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Synonymy and Equivocation in Ockham's Mental Language
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Synonymy and Equivocation in Ockham's Mental Language PAUL VINCENT SPADE IN I957 PETER GEACH ARGUED THAT Ockham's theory of mental language was too facile, that it made the grammar of mental language look too suspiciously like that of Latin: "He merely transfers features of Latin grammar to Mental, and then regards this as explaining why such features occur in Latin they are needed there if what we say inwardly in Mental is to be outwardly got across to others in Latin. But clearly nothing is explained at all. ''1 In 1970 John Trentman responded to this charge in a short article that has since become very influential. 2 In that article Trentman makes three claims among others: 1. Ockham thought of mental language as a kind of stripped-down, "ideal" lan- guage, containing just those grammatical features that affect the truth condi- tions of mental sentences.3 2. There can be no synonymy in mental language. 4 3. There can be no equivocation in mental language. 5 It is the purpose of this paper to examine each of these claims in turn. 6 In so doing we Mental Acts: Their Content and Their Objects (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), p. 102. See also the whole of sec. 23, pp. 101-6. 2 "Ockham on Mental," Mind 79 (1970): 586 -- 90. 3 Ibid., p. 588: "I think Ockham's Mental can in many ways be compared to the now, I suppose, slightly old-fashioned ideal languages of twentieth-century philosophers. In distinguishing Mental from Latin or any spoken language, Ocldaam asks us to consider what would have to be the grammatical slructure of a language that was ideal for one purpose -- for giving a true description of things." See also ibid., p. 589: "Ockham's real criterion, then, for admitting grammatical distinctions into Mental amounts to asking whether the distinctions in question would be necessary in an ideal language -- ideal for a complete, true description of the world." 4 Ibid., p. 588: "The existence of synonyms seems not to mark any distinction of the requisite kind so that in principle synonymous expressions can be regarded as reducible to a common mental equivalent." See also n. 5, below. 5 Ibid.: "But just as verbal ornament gives rise to synonymy it also gives rise to equivocation, and neither can be usefully purged from a language suitable for conversation. Neither, however, serves any purpose in an ideal language of the sort envisaged. Indeed, the distinction between equivocal and univocal expressions has no point in Mental by the very nature of the case." 6 The second and third claims are of special interest to me personally. For in my "Ockham's Distinctions between Absolute and Connotative Terms," Vivarium 13 (1975):55-76, I have given an account of Ockham's notion of connotative terms that relies in important respects on the claim that there is no synonymy in mental language. Again, on the basis of the third of the above claims, I have argued in my "Ockham's Rule of Supposition: Two Conflicts in His Theory," Vivarium 12 (1974):63-73, that there is a tension or "conflict" [91 10 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY shall discover that Ockham's theory of mental language is not so neat and tidy as might have been hoped. I shall argue that each of Trentman's three claims is "correct" in the sense that Ockham either explicitly holds it or else seems committed to holding it on the basis of other features of his thought. Nevertheless, I shall maintain, each of these claims also leads to difficulties for Ockham, either (with respect to the first claim) because there are certain empirical, linguistic reasons of a sort Ockham would accept for rejecting the claim as it stands, or else (with respect to the second and third claims) because it conflicts with things Ockham says elsewhere. All this suggests that Ockham had not completely thought out all the implications of what he wanted to say about mental language. And that in turn suggests that, whatever is true for other authors, the theory of mental language was perhaps not as central to Ockham's own thinking as we have come to...

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