Talking about things

The first difficulty concerns the relationship between the metaphysical structure of reality and the structure of reality as language seemingly supposes it to be. The assumption on which Augustine and the Platonists proceeded was that particular objects perceptible to the senses which can conveniently be labelled with words are substances secondary to forms, ideas and universals, which are themselves dependent upon a divine reality. This metaphysics is reversed by the practice of grammarians and logicians, for whom the naming of particulars naturally comes first..5 It is not even necessary for grammarians and logicians to postulate the actual existence of any generality or universal to make language work. William of Conches, writing as a twelfth-century grammarian, says in his commentary on Priscian that proper names signify particular substances with their individual qualities. If we want to use a name to signify a universal substance we simply understand it to signify a common quality, so that such a term will do for any individual of that sort. William believes that it is not necessary for any such general thing to exist for it to be possible to use words intelligibly in this way. For the logicians, Boethius had said in writing on the Isagoge of Porphyry (and indebted to Alexander of Aphrodisias) that universals are thoughts which have a derivation from the nature of things which can be perceived by the senses.

It is an irony that although Boethius thought it did not matter for practical purposes whether or not 'things-in-general' actually exist, he set in

KNOWING AND LANGUAGE train centuries of mediaeval endeavour to settle the point. For mediaeval grammarians and logicians the problem which it was a practical necessity to solve was the complex one of the significative behaviour of words. A word must have an impositio, a primary signification, or it cannot be a word at all, for words are distinguished from mere sounds by being significant. It may have several such impositions, and then it will be equivocal. Porphyry agrees with Scripture in describing a particular occasion when all names of first imposition were given to things, as Adam named the animals. But the same word-form may have more than one signification in a different way, where one signification is on a different level from another. If I say 'Peter is a man', I am using 'man' to refer to the species, not to the individual. Or I may use 'man' differently again when I say that '"man" is a noun', or differently again in saying '"man" is a word of one syllable'. It is a relatively straightforward matter to indicate what is happening in modern typography by using inverted commas. But the Stoics struggled to identify these differences without such aids, and in the mediaeval Latin West it was necessary to resort to devices involving a special technical vocabulary, in which higherorder significations are called nominationes or appellationes. It became important to determine the 'supposition', that is, the particular way in which a word was being used in a given context, so that first impositions should not be confused with other impositions.

The recognition that the context in which a word is used makes a difference to its signification proved to be of supreme importance in the development of 'terminist' logic from the end of the twelfth century.6 The first step was to reconcile Aristotle's rule that there is no need to look beyond nouns and verbs in classifying parts of speech with the eight parts of speech identified by the Roman grammarians. This was done by distinguishing 'categorematic' words, that is, words which signify in their own right (nouns and verbs, which signify substances), from words which signify only in conjunction with categorematic terms. These syncategoremata are prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, and so on.7

When syncategorematic words are brought into play it becomes natural to take the propositio rather than the component words as the basic unit of meaning. The problem which now becomes interesting is that of the relationship between the meaning which is the word's essentia orforma (which must always lie behind the signification it carries in a particular context because it is its natural property); and the notion that it is the whole proposition together which signifies. To this was added the question we have already met, whether what is signified must be true or really exist in order to be signified at all. A favourite schoolroom example here was the

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES use of the word chimaera to signify an animal agreed to be mythical. At a deeper level the issue includes the case of universals and the question whether we could speak of them at all if they did not exist.

By the second half of the thirteenth century the terminists who had pioneered work in these areas were beginning to give way to 'modists'. Modist logicians explored not only 'modes of signifying' (modi significandi), but also 'modes of understanding' (modi intelligendi) and 'modes of being' (modi essendi) (all of this being envisaged as in line with the three operations of the soul described by Aristotle in the De Anima). They asked whether words could lose their signification and whether there can exist classes with no members, and other questions designed to challenge existing explanations.

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