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Cycle of the growth and development.

For philosophers oriented toward formalism, the advent of modern symbolic logic in the late 19th century was a watershed in the history of philosophy, because it added greatly to the class of statements and inferences that could be represented in formal (i.e., axiomatic) languages. The formal representation of these statements provided insight into their underlying logical structures; at the same time, it helped to dispel certain philosophical puzzles that had been created, in the view of the formalists, through the tendency of earlier philosophers to mistake surface grammatical form for logical form. Because of the similarity of sentences such as “Tigers bite” and “Tigers exist,” for example, the verb to exist may seem to function, as other verbs do, to predicate something of the subject. It may seem, then, that existence is a property of tigers, just as their biting is. In symbolic logic, however, existence is not a property; it is a higher-order function that takes so-called “propositional functions” as values. Thus, when the propositional function “Tx”—in which T stands for the predicate “…is a tiger” and x is a variable replaceable with a name—is written beside a symbol known as the existentialquantifier—∃xmeaning “There exists at least one x such that…”—the result is a sentence that means “There exists at least one x such that x is a tiger.” The fact that existence is not a property in symbolic logic has had important philosophical consequences, one of which has been to show that the ontological argument for the existence of God, which has puzzled philosophers since its invention in the 11th century by St. Anselm of Canterbury, is unsound.

Among 19th-century figures who contributed to the development of symbolic logic were the mathematicians George Boole (1815–64), the inventor of Boolean algebra, and Georg Cantor (1845–1918), the creator of set theory. The generally recognized founder of modern symbolic logic is Gottlob Frege (1848–1925), of the University of Jena in Germany. Frege, whose work was not fully appreciated until the mid-20th century, is historically important principally for his influence on Russell, whose program of logicism (the doctrine that the whole of mathematics can be derived from the principles of logic) had been attempted independently by Frege some 25 years before the publication of Russell’s principal logicist works, Principles of Mathematics (1903) and Principia Mathematica(1910–13; written in collaboration with Russell’s colleague at the University of Cambridge Alfred North Whitehead).