The Problem of Meaning

Part of the Synthese Historical Library book series (SYHL, volume 1)


Having established that the purpose of studying the criterion of truth of speech is logical inquiry, the need inevitably arises, for Abelard, to make a preliminary examination of the meaning of the elements that constitute an ‘oratio’.1 It has in fact been clearly stated that the task of logic is the construction of a ‘propositio vera’ and that the study of the complex element of the expression justifies and requires the study of the atomic elements of which it is composed.2 The ‘significatio’ thus comes to be one of the fundamental factors of dialectic inquiry; though not the purpose of this latter, it is nonetheless a vital introduction to the problem of truth.3


Logical Inquiry Copulative Function Reidel Publishing Company Nominative Plane Appellative Function 
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  1. 1.
    D., p. 121 (5–7).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    G.G., pp. 111, 307 (20–3).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The comments on the Isagoge, the Categorie and the greater part of the comments on De Interpretatione deal with the problem of the meaning of terms.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    D., p. 121 (4).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    G.L., p. 76; D., p. 111 (13–6).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    “…Omnis vox est significativa quia generat intellectum de suo prolatore in auditorem, id est facit signum auditori se esse prolatum ab aliquo animali… significativum hoc modo est restringendum ad hoc ut sit differentia vocis in diffinitione nominis: significativum est generans intellectum auditori de aliqua re recepta praeter suum prolatorem…” (G.L., p. 76 (13–7)).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    G.G., p. 136 (29).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    G.G., pp. 339 (20)-40 (6).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    G.G., p. 112 (40).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Abelard uses ‘terminus’ in the sense of ‘meta’: “Partes terminos, id est metas, nominamus…” (D., p. 164 (6)).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    G.G., p. 112 (29)-3 (3).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Abelard uses the term ‘causa impositionis’ in two senses: the first that of ‘causa comune oggettiva’, or that aspect of things that legitimizes an ‘impositio’; (see G.G., p. 19 (15)); the second suggests instead “the end for which an imposition has come about” and is constituted by the ‘intellectus’ that a noun signifies (see G.G., p. 112(37–41).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    G.G., p. 307 (27).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    It is vital in this respect to see what Abelard means by ‘intellectus’, which means that one must refer to his last gnoseological doctrine. The most exhaustive description is contained in the comment on De Interpretatione of the Ingredien-tibus (G.G., pp. 312ff.). One can see how Abelard expounds his considerations by following those of Boetius (G.G., pp. 313–6 passim), from which he takes and recomposes the fragments of Aristotle’s conception, to which, through the same Boetius, he frequently appeals. From Priscian and Boetius Abelard also derives brief documentations on the Platonic conception of the cognoscitive faculties (G.G., pp. 314 (14–24), 315 (26–8)), which he does not accept, however, and discards in favour of the Aristotelian assertions. A further source of the Abelardian exposition in respect of the cognoscitive process is indicated in the Rhetorica ad Herennium (G.G., p. 314 (7–12)), in which fragments of the Stoic cognoscitive theory were possibly present (see Sikes, Peter Abailard, Oxford 1933, pp. 108–10). It seems to me that the following points emerge from the Abelardian exposition: (a) the distinction between intellect on the one hand, and sense and imagination on the other, on a basis of the ‘irrationality’ of the last two (G.G., p. 113 (16–7). It is clear in what these consist from the considerations which follow, from which it emerges that while sense and imagination, referring respectively to the physical ‘res’ and to an ‘imago’ or ‘similitudo’ of this, consider it simply in its appearance, the intellect looks more particularly at the ‘natura’ and ‘proprietas’ of the ‘res’ (G.G., pp. 315–7 passim). The function of the intellect would therefore be to penetrate the inner structure of things, their ‘ordo’, which is why the intellect presents itself as the typical instrument of knowledge (G.G., pp. 505–6); (b) the statement that these ‘similitudines’ are not the aim of the ‘impositio vocum’, which is rather inclined to the ‘intellectus’, that is the comprehension and designation of ‘res’ (‘significatio intellectuum’ and ‘significatio rerum’). These ‘figmenta’ are nothing other than ‘intersigna rerum’ or instruments through which comprehension is achieved, when the things are not present (G.G., pp. 21 (21), 315 (14–6)). These are only required in cases such as this, however; in the case of the ‘res’ which should be ‘intellecta’ being present, the intellective ‘actio’ is, certainly in an intermediary capacity, directed at it. The limited use made by Abelard of the ‘similitudo’ that recurs only when the object to be recognized is absent considerably simplifies the process of the intellective activity. Contrary, therefore, to what Sikes and Octavian draw one’s notice to, it seems to me that the gnoseological position of Abelard is clearly distinct from what would be St. Thomas’s doctrine of the ‘species’ (Octavian, P. Abelardo, pp. 132–6, and Sikes, op.cit. p. 107).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    G.G., p. 307 (30).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    G.G., pp. 18 (6–9, 22 (7–24), 23 (20–4).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Both these run through the res-intellectus-vox triad that Abelard finds in Aristotle and Boetius, and which he extensively illustrates in the comment on De Interpretatione of the Ingredientibus (see G.G., pp. 321–3, 74).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    See e.g. G.G., pp. 309 (23), 112 (40), 115 (40).Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    E.g.: in examining the meaning of universals (G.G., pp.27, 531), in the inquiry on univocality (see D., p. 222), which is as it is only in respect of the unity of ‘conceptio’, leaving the multiplicity of the ‘res’ meant out of consideration. Abelard proceeds in this way in his examination of compound nouns (G.G., pp. 341–2 and A, pp. 115–6).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    G.G., p. 308 (22–3).Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    G.G., p. 308 (34–40).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    G.G., p. 309 (1–3); see G.G., p. 30 (1–5).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    With regard to the Magister V, mentioned in Dialectica, De Rijk raises a question. He efuses to read — as does Cousin — ‘Magister Willelmus’, because, he says, the ‘sententia’ attributed to the ‘Magister V’ is quite removed from the realistic views of Guillaume (‘Introduction’, in D., p. xx). He suggests that one reads ‘Magister Ulgerius’, who is never expressly mentioned in Abelard’s works, but who, as De Rijk supposes, was his master at the St. Maurice school, before Abelard went to Paris. As for the agreement of ‘sententia’, referred to in D., p. 112, with Ulgerius’ position, De Rijk points to a passage in Theologia Christiana where a “magister… in Andegavensi pago magni nominis” is attributed with the opinion that would agree with the opinion referred to in Dialectica. According to the master mentioned in the Theologia Christiana, the nouns which are proper to creatures belong to God; in this way God is said to be just, strong and wise. A point common to these theories and the theory of Dialectica is the in-determinateness and arbitrariness to which the significative phenomenon is subject. It seems to me, however, that in D., pp. 112–3, Abelard very directly points to and reproaches the identification of the nominative with the significative plane: “velle ocabula…” omnia significare quae nommant Furthermore the name Ulgerius does not figure in the passage in question in the Theologia either; it is no more than fairly likely that he is being referred to. The consideration of the nominative plane as determining the value of the meaning is attributed in Nostrorum to a certain ‘Magister Vasletus’ (G.G., p. 544 (22–6)). He considered the nouns ‘sol’ and ‘phoenix’ to be singular, because, in defining their meaning, he was taking the ambit of the ‘res nominatae’ into account. The position of Vasletus is therefore analogous with that of ‘Magister V in Diabectica, and is the result of an identical viewpoint. In the case of the passage in Theologia Christiana it is rather a question, in my opinion, of a vaguer analogy; here one of two possible attitudes to the theological discourse is in evidence, rather than a determined theory of the ‘significatio’. I would therefore suggest that in the identification of ‘Magister V one should take into consideration the figure of Vasletus who is one of the few ‘magistri’ mentioned by Abelard, but one can likewise not be certain that Ulgerius was Abelard’s master. De Rijk confirms his interpretation in Logica modernorum, Assen 1967, vol. I, part II, p. 190, n. 1.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    D., pp. 112–3.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    See the passage in the comment on De Interpretatione (G.G., p. 355) where Abelard makes the distinction between the ‘propter hoc’ or the consideration of the real plane that motivates the ‘inventio’ of the noun, and the ‘ad hoc’ or the plane of meaning and the final cause of the ‘impositio’.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Either ‘inventio’ (D., p. 118 (28)) or ‘institutio’ (G.G., p. 522 (16)).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    G.G., p. 522(11ff.).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    G.L., p. 74 (89); G.G., p. 321 (10–6).Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    G.G., p. 112 (34–5); G.G., p. 567 (27ff.)Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    The example of the ‘causa comunis’ is valid for all in G.G., p. 19 (21ff.); see also G.L., p. 31 (19–30) and G.G., p. 532 (3–8).Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    G.G., pp. 22 and 29, for example.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    G.G., pp. 112 and 309.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    What I call the first phase occurs in the comment of Ingredientibus on the Isagoge, in Dialectica and in Nostrorum (G.G., p. 22 (2–4) and D., pp. 112–3; G.G., p. 525 (2)). The second attitude is visible, on the contrary, in the comments on De Interpretatione and the CatEgorie of Ingredientibus (G.G., pp. 113 (26–33), 309 (14–5). Both attitudes occur in the comment of Ingredientibus on the Isagoge (G.G., p. 29 (37)).Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Note that the ‘appellatio’ in Abelard, given its metaphysics which are Aristotelian (G.G., pp. 30 (9–13)), 515 (14), 518 (9)) is always and only to the individual ‘res’.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    There is a further and extremely clear confirmation of this attitude in Dialectica with regard to the ‘aequivoci’ nouns (D., pp. 562–3), those, Abelard says, regarding not the ‘nominatio’ (otherwise all general nouns would be so) but only their ‘significatio’. These observations appear in G.G., pp. 117–22, that is, at the beginning of the comment on the CatEgorie of Ingredientibus; one can also see a basic agreement in both texts. See also D., pp. 181 (25–37) and 222 (29–31); pp. 592ff.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    G.G., pp. 21 (26) and 22 (6).Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    G.G., pp.22 (2–4), 26 (29–32), 30(1–5), 525(2), 115 (30), 116 (17), 112–3.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    G.G., pp. 45–7.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    See G.G., p. 546 (3–9 and 36–8).Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    D., p. 112 (24): “Alii enim omnia quibus vox imposita est ab ipsa voce significari volunt….”Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    G.G., pp. 326 (16) and 327 (14).Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    From G.G., pp. 325–9 Abelard in fact examines the various types of ‘in-tellectus’, or rather the different ways of comprehension determined by one or more ‘voces’: ‘intellectus simplex’, ‘composite’, ‘unus’, ‘sanus’ and ‘verus’.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    D., p. 153 (9); “Scientia est comprehensio Veritas.”Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    G.G., p. 326 (30–1).Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    The ‘res’ is always ‘discreta’: see G.G., p. 30 (6–8).Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    G.G., p. 19 (21–5).Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    G.G., p. 136 (22–4).Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    See for example the passage G.L., p. 31 (19–30), where the validity of the sermon based on reality is affirmed. Other passages: G.G., p. 532 (3–8), 36 (47), 537 (7–10), 136 (7–10).Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    G.G., p. 23.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    G.G., p. 337ff.; D., p. 118ff. The Abelardian position on this problem is complex and made articulate in the two solutions in Ingredientibus and Diabctica. (In the literal notes of the Palatine Master, which adhere fundamentally to the Aristotelian text which does not examine the ‘dictiones indefinitae’, he does not allude to the problem of their meaning.) In the comment, Abelard excludes prepositions and conjunctions from the definition of ‘voces significativae per se’ and shows their semantic value in the ‘consignificatio’ or in the signification of an ‘actio’ (and not of a concept). A cross-reference to Priscian shows how the grammatical view justifies a study of these ‘voces’ more than the strictly logical ambit (G.G., pp. 339–40). The position in the second text is different: firstly it is in Dialectica that Abelard calls them ‘dictiones indefinitae’, which, compared to the definition of ‘dictio (D., p. 118 (9–10)) implies a ‘significatio per se’, namely complete even if indeterminate, while this was excluded in the comment (G.G., p. 337). Also of interest is the cross-reference made by Abelard to the ‘dialectici’ quoted by Boetius whose inquiry on these parts of the discourse understood as ‘colligamenta’ rests on the affirmations of the same. These dialecticians might be the ones mentioned by Priscian (see Preti, ‘La vox signi-ficativa nella semantica terministica’, Rivista critica di storia della filosofia 10 (1955) p. 260), given the coincidence of the opinions. In any case, the position of Dialectica in this respect is all the more novel and interesting as it promotes a positive consideration and an inquiry into these ‘voces’ in the Stoic rather than in the Aristotelian line, which was then taken up by the terministic logicians of the 13th century. The passage in Dialectica is certainly more critical and mature than the corresponding passage from the comment, and it constitutes the first treatment of the ‘syncathegoremata’ in the history of mediaeval logic (see Preti, op.cit., p. 261, who had settled the beginning of the treatment of the ‘voces consignificativae’ as being in William of Shyreswood’s treatise; the article appeared in 1955, however, that is, before the complete edition of Dialectica). Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    It will be as well to examine Abelard’s considerations of the verb. To a large extent they are an illustration of the Aristotelian definition (Aristotle, De Interpretatione, Minio edition, 1.6b 5–25; G.L., pp. 79–80; G.G., pp. 34–5; D., p. 129). Abelard insistently specifies that the distinction between noun and verb can only be made if based on the copulative function of the verb and its ‘consignificatio temporis’, as opposed to any other possible discriminatory criterion (G.G., pp. 346 (25–6), 348, 353; D., pp. 129–30). He gives full and original consideration to his inquiry into the ‘vis predicationis’ of the verb and the various types of ‘copulatio’ in the comment of Ingredientibus and in the treatment of Dialectica; and, inasfar as the comment of the Literal Notes is not detached from the content of the Aristotelian treatments, Abelard’s particular interest in this argument, in this text as well, is testified to by a certain breadth of the notes (G.L., pp. 79–84). The careful Abelardian observations on the functions of the verb do not derive from the parallel Aristotelian passage, but — if one considers the frequent cross-references Abelard makes to Priscian — (G.G., pp. 346, 348, 359, 360; D., p. 132) seem to refer rather to an Aristotelian-Boetian type of consideration, which is closer to the nature of Stoic than Aristotelian inquiry. Abelard singles out two functions of the verb: the predicative of something, and the copulative (G.G., p. 359; D., pp. 131–2). The first is based on the potentiality of the verb as a ‘vox significativa’; the second is the feature that distinguishes the verb from the noun (G.G., pp. 348, 353). Most verbs, because of the type of meaning they have, can only copulate themselves (G.G., p. 359; D., pp. 132–3); only appellative verbs and the ‘substantivum’ can copulate other than with themselves (G.G., p. 359). While the first can only copulate nouns — because of their ‘significatio’ which in the specific sense is the ‘nuncupatio’ (G.G., p. 363; D., p. 134), the second “quod seque omnia secundum essentiam significat, quaslibet essentias potest copulare”. (D., p. 131 (23–6); G.G., p. 360)). From this one can see how the type of copulative function of a verb depends on the nature of its ‘significatio’.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    See D., p. 121 (1–26).Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    G.G., p. 140 (13–24).Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    See G.G., pp. 21 (36–8), 22 (1–2).Google Scholar

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© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1969

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