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Ockham on Judgment, Concepts, and The Problem of Intentionality

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 37, Number 1, March 2007
pp. 67-109 | 10.1353/cjp.2007.0008

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In this paper I examine William Ockham's theory of judgment — in particular, his account of the nature and ontological status of its objects. 'Judgment' (Latin iudicio) is the expression Ockham and other medieval thinkers use to refer to a certain subset of what philosophers nowadays call 'propositional attitudes.' Judgments include all and only those mental states in which a subject not only entertains a given propositional content, but also takes some positive stance with respect to its truth. For Ockham, therefore, as for other medievals, a judgment is a type of mental state that includes attitudes such as belief, knowledge, opinion, doubt, faith, and so on.

There is a longstanding interpretation according to which Ockham holds, throughout his career, the view that certain mind-dependent entities — what he calls 'mental propositions' (propositiones in mente) or 'complex concepts' (complexi) — serve as objects for belief, knowledge, and other propositional (or better, judicative) attitudes. On the surface, there is much to recommend this interpretation. In a number of texts, spanning the whole of his career, Ockham explicitly states that objects of judgment are mental entities. For example, he tells us in his commentary on Aristotle's Physics (a work that dates among his latest writings) that since 'all knowledge (scientia) is in relation to a [mental] proposition or propositions,' the objects known to us 'by natural science are composed not of sensible things or substances, but of mental contents (intentiones) or concepts.' Indeed, because of remarks such as these, Ockham became notorious in his own day for defending a kind of anti-realist view about objects of judgment. What is more, because this position was regarded by his contemporaries and successors as highly implausible, it had the effect of generating widespread debate about the matter.

My purpose in this paper is two-fold. First, I want to show that the standard interpretation of Ockham's account of objects of judgment represents a misunderstanding: Ockham's commentators — both medieval and recent — have failed to appreciate the precise way in which his views about judgment evolve over the course of his career. In order to redress this failure, I undertake a systematic examination of Ockham's theory of judgment, identifying the various phases of its development and demonstrating that Ockham ultimately abandons the very view he became so notorious for defending. Second, I want to show that careful attention to the various stages in Ockham's thinking about judgment sheds new light on broader, and hitherto unnoticed, developments in his philosophy of mind.

In some ways, the claim that Ockham's views about judgment and its objects evolve over time will not be news to those familiar with his philosophy. Commentators who have explicitly treated Ockham's account of judgment have recognized that his account undergoes some development — specifically, a development occasioned by the well-known shift in his views about the nature of concepts. Thus, whereas in his early writings Ockham endorses a view according to which concepts are mind-dependent thought-objects called 'ficta,' in his most mature writings, he rejects this view in favor of a 'mental-act theory,' according to which concepts are not items distinct from and dependent on mental acts, but are rather identified with mental acts themselves. It is clear that this well-known shift in Ockham's account of concepts requires some sort of change in his account of the objects of judgment, since he takes the mental propositions that serve as such objects to be complex concepts. Thus, to the extent that commentators have addressed the issue explicitly, they have typically inferred that Ockham develops two accounts of judgment — one corresponding to each of his two accounts of concepts.

In what follows, I argue that, as tempting as it is, this picture is inaccurate on several counts. In the first place, Ockham develops not two but three theories of judgment. What is more, the developments in his theory of judgment, while importantly connected to changes in his account of concepts, must be understood in terms of a broader and more fundamental shift in his views about the nature of intentionality itself. Indeed, it is this very shift in Ockham's account of intentionality that...

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