Cheney, Resignation and Frege
US News and World Report says that rumors are flying in Washington that Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney may resign because he was closely involved in the discussions with his chief of staff Irving Lewis Libby and with Bush adviser Karl Rove on the decision to out covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson to the press.
It seems increasingly clear that Rove, Libby and perhaps Cheney decided that they could get around a 1982 law making it illegal for a US government official to reveal the name of a covert intelligence operative, by not actually using her name, but rather referring to her as “Joe Wilson’s wife.” Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV had outed to the public in May of 2003 the fact that the administration was given reasons to doubt the WMD stories about Iraq before the war. Cheney’s circle saw Wilson’s op-ed as treason and also appear to have believed that the CIA was out to make them the fall guys for the bad intel. So if they decided to send a signal to the CIA that its field officers were vulnerable and could be outed at will, that would make sense as a riposte.
The strategy of calling Valerie Plame Wilson “Joe Wilson’s wife” rather than naming her is a lawyer’s strategy. It allowed Karl Rove to tell White House spokesman Scott McClellan that no one in the White House had revealed VPW’s name to the press. As late as last week it seems clear that Irving Lewis Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, was still hoping to get New York Times reporter Judith Miller to tell special council Patrick Fitzgerald that Libby had not revealed Plame Wilson’s actual name.
The problem with the strategy is that the philosopher Gottlob Frege had already in 1891 demonstrated that even though there might be a difference between the sense or connotation of two phrases, their referent could be the same. His famous example is “the morning star” and “the evening star.” Both of these phrases have the same referent, which is the planet Venus.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us that when he first started working on the problem of sense and reference, he considered the possibility that two terms that refer ultimately to the same object might not actually be equivalent. But as he worked through the problem, he began to see that they were.
‘In his mature period, however, Frege was an ardent opponent of this view, and argued in favor of understanding “=” as identity proper, accusing rival views of confusing form and content. He argues instead that expressions such as “4 x 2” and “11 – 3” can be understood as standing for one and the same thing, the number eight, but that this single entity is determined or presented differently by the two expressions. Thus, he makes a distinction between the actual number a mathematical expression such as “4 x 2” stands for, and the way in which that number is determined or picked out. The former he called the reference (Bedeutung) of the expression, and the latter was called the sense (Sinn) of the expression. In Fregean terminology, an expression is said to express its sense, and denote or refer to its reference.
The distinction between reference and sense was expanded, primarily in “Über Sinn und Bedeutung” as holding not only for mathematical expressions, but for all linguistic expressions (whether the language in question is natural language or a formal language). One of his primary examples therein involves the expressions “the morning star” and “the evening star”. Both of these expressions refer to the planet Venus, yet they obviously denote Venus in virtue of different properties that it has. Thus, Frege claims that these two expressions have the same reference but different senses. The reference of an expression is the actual thing corresponding to it, in the case of “the morning star”, the reference is the planet Venus itself. The sense of an expression, however, is the “mode of presentation” or cognitive content associated with the expression in virtue of which the reference is picked out.
Frege puts the distinction to work in solving a puzzle concerning identity claims. If we consider the two claims:
(1) the morning star = the morning star
(2) the morning star = the evening star
The first appears to be a trivial case of the law of self-identity, knowable a priori, while the second seems to be something that was discovered a posteriori by astronomers. However, if “the morning star” means the same thing as “the evening star”, then the two statements themselves would also seem to have the same meaning, both involving a thing’s relation of identity to itself. However, it then becomes to difficult to explain why (2) seems informative while (1) does not. Frege’s response to this puzzle, given the distinction between sense and reference, should be apparent. Because the reference of “the evening star” and “the morning star” is the same, both statements are true in virtue of the same object’s relation of identity to itself. However, because the senses of these expressions are different–in (1) the object is presented the same way twice, and in (2) it is presented in two different ways–it is informative to learn of (2). While the truth of an identity statement involves only the references of the component expressions, the informativity of such statements involves additionally the way in which those references are determined, i.e. the senses of the component expressions. ‘
You wonder whether, if Rove, Libby and Cheney are indicted, it will be because of the work of a nineteenth-century German logician.