Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

Living Edition
| Editors: Dana Jalobeanu, Charles T. Wolfe


  • Lucia OliveriEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_221-1

Related Topics

Concept Early Modern Theories of Language Origins of Language Signification 


“Impositio” is the term used by the Scholastics to refer to voluntary ascription of names to concepts and things. Names are chosen either by an authority, such as God, Adam, a legislator, or by a contingent pact among men.

The doctrine of imposition has its roots in Aristotle’s “On Interpretation” (16a 1–8) where he individuates the relata of the signification relation (concepts, words, things) and divides them into two classes: In the first class are concepts and things which do not depend on human practice or art, thereby being natural; in the second class are words, which relate to concepts and things “kata syntheken,” translated into Latin as ad placitum (arbitrarily) or ex instituto (due to establishment) (Coseriu 2004: 1–35). Insofar as words do not naturally relate to things or to concepts, they are arbitrarily chosen by people as signs for concepts and things. The plurality of languages is an evidence of the arbitrary imposition of signs. While human beings use different words to refer to the same thing, concepts are the same to all persons.

The classification of words as arbitrarily imposed determines the priority of things over concepts, and the priority of concepts over words. Words are signs because they refer to things in virtue of the concept apprehended by the intellect.

It is the contraposition between natural and arbitrary signs, drawn within the scholastic tradition, which influences the early modern philosophy of language. Not all signs are arbitrarily imposed. Some signs signify naturally: smoke is a sign of fire and cloud a sign of rain. Imposed signs are signs which signify by an arbitrary act of men, as when “a bush hang up” signifies that “wine is sold” (see Hobbes 1655, Elements of Philosophy, I, 2.).

Lively debates occurred in seventeenth-century logical treatises concerning the blurring of natural signs and arbitrarily imposed signs. Signs which do not signify naturally are “ex instituto,” and these can be “ex consuetudine,” due to habits, or “ex I.,” arbitrarily imposed. Signs ex I. and ex consuetudine are not mutually exclusive: imposed signs signify because of their habitual use within a society. Moreover, since habits naturally shape human actions, signs are, in a sense, natural. Once names are imposed by a legislator, a pact among men or God, their acceptance is a matter of habit. This idea is expressed by the analogy between coins and words: even if coins are arbitrarily imposed, their acceptance cannot be imposed (See Meier-Oeser 1997: 262–302).

Traces of the conflation between ex I. and ex consuetudine (without the implication of the naturalness of signs) can be found in the Hobbesian distinction between mark and sign. The former is arbitrarily made for “our own use,” the latter for the use of others, and therefore require habitual use. This idea is echoed in Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Words are arbitrarily imposed, but they acquire their function of stimulating ideas in other minds “by long and familiar use” (Locke 1690, III, 2, § 8). If the fact that they may fail their function is evidence of their being arbitrarily imposed, this is also evidence that we cannot introduce new words arbitrarily.

A symptom of the conflation of ex consuetudine and ex I. is the inversion of direction of the doctrine of the priority of concepts over words. Early modern philosophers point to a priority of imposed arbitrary signs over ideas. For Francis Bacon, words are indispensable for association and they are imposed by the majority of men (ex captu vulgi; Bacon 1620, Novum Organum, I, XLIII); once established, however, words impose false ideas (called idols of the marketplace) on the understanding. Names of nonexisting entities, like “phlogiston,” are examples of ideas imposed on the understanding by names. This abuse of words is a highlight of the early modern period (Lady Masham to Leibniz, 3 June 1704 (GP III 351); Arnauld and Nicole 1662 (Logic or The Art of Thinking, I, Cap. 12)) and persists in the comparison of money with coins used by Hobbes and Leibniz: coins are only signs for those who understand them; but they are considered as having value per se by those who do not understand them, solely because some authorities arbitrarily put them into use (Hobbes 1651, Leviathan, I, 4; Leibniz 1923 A IV 4 380).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of MünsterMünsterGermany
  2. 2.Philosophy Department Emerson HallHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Martin Lenz
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of PhilosophyUniversity of GroningenGroningenThe Netherlands