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Buridan and the Definite Description ALAN R. PERREIAH REc~Yr WORKON JorIN BURIDANis likely to give the impression that the brilliant 14th-century logician and philosopher was as little concerned with definite descriptions as he was with concepts of identity and existence. 1 Professor Peter Geach has remarked: "The lack of a definite article in Medieval Latin means that no 'theory of definite descriptions' may be looked for in medieval writers." 2 Geach's further interpretation of "Buridan's Law," "IT]he reference of an expression E must be specifiable in some way that does not involve first determining whether the proposition in which E occurs is true," 3 systematically excludes the factors of identity and existence from the task of establishing a term's reference. Similarly, Professor T. K. Scott emphasizes the principle of identity in analyzing the signification of expressions; but he deemphasizes the element of existence in treating their supposition. He notes: "[B]uridan would not blink at admitting the proposition 'there is something which is signified, and it does not exist'. This is but a single example of how little he is bothered by existential commitment." 4 And later, "So far from being bothered by the commitments of existential quantification, Buridan insists on the preservation of facts about non-existents as a way of guaranteeing the independence of knowledge from the vagaries of existence ." 5 Only Professor Ernest Moody pays heed to the importance of identity and existence for Buridan's ideas on meaning and reference.6 t An account of Buridan's life and writings may be found in two papers by E. Faral, "Jean Buridan: Maitre des Arts de l'Universit6 de Paris," Histoire litt~raire de la France, XXXVIII (1949), 462-605; "Jean Buridan. Notes sur les manuscrits, les 6ditions et le contenu de ses ouvrages," Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littdraire du moyen ~ge, XV (1946), 1-55. In addition to works cited in this paper, discussions of Buridan's views may be found in: Ernest A. Moody, Truth and Consequence in Mediaeval Logic (Amsterdam, 1953); Marshall Clagett, The Science o/ Mechanics in the Middle Ages (Madison, 1961). Photocopies of several of Buridan's works are published by the Johnson Reprint Company. 2 Peter T. Geach, Re/erence and Generality (New York: Cornell University Press, 1962; emended edition 1968), p. ix. 8 Ibid., p. xi. 4 Theodore K. Scott, Sophisms on Meaning and Truth (New York: Appleton-CenturyCrofts , 1966), p. 24. Ibid., p. 34. And by the same author, "John Buridan on the Objects of Demonstrative Science," Speculum, XL, 4 (October, 1965), 654-673. 8 Ernest A. Moody, "Buridan and a Dilemma of Nominalism," in the Harry Austryn [1531 154 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY Because Buridan says a great deal germane to both of these principles it is difficult to select those writings which best express his thought on them. Nonetheless , he is famous for his approach to the problems of philosophy through "logical analysis," called in his own time the "via moderna", and a basic part of this method is the theory of concepts. In this paper I want to: (1) recount Buridan's theory of concepts; (2) examine his views on existence and identity; and (3) explore some applications of his contributions. A conclusion summarizes some major results of the paper. 7 1. Buridan's Theory of Concepts As a follower of Ockham, Buridan holds that the words of a natural language have concepts (sometimes called "terms") corresponding to them. Concepts are of two kinds: categorematic concepts signify concrete singulars existing in the external world; syncategorematic concepts signify operations internal to the mind. Both are needed if human knowledge is to get beyond the mere apprehension of individuals to the formulation of arguments about their structure and operations. Within this process of knowledge, Buridan discerns several important divisions of categorematic concepts: (a) singular and common; (b) simple and complex; and (c) natural and artificial. I will examine each of these in turn. The simplest kind of knowledge is that which the mind has directly of individuals. By becoming aware of concrete things through sensation or intuition, the mind is furnished with an elementary unit of thought, the singular concept. Usually, such...


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