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The meaning of "Bedeutung" in Frege

Elmar Holenstein

Frege’s particular use of the term Bedeutung deviates from contemporary, but certainly not from traditional usage. It can be traced back for centuries and is still found in Husserl (1901). The (semiotic) basic meaning and the resulting complex meaning structure of the German verb bedeuten can best be compared to the Latin significare and its modern cognates.

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Holenstein, E. (2022). The meaning of "Bedeutung" in Frege, in Phenomenological philosophy of language, Genève-Lausanne, sdvig press.

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1Upon exploring the seemingly unique use of Bedeutung in Frege, scholars and translators tend to adhere primarily and rightfully so to the immediate context. However, studies also, if only secondarily, repeatedly revert to the ordinary use of Bedeutung, mostly by way of contrast, to justify the declaration of Frege’s Bedeutung as an artificial term, and less frequently to support a particular interpretation. In contrast to text-immanent explication, which has achieved a learned, exegetic status, recourse to the ordinary use of Bedeutung still seems to be based on a personal and, as such mostly inadequate feeling for language. Furthermore, the atomistic trend, typical of analytic philosophy, seems to have made a negative impact here by restricting the investigation to the differences between individual, contextual uses of a term without exploring the structural and often genetically traceable interrelationships between the different uses. Yet, the German term Bedeutung as a paradigma would be ideal for an investigation into how the various contextual meanings of a term arise out of each other according to general laws of (for the most part metonymical) shifts in meaning.

2To begin with, some instances of the customary interpretation. According to Tugendhat (1976: 148), Frege “deviates from ordinary usage” and designates “the object as the Bedeutung of the expression.” This is — surely against his better judgment — timeless and universal thinking. What is decisive is not “ordinary usage” today and in any particular region, but rather how the term was used in Frege’s day and region.

3Bell (1980: 193) goes still further. He considers Frege’s terminology eccentric and in the case of Bedeutung “not a suggestive extension of its normal use, but a straightforward misuse.”

4In spite of Bell’s great admiration of Frege, the ‘principle of charity’ is not in effect here. The arbitrariness of signs is a conviction of many linguists. It is not an ideal among mathematicians and logicians. At least, it was not in Frege’s day.

5Frege’s colleague, Hilbert (1901: 295), took the view that new signs are to be selected for new concepts in such manner that “they call to mind the phenomena that gave rise to the formation of the new concepts.”

6Angelelli (1967,1978) is of the opinion that Frege’s term, when used in sentences, should occasionally be rendered as ‘importance’ in English. Tugendhat (1970, 1975) pursues this approach:

Since Frege obviously did not understand by 'Bedeutung' what the word means in normal semantical contexts, we should expect the second (!) not specifically semantical, sense (of ‘importance’, ‘significance’) of the word to have had some weight with him when he chose this word in order to introduce a new concept into semantics (1970: 178).

7Tugendhat therefore suggests ‘significance’ as the English translation since it “is used more or less like the German word Bedeutung in the sense of ‘meaning’ as well as that of ‘importance’.” According to Tugendhat, the importance of linguistic utterances lies in their “truth-value potential”: names, for example, “are significant insofar as they refer to something of which the predicate can be true or false.”

8Tugendhat’s argumentation of 1970, slightly modified in a Postskript 1975, sounds somewhat like a secondary rationalization which may in itself be tenable and consistent, but for which historical-literary indices remain weak. In Über Sinn und Bedeutung (1892), which Frege himself (1891: 14) declared the key text for his terminology, he does not introduce his use of Bedeutung on the basis of sentences as in Funktion und Begriff (1891), a paper he himself considered wanting foundation, nor as Tugendhat does, via the adjective bedeutungsvoll, but rather on the basis of names and via the verbs bedeuten and bezeichnen (‘to designate’), whereby the latter verb obviously determines in which sense the former is to be understood. Neither verb, used with a transitive object, is in any way connected with ‘importance’. Frege (1892: 40f.) uses the adjective bedeutungslos for names that do not designate a thing, i.e. directly in the sense of ‘non-designative’. Frege’s explicit introduction of Bedeutung 1892 does not, however, exclude the possibility that, by extending the term to other modes of expression (sentence, predicate), other components of meaning and connotation begin to dominate, in other words, that the concept is subsequently restructured so that the “name-bearer relation” is no longer necessarily prototypical of the use of the term. Tugendhat’s reference to significance as an analogon to Bedeutung is also noteworthy, not because the two terms share a (tertiary) use in the sense of ‘importance’, but rather because they both derive from verbs that express designation.

9The Grimm Brothers (1854) not only list the Latin correlate of bedeuten, significare, but also, among others, the German equivalent bezeichnen. The notable instances that are cited include:

aber scandalum ist auch schand und bedeut(et) ein(en) (!) strauchstein, den einer einem darlegt, das er darüber fall (Keisersberg, ca. 1500, cited in Grimm).
but scandalum is also shame and denotes a stumbling block that one person lays before another, that he may stumble over it.

die bedeutendsten Personen sind mit Papierschnitzchen bedeutet (Goethe, cited in Paul/ Betz).
the most important people are indicated with scraps of paper.

10The verb deuten has been passed down mainly in the sense of interpretari (Grimm’s Latin correlate) and is still used in this sense today. There are, however, traditional and dialectal uses which are closely related to the above-mentioned uses of bedeuten and are sometimes identical with it: das Schwert in der Hand deutet den Helden (“the sword in the hand signifies the hero”) (Schiller, quoted in Paul/Betz). In my Swiss dialect, we used as children the verb düte both transitively and intransitively to mean giving each other hints (forbidden in school) by means of mostly nonverbal signs: Ich do der (d’Lösig) düte — literally: Ich tu dir (die Lösung) deuten (I’ll sign (the solution) for you). According to the Schweizerisches Idiotikon (1973), not only deuten, but in some cases bedeuten as well, is used in Swiss dialects in the same sense ‘to indicate through signs,’ namely visually durch Gebärden, Mienen ein Zeichen geben, winken, sich der Zeichensprache bedienen (‘to make a sign through gestures, facial expressions, to wink, to make use of sign language’) and verbally mit Worten u.ä. zeigen, Bezug nehmen (‘to show with words, etc., to refer’). If deuten means as much as ‘to indicate through signs,’ then the addition of the prefix be- yields bedeuten in the sense of bezeichnen (‘to designate’), a use that is also listed in the Idiotikon.

11For advocates of translating Bedeutung as reference, let it be said that, in a text written 1526 by the Swiss Humanist Reformer H. Zwingli, not bedeuten but bedeuten auf was rendered as referre in a Latin translation 1581:

“Das ist min lychnam”, da bedütet “das” uff’s Brot.

12Transphonologized into modern German:

“Das ist mein Leichnam (Leib)”, da bedeutet (verweist) “das” auf das Brot.

13In Rodolphus Gualtherus’ translation (1581):

HOC EST CORPUS MEUM. Hic enim particula vel articulus HOC ad panem refertur.

14In the immediate context of this quotation, Gualtherus translates bedüten as significare, later, in the same context but within the framework of a retranslation in a Hieronymous text, also as repraesentare; and bedütnus (in the sense of ‘sign’, ‘symbol’, in the present context with the connotation of ‘simile’; on the wordformation cf. the analogous Bildnis (‘image’)) as figura aut typus, later also as typus et signum.

So muß “ist” bedütlich oder anderverstendig genomen werden, also: “Das Brot ist min lychnam” für: “Das brot bedütet minen lychnam” oder: “ist ein bedütnus mines lychnams”.

15Transphonologized into modern German:

so muß “ist” bedeutlich (figürlich (Zwingli’s synonym for bedütlich), figuratively, symbolically) und anderverständig (in anderem Verstand, in another understanding, metaphorically) genommen werden, also: “Das Brot ist mein Leichnam“ für: “Das Brot bedeutet meinen Leichnam” oder: “ist ein Bedeutnis (sign, simile) meines Leichnams”.

16In the translation by Gualtherus:

Cum ergo verbum EST substantive sumi non possit idem illud tropice vel figuram sumi oportet, hoc modo, Hic panis est Corpus meum, id est, Panis hic corpus meum significat, vel corporis mei figura aut typus est.

17Instead of bedütnus, Zwingli also uses Zeichen in comparable contexts as well as the combinations ein Zeichen und bedütnus and ein Zeichen, bedütnus und gedechtnus (Gualtherus: typus, signum, figuram aut monumentum), and finally bedütung (in the combination, bedütung und vermanung; Gualtherus: signum vel figuram).

18Zwingli associates the adjective bedütlich with sinn (‘sense’) and the participle bedütend (other contemporaries, the adjective as well) with Zeichen (‘sign’). One of these passages is of particular relevance:

(...,) das er hie “fleisch und blut“ nimpt für “brot und wyn”, die bedüteten ding für das bedütend Zeichen. Und das heißt den Griechen metonymia oder catachresis.
Gualtherus: alio modo accipi impossibile est quam ut carnem et sanguinem pro pane et vino, signa nimirum pro rebus signatis poni intelligamus. Atqui hanc loquendi formulam Graeci Metonymiam vel Catachresim dicere consueverunt.

19The use of bedeuten in the sense of bezeichnen (‘to designate’) is also evident in the following passage:

Item, daß er (Christus) sich selbs(t), Mat. 21. (44) durch das Wort ‘stein’ bedütet (.. .)
Gualtherus: Similiter cum apud Mattaeum cap. 21. seipsum lapidem esse dicens, (. ..)

20In translating a Latin Hieronymus text, Zwingli himself renders typicum as bedütlich, praefiguratio as vorbedütung, and repraesentare as bedüten oder äfren (to imitate), after previously having rendered bedütet as significat.

(.. da Ambrosius) ouch “ist” für “bedütet” verstanden hatt, “est” pro “significat.

21When Zwingli speaks of the meaning of Biblical expressions, for example, that in a Biblical context ist has often the meaning of bedeutet, he makes exclusive use of the noun sinn.

22Zwingli replies to his denominational opponents like a modern language analyst:

(. . .,) dann sy (sie) weder grammatica, mit urloub (Verlaub), noch logica recht besehen hauend.
Gualtherus: (cum nemini non manifestum sit,) ipsos nec grammaticae nec Logicae rationem observasse aliquam.

23Zwingli’s tract Eine klare Unterrichtung vom Nachtmahl Christi (‘A Clear Instruction of the Last Supper’), from whose “third article” all the instances above have been cited, offers — thanks to its subject matter and also to Gualtherus’ Latin translation — the most impressive evidence for the use of bedeuten in the sense of ‘to designate’ and ‘to refer.’ Furthermore, the Schweizerisches Idiotikon, which includes some of these quotations in its list of examples, is the German language dictionary that presents the most comprehensive explication of and evidence for the use of bedeuten in the sense of ‘to give signs’, ‘to refer’ and ‘to designate’, which even precedes the use in the sense of ‘to have a certain meaning’. In other respects as well, it is clearly the most comprehensive dictionary of the German language after the Grimm Brothers’ dictionary.

24Frege did not live in the 16th century, nor did he live in Switzerland. But other dictionaries, including those cited above by the Grimm Brothers and Paul/ Betz, contain sufficient evidence that the use of bedeuten overlaps with that of bezeichnen (‘to designate’) in more northern regions of the German language as well and also as late as the 19th century. The Schwäbisches Wörterbuch (1901) also lists beziehen (‘to refer to’) as one meaning of bedeuten auf and illustrates this with a quotation from the Augsburg Chronicles (undated):

Doch wollten die auf lutterischen Seithen die Sachen gancz anderst auslegen und auf den Landtgrafen von Hessen bedeuten.

25In philosophical literature there is a relevant passage in Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (B 185), although — as is to be expected in Kant — it cannot be disambiguated in its context:

Also sind die Schemate der reinen Verstandesbegriffe die wahren und einzigen Bedingungen, diesen eine Beziehung auf Objekte, mithin Bedeutung zu verschaffen, (...)

26The Hoch- und Nieder-deutsches Wörterbuch der mittleren und neueren Zeit (1874) lists among others the verbs significare, de-, pre-signare, denotare, exponere, indicare (without examples) as Latin equivalents of bedeuten. Relevant in this respect is the statement in Paul/Betz that the noun Bedeutung was used “formerly, in a wider range, corresponding to the different uses of the verb.”

27Moreover, there is Frege’s own introduction (1892) of his use of Bedeutung via the participle Bezeichnetes and the verb bezeichnen.

Es liegt nahe, mit einem Zeichen (Namen, Wortverbindung, Schriftzeichen) außer dem Bezeichneten, was die Bedeutung des Zeichens heißen möge, noch das verbunden zu denken, was ich den Sinn des Zeichens nennen möchte, worin die Art des Gegebenseins enthalten ist. (1892: 26)
Ein Eigenname (Wort, Zeichen, Zeichenverbindung, Ausdruck) drückt aus seinen Sinn und bedeutet oder bezeichnet seine Bedeutung. Wir drucken mit einem Zeichen dessen Sinn aus und bezeichnen mit ihm dessen Bedeutung. (1892: 31)

28To what extent Frege’s use of these words was generally accepted and understandable or already considered old-fashioned and/or regional in his day must be left open for want of broader investigation of the terms in question. Contemporary dictionaries seem to have been more interested in historical usage than in that of their own time.

29To my knowledge, the only explicit contemporary evidence that Bedeutung was still used colloquially at the turn of the century for the referent of an expression is again to be found in philosophical literature, in Husserl (1901: 1st Investigation, § 15). Husserl, who took into account the ordinary use of his philosophical terms more than meets the eye today, rejects Frege’s use of Bedeutung not because he feels that it “deviates from ordinary usage”, but because for him Sinn and Bedeutung are gleichbedeutende words, even as regards their equivocalities, and should therefore be used equivalently as well. In listing the equivocalities of Bedeutung and of Sinn (which is still more surprising today, since we are in a sense confined by the technical fixation of all these ambiguous and flexible terms), he also includes their use for what he himself calls der gegenständliche Bezug (‘the objective reference’) of terms.

Wir fügen gleich bei, daß beide Termini (Sinn und Bedeutung) im wissenschaftlichen nicht minder als im gemeinen (!) Sprachgebrauch mit denselben Äquivokationen behaftet sind, die wir oben bei der Rede vom Ausgedrücktsein unterschieden haben (nämlich: “(1) der Inhalt als intendierender Sinn oder als Sinn, Bedeutung schlechthin, (2) der Inhalt als erfüllender Sinn und (3) der Inhalt als Gegenstand”), wozu sich überdies noch andere hinzugesellen (nämlich: Bezeichnung). In einer der logischen Klarheit sehr nachträglichen Weise faßt man, und nicht selten innerhalb einer und derselben Gedankenreihe, (1) bald die kundgebenden Akte, (2) bald den idealen Sinn, (3) bald die ausgedrückte Gegenständlichkeit als Sinn oder Bedeutung des bezüglichen Ausdrucks. Da es an einer festen terminologischen Sonderung gebricht, so laufen nun die Begriffe selber unklar durcheinander.
We may add that both terms are exposed to the same equivocations, which we distinguished above in connection with the term ‘expression’ (namely “(1) the content as intending sense, or as sense, meaning simpliciter, (2) the content as fulfilling sense, and (3) the content as object”), and that this is so both in scientific and in ordinary (!) speech. Logical clarity is much impaired by the manner in which the sense or meaning of an expression is, often in the same thought-sequence, (1) now looked upon as the acts intimated by it, (2) now as its ideal sense, (3) now as the objective correlate that it expresses. Since fixed terminological landmarks are lacking, the concepts themselves run confusedly into one another.

30The Hoch- und Nieder-deutsches Wörterbuch (1874) also lists the use of Bedeutung more or less in the sense of Frege’s Bezeichnung and includes among others the Latin equivalent signum, which even precedes significantia (significance). Frege uses the verbs bezeichnen and bedeuten as equivalents; not so, the nouns. This can be attributed to the fact that in colloquial and in Frege’s own usage, Bezeichnung (“that by Zeichen, Namen, I here understand any Bezeichnung that represents a proper name, whose Bedeutung also represents a specific object”) is reserved for the signifier and thus excluded from being applied to the signatum.

31Long & White (1980) are, to my knowledge, the only Frege exegetes who — in the context of the verb bedeuten — see a relation between Frege’s use of Bedeutung and “its familiar everyday use.” They further take the view that Frege’s technical use of Bedeutung after 1890 was contained in his earlier use, which corresponds to ordinary usage today, and that Frege occasionally reverted to his earlier use after 1890 as well. On the basis of these and other arguments, they decided to translate Bedeutung throughout as meaning. Moreover, it is their aim as translators to place the English reader, whenever possible, in a position comparable to that in which a German reader of Frege’s texts finds himself. Here however, a distinction must be made between German-language readers of Frege today and his contemporary readers.

32In order to clarify Frege’s use of Bedeutung for the English-language reader, the term signification is useful. Traditionally and until the start of the 20th century, the ambiguity of the ordinary use of bedeuten and its cognates in the sense of ‘to designate, refer to’ and ‘to mean’ coincided with that of significare, its cognates and modern successors, also as regards the gradual suppression of the first meaning by the second. In addition to this ambiguity, bedeuten also shares the misunderstandings to which significare and its cognates are subjected, among which the occasional interpretation of Saussure’s signifié as referent is the most familiar. A Rumanian translation of Frege’s Über Sinn und Bedeutung uses a cognate of significatio to translate Frege’s Bedeutung: ‘Sens si semnificatie’.

33The Greek verb semaînein has a similar ambigouos meaning structure. In Aristotle it has to be interpreted, according to Coseriu (1979), in certain contexts in the sense of ‘to designate’ (‘to refer to’) and in others in the sense of ‘to mean’.

34The analogy between bedeuten and to signify extends beyond the two primary modes of use in philosophical texts, which is hardly surprising considering their meaning structure. Via a familiar metonymical shift in meaning, both terms have acquired the additional meaning of to be important. If something has far-reaching consequences, it is not only bedeutend/bezeichnend (significant/ indicative (of these consequences)) but also important. According to Paul/Betz bedeutend was “one of Goethe’s favorite words, who also determined the shift from ‘indicative’ (bezeichnend) to ‘important, big’.”

35The most important common applications of bedeuten and of to signify cannot be derived from the semantic use currently dominant in philosophy. Rather, they are more comprehensible partly as contextual restrictions, partly as metonymic shifts, if one goes back to ‘to give signs, indicate with signs’ as the primary (semiotic) meaning: the referential use (scandalum bedeutet einen Strauchstein; scandalum signifies a stumbling block), the intensional use (scandalum bedeutet — so viel wie — ‘stumbling block’; scandalum signifies — as much as — ‘stumbling block’), the presignative use (Wolken bedeuten Regen; clouds signify rain), the consecutive use in the sense of ‘to be the consequence of,’ which converges with the pragmatic — behaviorist interpretation of linguistic expressions (Die negative Entscheidung bedeutet, dass wir aussteigen; the negative decision signifies that we withdraw), the communicative use in the sense of ‘to make known, make clear’ (Sie bedeutete mit einem Nicken, dass sie einverstanden ist; she signified that she agreed by nodding), and the above-mentioned use in the sense of ‘to be important’ (Es bedeutet wenig; it signifies little). The use of significant in the sense of ‘characteristic’ seems to have been shared only temporarily by bedeutend in contrast to bezeichnend (examples in Paul/Betz). Conversely, the use of bedeuten in the imperative sense tends to be shared in English by the verb ‘to sign’ (Sie bedeutete mir zu kommen; she signed me to come).

36The parallelization of the use of Bedeutung with that of significatio(n) is not intended to suggest that translating Bedeutung as ‘signification’ throughout Frege’s texts would pose no new problems. ‘To signify’ and ‘signification’ are no longer used as commonly in semantic contexts, as for example in Locke, who used these expressions in a referential sense. If tradition is taken as a model, then one can be liberal and translate Bedeutung with ‘reference’ — if this is appropriate to the context, as Gualtherus already did in the 16th century. This philological investigation of the use of Bedeutung common up to the turn of the century and its correlation with that of significatio(n) was only intended to provide the modern reader of Frege with a neglected guideline to his prima facie confusing use of Bedeutung. 1


  • 1 My thanks go to Peter Dalcher, Hans-Ulrich Hoche, Ruth Jörg, Otto Neumaier and Catherine Schelbert for their critical comments on earlier versions of this paper. A German version will appear in the Austrian journal Conceptus (1983).


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Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Philosophie 3

Bedeutung und Bezeichnung bei Aristoteles


Eugenio Coseriu

Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 32

Über Sinn und Bedeutung


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Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik 100

Sens si semnificatie


Gottlob Frege

in: Logică şi filozofie orientări în logica modernă şi fundamentele matematicii, Bucharest : Editura politica

Mathematische Probleme


David Hilbert

in: Gesammelte Abhandlungen III, Berlin : Springer

Deutsches Wörterbuch


Hermann Paul

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Die Bedeutung des Ausdrucks "Bedeutung" bei Frege


Ernst Tugendhat

in: Studien zu Frege III, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt : frommann-holzboog

De coena domini


Huldreich Zwingli

in: Operum D. Huldrychi Zvinglii tomus secundus, Zürich : Froschauer

Eine klare Unterrichtung vom Nachtmahl Christi


Huldreich Zwingli

in: Sämtliche Werke IV, Leipzig : Heinsius

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The meaning of "Bedeutung" in Frege: A philological approach


Elmar Holenstein

in: History of semiotics, Amsterdam : Benjamins