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Quaestiones circa logicam (Twenty-five Disputed Questions on Logic) (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 49, Number 2, April 2011
pp. 249-250 | 10.1353/hph.2011.0041

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Albert of Saxony is now recognized as one of the most significant fourteenth-century philosophers—as evidenced, for example, by the entry dedicated to him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that his reputation is still somewhat overshadowed by the two giants of fourteenth-century nominalism, William of Ockham and John Buridan. Albert's work is often discussed in the context of more extensive analyses of these two authors, which might be seen as suggesting that the significance of his views is secondary. More importantly, the idea that he was not an original thinker but merely a "follower" of Ockham or Buridan is still widespread.

The translation into English of Albert's Twenty Five Disputed Questions on Logic by Michael Fitzgerald (based on the Latin text of the critical edition prepared by Fitzgerald himself and published in 2002) will surely contribute to the rectification of this situation. The text, while visibly embedded in the general fourteenth-century nominalist framework, reveals an original and sophisticated thinker, one who often questions earlier doctrines or who gives mature formulations to ideas that are to be found only in an incipient, germinal state in earlier authors. In the introduction, Fitzgerald goes to considerable lengths to rebut the conception of Albert as a "follower" of Buridan, which he clearly is not (although, to my mind, Fitzgerald severely overstates the extent to which "Buridan [may have] revised his . . . positions specifically to criticize Albert's views" [32]). Ockham's influence is more noticeable, but Albert does not simply reiterate Ockham's views either (see below).

The Questions was composed roughly in the same period as Albert's main logical text, his textbook Perutilis Logica, but the formats are very different, as the quaestiones genre is highly regimented (see introduction [11-15]). Furthermore, while the Perutilis Logica offers an overview of the major logical topics of the time, the Questions focuses on three main themes: the signification of terms, the supposition of terms in propositions, and the semantics of propositions. For reasons of space, let me concentrate on Albert's discussion of the very concept of supposition, as it nicely illustrates the originality of Albert's doctrines.

Ockham famously did not provide an explicit definition of the very concept of supposition, a fact that has frustrated modern interpreters. Albert, by contrast, offers an extensive discussion of this concept in Questions 12 and 13. His own understanding of the concept is twofold: supposition is both a property of terms in propositions as well as a mental act by a speaker/writer or hearer/interpreter (§232.2.1). In Ockham, the role of an agent's acts for the relation of supposition to establish itself is already implicit, as I have argued in my 2008 article in this journal, "An Intensional Interpretation of Ockham's Theory of Supposition" (Journal of the History of Philosophy 46.3). This is noticeable, e.g. in the clause "not taken significatively" (non tenetur significative) in the definitions of simple and material supposition, though it is not thoroughly spelled out by Ockham. Albert goes a step further and offers a compelling definition of supposition as "the mental act [actus animae] of placing a term for that which it signifies" (§230), which leads him to conclude, among other things, that "terms written in closed books do not supposit for something because they are not taken for something by anyone" (§253). This definition illustrates a general trend in the second half of the fourteenth century (culminating in Peter of Ailly, among others) of increased emphasis on the role of the agent and her (mental) acts as providing the foundations for semantic phenomena. More generally, Albert's conception of logic explicitly pertains to acts (of knowledge), and this is why he deems logic to be practical rather than speculative knowledge (§19).

As for the translation itself, there is no doubt that Fitzgerald knows and understands the text like no other. His avowed goal is to make it understandable to those who do not read Latin, while at the same time remaining as literal as possible. These are somewhat conflicting goals, and the tension is felt in his translation choices, some of which...

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