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  • William of Ockham and Mental Synonymy. The Case of Nugation1
  • Fabrizio Amerini

I. William of Ockham and Mental Synonymy

In recent years an important point of discussion among the scholars of William of Ockham has been the possibility of accounting for a reductionist interpretation of Ockham's mental language. Especially, the debate focused on the legitimacy of eliminating connotative simple terms from mental language by reducing them to their nominal definition.2 The distinction between absolute and connotative [End Page 375] terms plays an important role in Ockham's philosophy of language. Ockham introduces it as a subdivision of the class of categorematic terms, i.e. of the terms provided with signification, and such a distinction overlaps that between concrete and abstract terms. In the Summa Logicae, Part I, chap. 10, devoted to the explanation of such a distinction, Ockham makes three major claims concerning connotative terms.

First, unlike absolute simple terms, connotative simple terms signify something primarily and something else secondarily. Paradigmatic examples of connotative simple terms are 'white' and 'father,' while instances of absolute terms are 'animal,' 'man,' and 'whiteness.' The term 'white' is connotative for it signifies something primarily (i.e. the bearer of whiteness) while co-signifying something else secondarily (i.e. whiteness).

Second, unlike absolute simple terms, connotative simple terms do not have a real definition but only a nominal one. While a real definition is intended to capture the real essence of the defined thing, a nominal definition is none other than a linguistic explication of a name's signification. Only concrete and abstract terms of the category of substance, and abstract terms of the category of quality, can have a real definition. The reason is that, for Ockham, only individual substances and qualities can exist outside the mind, therefore only such entities can be grasped immediately and directly, by means of acts of intelligible intuitive cognition. Any other term can have only a nominal definition, for each of them can make reference to nothing but to fictive or only putatively existent entities. A nominal definition, in particular, is made in such a way that something is expressed in recto (i.e. in the nominative case, in the Latin) and something else in obliquo (i.e. in a case other than the nominative). Ockham indicates [End Page 376] 'something having (or being informed by) whiteness' as the nominal definition of 'white': in it, 'something' is expressed in recto, while 'whiteness' in obliquo.

Third and finally, Ockham says that a connotative term has only one nominal definition, while an absolute term can have several real definitions.

According to these claims, the problem of the existence of connotative terms in mental language might be reconstructed as follows. Ockham holds to two fundamental tenets about mental language and connotation: (i) first, synonymous terms cannot be found in mental language and (ii) second, each connotative simple term can have only one nominal definition, as was said. Ockham is unequivocal about these principles in his works.3 But if an interpreter also supposes Ockham subscribing to the view that (iii) connotative simple terms are synonymous with their nominal definitions, the interpreter must conclude that, for Ockham, (iv) connotative simple terms and their nominal definitions cannot both be present in mental language. Nonetheless, since Ockham seems to admit (v) the existence of both connotative simple terms and their nominal definitions in mental language,4 one of the previous sentences needs to be revised.

Up to this day many proposals of revision have been put on the table, but it seems to me that they can be reduced to three principal ones.

The first proposal suggests reconsidering claim (v), while preserving the reasoning (i)-(iv), since (i)-(iii) are claims Ockham indisputably states. As is known, this was Paul V. Spade's initial position.5 The gist of Spade's influential [End Page 377] argument was that connotative simple terms cannot exist in mental language for if they did, they would be synonymous with their fully expanded nominal definitions. According to (i), though, synonymy cannot be found in mental language. But Ockham grants the existence of fully expanded nominal definitions in mental language. As the nominal definition of 'white' shows...