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Concepts and Meaning in Medieval Philosophy
By Stephen Read
Abstract: In Concepts, Fodor identifies five non-negotiable constraints on
any theory of concepts. These theses were all shared by the standard
medieval theories of concepts. However, those theories were cognitivist, in
contrast with Fodor’s: concepts are definitions, a form of natural knowledge.
The medieval theories were formed under two influences, from Aristotle by
way of Boethius, and from Augustine. The tension between them resulted in the Ockhamist notion of a natural language, concepts as signs. Thus conventional signs, spoken and written, signify things in the world by the mediation of concepts which themselves form a language of thought, signifying those things naturally by their similarity. Indeed, later medieval thinkers realised that everything signifies itself and what is like it naturally in a broad sense by means of the concept of its natural likeness.
1. Introduction1 The medieval theory of signification underpinned the theory of truth, which in turn fed into a theory of inference. The theory of signification describes generally how words relate to things, and how propositions come to mean what they do. But this general description needs a further account of how a particular occurrence of a word in a particular proposition is related to which things in what way. Only then can one say what has to be the case for the proposition to be true, and so determine how truth is preserved in an inference.
For the medievals in whom I am interested, the signification of words and propositions was made possible by their link to concepts. Vocal signs are seen as imposed by custom as marks or signs for concepts, and written signs are in turn marks or signs for vocal signs, and so indirectly for concepts. Concepts, however, signify or conceive a range of objects naturally, not by any conventional imposition. Concepts are formed by abstraction from sensory cognition. These medieval thinkers inherited from Aristotle, and took further, an elaborate and rich theory of cognitive powers which drew from sensation the whole panoply of cognitive awareness. The common 1 This paper was delivered as the Brigitte Rosenkranz Memorial Lecture at UCLA in 2002, a series of annual lectures in memory of Brigitte Rosenkranz who was a graduate student there. The paper is largely drawn from my contribution to the Introduction to E.P. Bos and S. Read, Concepts: the treatises of Thomas of Cleves and Paul of Gelria (Leuven: Peeters, 2001), with permission of Peeters Publishers. It also draws on passages in S. Read, “How is material supposition possible?,” Medieval Philosophy and Theology 8 (1999): 1-20, with permission of Cambridge University Press.
sense discovers shape, motion and other aspects of cognition not present in each particular sense—separate experiences are needed to discern motion, and both sight and touch are needed to learn about shape or figure. An estimative or cogitative sense is needed to recognise the hostility of the wolf or the friendliness of the dog, qualities not immediately evident in sensation. Further composition and division is needed to create further concepts, and abstraction to understand generality. But they were empiricists, following Aristotle in believing that all knowledge is derived from the senses. “The mind is a tabula rasa on which nothing is at first written, but can be written.” (De Anima 430a1) The innate powers of cognition were manifold and considerable, but no more than is necessary to the empiricist project of obtaining all real knowledge through the senses.
Concepts, therefore, have a natural epistemological relation to the class of things which they signify. To call it “natural” means that the concept is linked by a law-like causal connection to that of which it is a concept, that causal link being explained by the mind’s cognitive abilities. Conventional signs, the signs of spoken and written language, in contrast, gain their signification only by being linked by custom and practice to those natural signs. They obtain their signification indirectly, in what Simon Blackburn called a “dog-legged” manner.2 Their immediate signification, or what they are primarily attached or subordinate to, is the concept; thereby, their ultimate signification is the range of things to which the concept applies. John Buridan wrote, in the 1350s: “Categorematic words... signify things by the mediation of their concepts, according to which concepts, or similar ones, they were imposed to signify. So we call the things conceived by those concepts ‘ultimate significata’... but the concepts we call ‘immediate significata’.”3
2. Concepts in Modern Philosophy What are concepts? Nowadays, just as in medieval times, it is common to identify them as constituents of mental propositions or thoughts. Many mental states have content. They consist in representing something as of some character. That content is specified by a proposition. Just as the sentence expressing that proposition has structure and consists of sub-sentential expressions, so
2Simon Blackburn, Spreading the Word (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 40.
3Johannes Buridan, Summulae de Dialectica, tr. G. Klima (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 253-4; cf. Buridan, Summulae de Suppositionibus, ed. R. van der Lecq (Nijmegen: Ingenium, 1998), 39: “dictiones categorematicae... significant res aliquas mediantibus conceptibus earum, secundum quos conceptus vel similitudines impositae fuerunt ad significandum. Sic ergo res illas illis conceptibus conceptas vocamus ultimata significata in proposito. Illos autem conceptus vocamus significata immediata.” it is claimed, propositions can be articulated into components. These propositions have a content which is structured and consists of concepts arranged in a certain conceptual structure, a mental language of concepts.
Concepts are hyperintensional. That is, the criteria of distinctness of concepts is stricter than necessary equivalence. For example, the concepts ‘triangle’ and ‘trilateral’ are necessarily equivalent—anything which is trilateral is necessarily triangular and vice versa. Nonetheless, the concepts are distinct. What makes them distinct is that one can believe that the one applies to something without the other.
Concepts map out the fine structure of beliefs.
The central opposition in theories of concepts is between those who treat concepts as mental particulars and those who treat them as
objects. What unites concepts is their content, and that content consists of a common conceptual structure.
Without the mental acts of judging, believing, thinking, there would be no content, no abstract universal. The nominalist urges that concepts have no existence beyond our minds, yet is willing to treat them as a common medium for the articulation and expression of those thoughts. The realist, in contrast, claims priority for the common medium, construing the private thoughts as derivative therefrom.
On the common view, concepts are a kind of particular. They are not only minddependent but also private. We may suggest that different people can share the same concept, since they can think the same thought—that is, their thoughts can have the same content. But all these terms equivocate between a private and a public reference.
Each of us has his or her own thoughts and beliefs, and we make our own judgments;
we speak loosely when we say that we share and communicate these thoughts, that we can have the same beliefs, and that we make the same judgments.
The hardest question is how a concept is related to its instances, to objects. Again, the popular view grounds this relation in the elaboration of conceptual structure as a mental language. As a language, its constituents are signs, and a concept is related to its instances as a sign to what it signifies. Just as sentences and words are signs, so too mental propositions and concepts are signs, with their own special relation to those objects. What is that relation? Contemporary philosophy of mind is predominantly naturalistic, so that such relations are to be explained in terms of some natural relation, for example, a causal relation. Acquaintance with the object causes the formation of the concept, which then becomes a natural sign for it. An alternative theory claims that the atomic elements of the language of thought are, in some way, innate. Yet that threatens to make their relation to objects mysterious and unanalysable, or at least to require an explanation not grounded in experience. Less mysterious is the normal empiricist resort, which is to posit an (innate) faculty of abstraction, which responds to suitable input by eliciting the appropriate concept.
Indeed, it is difficult to see how a naturalistic, for example, causal theory, can work without such an inborn ability.
Concepts play an explanatory role. Intentional explanation of a person’s actions needs to relate those actions to the intentions and goals to which they are directed. To fill out the intentional nature of the explanation, those actions need to be described in terms which relate to the agent’s beliefs and purposes. Thus similar actions can result from dissimilar intents; and different actions can subserve similar purposes. The theory of content articulates this explanatory scheme into a language of the mind. The building blocks of this language are concepts.
Not only is this conceptual language the focus of contemporary research into cognitive science and philosophy of mind. It was also the centre of attention in philosophical thinking in the fourteenth century. There is, indeed, a remarkable parallel between contemporary concerns and theories and medieval conceptions.
Perhaps this should not be remarkable—after all, the one preceded the other by some six centuries. But the chain of descent is tangled, and there is assuredly no direct influence of the one on the other. Some may argue that it illustrates the phenomenon of convergence on the truth; others that the same siren voices continue to lead the best thinkers astray.
In his book, Concepts, Jerry Fodor presents five theses which together make up what he calls the Representative Theory of Mind, which is to form the bedrock of his theory of concepts.4 Concepts are mental particulars with both causal powers and semantic content. The central task he presents is to reveal the link between these two
aspects. The first thesis states:
1. Psychological explanation is typically nomic and is intentional through and through.
Those who deny this are physicalists, who believe that one day all will be stateable in the language of physics. The medieval conception was definitely on Fodor’s side.
2. “Mental representations” are the primitive bearers of intentional content.
That is, the mental realm is prior to, and explanatory of, the vocal and written realm.
The medievals would heartily agree.
4J. Fodor, Concepts: where cognitive science went wrong (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), especially 7 ff.
3. Thinking is computation.
Fodor makes much here of Turing’s analysis of the notion of effective computation.
The crux seems to be, however, that Turing treated mental representations as symbols.
We will see in §3 that this was the revolutionary insight of the thirteenth century which produced the flowering of semantic theory in the fourteenth century.
4. Meaning is information (more or less).
The intention is that semantic content follows (somehow) from causal relations, that the content of a concept is a result of its causal relationship to what falls under it. This is what the medievals articulated in their talk of cognitions “naturally signifying” those things which were included in them. Nor were they backward in describing the sensory and intellectual mechanisms by which the cognitions were formed, building on Aristotle’s discussion in his De Anima and other biological works.
5. Whatever distinguishes coextensive concepts is ipso facto “in the head.” The medievals would agree: if the things signified are the same—where then can the difference lie? It must lie in the cognitions—“in the head.” The cognitions have different content, but any abstract notion of content is parasitic on the particular content of particular mental states. So Fodor shares an internalist conception with his medieval precursors.
Fodor’s main target in his study is to show that concepts cannot be definitions, for no such concepts could be acquired—or at least, the primitive basis must be atomic and not definitional. He describes his preferred theory as Informational Atomism, where the concept x is not constituted by reference to xs, but by reference to the response which we humans have to experience of xs. Here he departs radically not just from contemporary cognitive science—as he recognises—but from the medieval picture. For the medieval conception is through and through cognitivist: there is a mechanism by which we acquire the concept of x by experience of xs. The medievals received this model from Aristotle. It is a classical, empiricist model. For it is worth recognising that the contrast between empiricism and rationalism is really one of degree, not of kind. The former announces that all concepts are acquired; the latter that some are innate. But each has to modify its claim, the empiricist admitting that some “innate” capacity or mechanism (abstraction, induction or whatever) is needed in order to acquire concepts from experience; the rationalist that concepts are only latently there at birth, and their overt recognition is triggered by experience through an appropriate “innate” mechanism. The medievals then are seen as Aristotelians, interested in the mechanism of concept acquisition; Fodor as Platonist, interested in the trigger by which we respond to experience by producing certain concepts to which
we are by our nature prone. Fodor describes his theory as explicitly “non-cognitivist”:
a concept x is constituted not (as the definitional theory claims) by what xs have in common, but by our response to xs—how xs strike us. Only in this way, he believes, can one explain concept acquisition.