restricted access 7. Concept and Sign
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140 chapter seven Concept and Sign I s the word the sign of the concept or of the thing itself? John Duns Scotus , in his Ordinatio, mentions a lively debate on this subject—a magna altercatio, as he calls it. This dispute over the notion of sign was closely linked to the discussion about the word described in the preceding chapter . Thomas Aquinas maintained that the proper significate of the spoken word is the interior word—for him, identical with the passiones animae of Perihermeneias . Those who would adopt the opposing position on this point often did so in the name of a resolute realism that seems to characterize an entire philosophical movement at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries: most of the time, they noted, we use words to refer to things, rather than just to concepts in our minds. But the question bears on the history of the idea of mental language in another way. The working out of a logico-grammatical theory of interior discourse like Ockham’s supposes a systematic application to the order of thought of those categories in which exterior language is usually analyzed—particularly the category of signification, along with several other related categories. It requires, in other words, that concepts are themselves signs and that we take this description seriously. Now, such an approach is greatly facilitated if we refuse to make the concept the primary significate of the spoken word. Not that the two views are strictly incompatible: after all, why not say—as did many medievals—that the word is the sign of the concept while the latter is the sign of the exterior thing? The problem with this is that the parallelism cannot be pressed too far, for, from a semantic point of view, these two relations are quite different from one other. The truth of a mental proposition, for example, depends, in general, on the way in which the things it represents are disposed in reality, but it would be absurd to propose that the truth of a spoken proposition depends on the way the mental concepts corresponding to it are disposed in the mind. It would follow that an oral enunciation would only need to be sincere to be true (wouldn’t that be convenient!). If the semantic analysis of exterior language is to furnish the ideal model for the analysis of interior thought, it will be more fruitful—as William of Ockham saw—to make the concept-thing relation parallel to the word-thing 1. John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio I, dist. 27, in Opera omnia, Vatican ed. (1963), 6:97n83. 2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles IV, chap. 11; Quaestiones disputatae de potentia, q. 8, art. 1; Super Evangelium Joannis lectura I.1. F6925.indb 140 F6925.indb 140 10/24/16 12:52:27 PM 10/24/16 12:52:27 PM Concept and Sign 141 relation rather than to the word-concept relation and to posit, consequently, that concepts and things are both signs of exterior things. The two theses—that concepts are signs and that words signify things themselves —thus go together in the theorization of interior language. In this chapter , I will first describe how the idea that concepts could be seen as signs was introduced in the course of the thirteenth century. I will then examine, against the background of this controversy about signification to which Duns Scotus alluded, the manner in which the two theses in question were joined by the Subtle Doctor himself, giving birth to a new schema of relations between words, concepts, and things—a schema whose possibilities William of Ockham will later systematically exploit to establish his own theory of mental language. A third section, finally, will be dedicated, as a kind of appendix, to the exotic but illuminating theme of the language of angels, which was also the occasion of rich discussion in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. If angels can communicate with each other—as theologians generally believed—mustn’t they use signs? And are these signs, which are certainly not sensible, constitutive of their thought, or do they serve only to transmit thought from one angel to another? What concerns us in this debate is once more a question of whether or not conceptual thought can be described as a discourse composed of signs. We find here a privileged field of application for various medieval philosophical conceptions of the relations between the orders of concepts and of signs...


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