Frege-Russell and Mathematical Identity

Frege considered it a principal task of his logical reform of arithmetic to provide absolutely determinate identity conditions for the objects of that science, i.e. for numbers. Referring to the contemporary situation in this discipline he writes:

How I propose to improve upon it can be no more than indicated in the present work. With numbers … it is a matter of fixing the sense of an identity.

Frege makes the following critically important assumption : identity is a general logical concept, which is not specific to mathematics. Frege says:

It is not only among numbers that the relationship of identity is found. From which it seems to follow that we ought not to define it specially for the case of numbers. We should expect the concept of identity to have been fixed first, and that then from it together with the concept of number it must be possible to deduce when numbers are identical with one another, without there being need for this purpose of a special definition of numerical identity as well.

In a different place Frege says clearly that this concept of identity is absolutely stable across all possible domains and contexts:

Identity is a relation given to us in such a specific form that it is inconceivable that various forms of it should occur.

Frege’s definition of natural number, as modified in Russell (Bertrand Russell – Principles of Mathematics) later became standard. Intuitively the number 3 is what all collections consisting of three members (trios) share in common. Now instead of looking for a common form, essence or type of trios let us simply consider all such things together. According to Frege and Russell the collection (class, set) of all trios just is the number 3. Similarly for other numbers. Isn’t this construction circular? Frege and Russell provide the following argument which they claim allows us to avoid circularity here: given two different collections we may learn whether or not they have the same number of members without knowing this number and even without the notion of number itself. It is sufficient to find a one-one correspondence between members of two given collections. If there is such a correspondence, the two collections comprise the same number of members, or to avoid any reference to numbers we can say that the two collections are equivalent. This equivalence is Humean. Let us define natural numbers as equivalence classes under this relation. This definition reduces the question of identity of numbers to that of identity of classes. This latter question is settled through the axiomatization of set theory in a logical calculus with identity. Thus Frege’s project is realized: it has been seen how the logical concept of identity applies to numbers. In an axiomatic setting “identities” in Quine’s sense (that is, identity conditions) of mathematical objects are provided by an axiom schema of the form

∀x ∀y (x=y ↔ ___ )

called the Identity Schema (IS). This does not resolve the identity problem though because any given system of axioms, generally speaking, has multiple models. The case of isomorphic models is similar to that of equal numbers or coincident points (naively construed): there are good reasons to think of isomorphic models as one and there is also good reason to think of them as many. So the paradox of mathematical “doubles” reappears. It is a highly non-trivial fact that different models of Peano arithmetic, ZF, and other important axiomatic systems are not necessarily isomorphic. Thus logical analysis à la Frege-Russell certainly clarifies the mathematical concepts involved but it does not settle the identity issue as Frege believed it did. In the recent philosophy of mathematics literature the problem of the identity of mathematical objects is usually considered in the logical setting just mentioned: either as the problem of the non-uniqueness of the models of a given axiomatic system or as the problem of how to fill in the Identity Schema. At the first glance the Frege-Russell proposal concerning the identity issue in mathematics seems judicious and innocent (and it certainly does not depend upon the rest of their logicist project): to stick to a certain logical discipline in speaking about identity (everywhere and in particular in mathematics).


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