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The Terminist Logic of Language

The meaning of a word is its function in a proposition, and some words have the function of "standing for". That may sound somewhat like Philosophical Investigations § 43 ("use in the language and the bearer of a name"); however, there are difficulties with saying that the meaning of a word is a thing the word stands for.

In cases where a standing-for word is a class-name (common name), it stands in the proposition for an individual or for individual things (e.g. 'man' stands for a specific man or a group of men or all men as individuals); universals (classes) exist only in the mind (they are concepts only), not extra-mentally. (This is the "anti-realism" which is defining of nominalism.)

Individuals are known by "intuition" (i.e. direct sense-perception), and our concepts of intuited things are caused by the things themselves (nature). The similarities between members of a class is enough to explain concept formation; essences (e.g. "man-ness" or the defining common quality without which man would not be man) are not needed (This is Ockham's "principle of economy" at work). Socrates and Plato belong to the class 'man' simply because they are more like one another than either is to a donkey (IV, 3, vi).


The meaning of the common name 'man' may possibly be explained by pointing to the bearers of that class-name (but a bearer is not a word's meaning; otherwise when the bearer perished, the word would be without meaning (PI § 40)). But that cannot be said about the words 'love' (which names a class of phenomena) and 'philosophy' (which names a class of thinking). Is the function of the word 'love' in a proposition ever to "stand for" a particular thing or things (as may often be the function of the word 'man', like a chessman on a chessboard, something to point to)? There are three things to point to when a mother caresses her child (namely the mother, the act of caressing, and the child), but there is no fourth thing named 'love' to point to.

Note: the words 'sign', 'term' and 'word' are synonymous, as are the titles 'Ockhamism', 'nominalism' and 'terminism' (IX, 1).

Source for Ockham and nominalism: Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume III: Ockham to Suárez (1953)

Outline of this page ...

The background (or point of view) of this page is the logic of language and the Socratic standard for knowing, the foundations of my thinking in philosophy.

The Origins of Terminist Logic

William of Ockham (or William Ockham) was a Franciscan (III, 3) who used the "terminist" logic -- i.e. the "logic of terms, with its doctrine of signs and of standing-for" (IV, 2) -- in his theological arguments, but he did not invent that logic (IV, 3).

Among Ockham's predecessors was Peter of Spain (born in Lisbon, taught in Paris, later Pope John XXI, died 1277). Peter wrote that

dialectic is carried on only by means of language, and that language involves the use of words. One must begin, then, by considering the word first as a physical entity, secondly as a significant term ...

by 'dialectic' [Peter] meant the art of probable reasoning ... as distinct from demonstrative science on the one hand and sophistical [i.e. fallacious] reasoning on the other.

[Some of Peter's writings] deal with the Aristotelian logic; but others deal with the "modern logic" or logic of terms. (IV, 2)

A sign -- a sound, an ink mark -- as such is without meaning. What gives the sign meaning?

Probable versus Certain Knowledge

Why "probable reasoning"? Because nominalists held "that only those propositions which [are] reducible to the principle of contradiction [i.e. where the negation of the proposition is self-contradictory] are absolutely certain" (IX, 2).

Note that unless a method or standard for measuring probability is stated, then 'probable' means no more than plausible or believable.

Meaning and Standing-for

[Peter] distinguishes the significatio [significatio terminorum ("meaning of a term")] from the suppositio ["the analysis of the different ways in which the terms in a proposition stand for things" (IX, 1)] of terms. The [significatio] of a term consists in the relation of a sign to the thing signified ... (IV, 2)

... in the sentence 'the man is running' the term 'man', which already possesses its significatio acquires the function of standing for (supponere pro) a definite man, whereas in the sentence 'man dies' it stands for all men. One must thus, says Peter, distinguish between significatio and suppositio in as much as the latter presupposes the former. (IV, 2)

What is presupposed if the significatio (i.e. meaning) is presupposed? That "some terms refer directly to reality and have a meaning even when they stand by themselves", for example the terms 'man' and 'butter' (IV, 3, i) (although the term 'man' stands for a specific man or group or all men only in (the context of) a proposition (IV, 3, iii)). That is the relation between "meaning" and "standing for", according to Peter.

The meaning -- this is a selected definition of the word 'meaning' -- of some words is our "intuition" (direct experience) of the thing the word names. Maybe this could be said about the words 'man' and 'butter', but not for words like 'philosophy' and 'love', i.e. the words that interest philosophy. Further, what is the "meaning" of 'the riddle of existence'? The terminist definition of 'meaning', like Wittgenstein's "the meaning of a word is its use in the language", does not point the way to finding the meaning of "the astonishment that anything exists" (which is a proposition about reality not about terms). (Wittgenstein's the meaning = the explanation of meaning, I think, does.)

Two problems with the terminist logic of language (i.e. definition of 'meaning')

First, if "in the sentence 'man dies' the word 'man' stands for all men" that leaves unanswered Plato's question of what the meaning of a "universal term" = common name is: does the common name 'man' mean the similarities among men that justify classifying men as men, i.e. that to define 'man' is to list those myriad similarities? But is that how you learned to use the word 'man' (PI § 43b) -- by being given a list of defining similarities? (Cf. 'thunder')

In practice the question of the meaning of the word 'man' doesn't arise: the concept is in working order if it allows us to get our work done (ibid. § 87). But that reply simply rejects (ibid. § 47) Plato's question as unnecessary, taking Ockham's razor to it.

And second, names of simple objects, in contrast to "abstract terms" (non-name words), are not otherwise the source of perplexity in philosophy.

Nominalism (Conceptualism)

One common factor among the nominalists or Ockhamists was ... the emphasis they laid on the theory of suppositio [the function of "standing for"] ...

[However,] one is justified in speaking about "nominalism" or, if preferred, conceptualism only in the case of philosophers who, like Ockham, maintained that a general term or class-name stands in the proposition for individual things, and [only] for individual things ... [Universals or abstracted essences are concepts only.] (IX, 1)

The view of Plato (and the source of his theory of recollection) is that if we did not know what the essence of man is, we would not be able to identify particular men as belonging to the class 'man'. Ockham, on grounds of (1) experience ("intuition" and "introspection"), (2) method ("Ockham's razor"), and (3) reason (the criterion of self-contradiction), denies Plato's view, but he does not refute it simply by judging it to be superfluous. The principle of economy is not a method of disproof. And if, as Plato says, the essences of things do not exist in the perceptible world, then Plato's view cannot be refuted by experience (i.e. the observable facts). And whether a "universal individual" is self-contradictory is arguable.

"Use in the language"

How does Ockham's logic of language differ from the logic of language of Socrates? It is more developed. When Ockham distinguishes between the words 'man' and 'every', he says what amounts to "the meaning of 'every' is its use in the language"; he does not simply say that the meaning of a word is the thing the word stands for, because even in the proposition 'every man dies' the word 'every' does not stand for a thing named 'every' or an essence (every-ness; cf. 'largeness' in Parmenides 132a).

How is an abstract term defined?

How does Ockham define the word 'justice', for we certainly have no "intuition" of justice (i.e. no direct sense-perception of an object named 'justice')? In the proposition 'Justice is giving every man his due' (Republic 331e-332a), does the word 'justice' stand for anything? It is the logic of ethical terms that interests Socrates, why by induction he seeks to find the essences of justice and piety. Ockham says that only similarities are necessary (to explain concept-formation), but similarities will not stop men from disagreeing and becoming enemies with one another (Euthyphro 7d).

Making the general remarks (1) that justice is only a concept (nothing extra-mental) and (2) that the word 'justice' stands only for individual just acts rather than for a universal object, is not to explain the specific use in the language of the word 'justice'.

[It would be possible to explain the use of the word 'just' in our language using Wittgenstein's primitive language games, beginning with the child's 'That's not fair!' Which is the concept 'equity' ('fairness', 'justice'). Other ethical concepts, e.g. 'piety', might be more challenging.]

Language origin of philosophical problems

Ockham did think that many philosophical problems are created by language (III, 7), e.g. by the transformation of adverbs and other parts of speech into nouns. For example, although men may act justly, there is no thing justice. And if there is no thing named 'justice', then there is no universal quality present in all just acts; such acts are simply similar, and that is why they are all called 'just'.

Universals, Essences, and Plato's Forms

'I don't know what something that is invisible looks like, nor where somewhere that is nowhere is.' Those are rules of grammar; their negations are nonsense. What is imperceptible is inconceivable and incomprehensible from the point of view of perception. We cannot picture Plato's Forms nor say "where" they are. (All this is grammar.)

Alternatively, in the context of the meaning of language, if there are Forms, they are essences and the meaning of a class-name is the essence of the class. An essence is an abstraction -- i.e. a selection, discarding some aspects of perceptible reality (e.g. the shape of Socrates' eyes when defining 'man'). It is therefore not picturable, i.e. it is invisible. Or in other words, the word 'essence' is not the name of an object. There is no "thing" to picture.

Therefore, despite our inclination (when seeking to understand) to reify nouns, in truth by the word 'essence' we mean no more than a strict set of rules (for using a word), or in other words a verbal definition. (Although, generally, we do not use language according to strict rules (BB p. 25); most words do not have essential meanings.)

Conceptualism: universals are concepts, based on similarities alone

The title 'conceptualism' means that universals do not have an extra-conceptual existence, but also that the same concepts, regardless of language, are universal to man (IV, 3, ii).

Similarities or likenesses have extra-mental existence, and so title 'conceptualism' is better than either 'nominalism' or 'terminism', because the latter titles may suggest that nominalists are concerned with mere words (signs, terms or nominals) (I, 2), whereas what concerns them is the terminus conceptus or "term considered according to its meaning or logical significance".

Would these philosophers have agreed with Wittgenstein when he said exclusively:

Philosophical investigations -- conceptual investigations. (Z § 458)

Did the nominalists see themselves as concerned only with concepts? No, but with the question of what it is possible to know, if no ideas are innate, no knowledge a priori. But they answered their question as Wittgenstein had when he spoke of the "civil status" of words (PI § 125) and of thought as "the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language" (ibid. § 108). These are conceptual investigations based on nothing more than the observable facts [cf. Ockham's "intuitions"] of which the use of language is one.

In the fourteenth century [Ockham died in 1349] a change can be observed. Metaphysics, while not abandoned, tends to give place to logic; and questions which were formerly treated as metaphysical questions are treated primarily as logical questions. [On] the subject of universals, [Ockham] places the emphasis on the logical aspects of the question, on the suppositio [the function of "standing for"] and significatio terminorum ["the logical status and function of terms", i.e. the meaning of words] rather than on the ontological aspects. (I, 2)

Conventional signs and Natural signs (concepts)

[The word 'man' is a "conventional sign". That it has a] particular meaning or exercises [a] particular sign-function is a matter of convention. [We can compare the English word 'man' with its equivalent word in a foreign language (e.g. the Italian uomo): these words are different conventional signs. And so Ockham distinguishes between a conventional sign and a natural sign.] The natural sign is a concept. [Regardless of whether an English or a foreign language word] the concept or logical significance of the term is the same. The words [signs] are different, but [their] meaning is the same.

Ockham distinguished ... both the spoken word (terminus prolatus) and the written word (terminus scriptus) from the concept (terminus conceptus ...) ... that is, the term [sign, word] considered according to its meaning or logical significance. (History III, IV, 3, ii)

"Concepts arise naturally"

Ockham called the concept or terminus conceptus a "natural sign" because he thought that the direct apprehension of anything causes naturally in the human mind a concept of that thing .... the intellect "can elicit [abstract] qualities to signify any sort of thing naturally". Perceiving a cow results in the formation of the same idea or "natural sign" ... in the mind of the Englishman and of [the foreign language speaker]. (Idem.)

Against Ockham's "concepts are caused by nature": the English word 'beautiful' and the Greek kalos; the absence of a word for blue (as distinct from green) in the ancient Greek language. These are anomalies (also for the "theory of abstraction").

Ockham as nominalist

... when Ockham is called a "nominalist" [this is because] he ascribed universality [not to words considered as spoken or written signs, but] to terms considered as ... natural signs [universal human concepts], the terminus conceptus [the sign as used in the language] ... (Idem.)

The Term and the Proposition

Terms are elements of propositions ... and it is only in the proposition that a term acquires the function of "standing for" (suppositio). For example, in the statement 'the man is running' the term 'man' stands for a precise individual .... But in the statement 'man [dies]' the term 'man' stands for all men .... Finally, in the statement 'Man is a noun' one is speaking of the word itself [suppositio materialis]. Taken in itself the term 'man' is capable of exercising any of these functions; but it is only in a proposition that it actually acquires a determinate type ... Suppositio, then, is "a property belonging to a term, but only in a proposition". (IV, 3, iii)

In the proposition 'The good man harms no one', does the word 'man' stand for all men? And in 'Piety is man's duty to God', does 'piety' stand for all pious acts (and there is no thing named 'piety')?

Since propositions are the not the only language forms that are used in our life (e.g. questions and exclamations), it should be "in (the context of) a specific use of language" rather than "in a proposition".

Signs | Stand-for | Definition

"In the statement 'man is mortal' the term [sign or word] ... stands for things [namely, all individual men] which are not themselves signs [i.e. concepts only] .... But in the statement ['colt and filly are sub-classes of horse', the terms 'colt' and 'filly'] do not stand immediately for things which are not themselves signs: [they] stand for class-names. (IV, 4, iv)

In the proposition 'the classes 'colt' and 'filly' are sub-classes of the class 'horse'', the signs 'colt' and 'filly' do not directly stand for all colts and all fillies. They do not stand for the suppositio materialis (e.g. 'The word 'filly' has five letters') either, however. That's if I understand Copleston aright, which I don't think I do (The example I've used here is mine). I also don't know if Ockham is here making the distinction between a statement of fact and a definition (rule of grammar or rule for using a word, which is what the proposition 'The word 'filly' is a class-name' is, and 'The word 'filly' has five letters' is not).

The terminist meaning of a word

To the question "What is the meaning of a word?" (BB p. 1) Ockham's answer is: the meaning of a word is its function in a proposition, where function sometimes = its particular kind of "standing for" (suppositio), although the word 'every', unlike the word 'butter', does not ever stand for anything.

And so Wittgenstein's statement that "Nominalists make the mistake of interpreting all words as names ..." (PI § 383) seems to be false, and it may in some cases be false even if Wittgenstein had said 'nouns' rather than 'words'. (Is the word 'soul' a name other than syntactically for Ockham: does it ever have the function of "standing for"?)

The meaning of the term 'every' is explained by describing its possible functions (uses) in a proposition. And the meaning of the term 'man' is explained by direct experience ("intuition"). Further, unlike the term 'every', the term 'man' can, in the context of a proposition, "stand for" (suppositio) an extra-mental (or extra-conceptual) thing, either a individual man or a group of individual men or all individual men. What it cannot "stand for", however, according to Ockham, is a universal (the class 'man' considered as such in contrast to its members considered as individuals), because only individuals exist and only what exists extra-mentally (or extra-conceptually) (which "man as such" or "man in general" does not) can be "stood for". (Plato's view is that the universal cannot exist in the perceptible world, not that it cannot exist at all.)

When a word "stands for" a thing that is outside the mind -- is that thing the word's meaning? In the proposition 'the man is running', is the individual who is running the meaning of the word 'man'? Does the word 'king' stand for a chessman on the chessboard -- and then at "checkmate" (death of the king) does the word 'king' lose its meaning (PI § 40)? What is the relation between"standing for" and the meaning of a word (and the explanation of the meaning of the word)?

If I say that the word 'every' is a modifier, I am describing its use in the language. "We are not analyzing a phenomenon [e.g. every-ness] but a concept [e.g. 'every'], and therefore the use of a word" (ibid. § 383). Plato's view is the opposite.

Logic is about thoughts, not real things

Ockham divides science into real science and rational science. Rational science (logic) is about terms which do not stand for real things. It is important to maintain this distinction: otherwise concepts or terms will be confused with things. For example, if one does not realize that Aristotle's intention in the Categories was to treat of words and concepts and not of things, one will misinterpret him. Logic is concerned with terms which cannot exist sine ratione, that is, without the mind's activity; it deals, therefore, with mental "fabrications". (History III, IV, 4 paraphrase)

William of Ockham had a strong belief in the primacy of intuition ... of the individual thing: all real knowledge [real science] is ultimately founded on intuitive knowledge of individual existents. (I, 2)

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