matter kept me captive. All that is left for me is to hope that someone may from the outset have sufficient confidence in the work to anticipate that his inner reward will be repayment enough, and will then publicize the results of a thorough examination.

A page later, Frege bluntly laments, “Otherwise [if I do not get such a reader], of course, the prospects for my book are dim.”

This cuts deep when I think about the reception that my dissertation is likely to receive, namely, none. Many individuals pour their work and closely-held beliefs into their dissertation. My uneducated guess is that most have yet to find a reader of the sort Frege sought. This can lead to melancholic thoughts, such as

Why am I spending my time doing this? Nobody will read it. It does not matter. I will not get a permanent academic position in which I can unpack the implications of this work anyway.

Thoughts like that can interfere with the writing. But the work keeps calling me back, as Frege’s called him. And Frege ends on a happy note that usually is enough to dispel such brooding moods (page XXV):

The distance [of my logical standpoint] from psychological logic seems to me to be as wide as the sky, so much so that there is no prospect that my book will have an effect on it immediately. My impression is that the tree that I have planted has to heave an incredible load of stone to make space and light for itself. Still, I will not give up all hope that my book will eventually aid the overthrow of psychological logic.

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