Gyula Klima

Semantics and Ontology: Comments on Jack Zupko’s talk

Questions of semantics may be trivial. In the passage Jack alluded to, Buridan introduces his conclusions concerning the number of predicables with the following words:

"This question, and others, asking about the number of predicates, or of the predicables, or of the categories, or of natural principles, or the elements, etc. are rather difficult and tedious, especially for youngsters, for whom one should explain the logical and sophistic cavils which the more advanced students [need] no longer care about. Therefore, for the sake of freshmen, I posit some easy and [somewhat] facetious conclusions". (p. 183, ll. 2203-2209.)

But after positing the "facetious conclusions" that there are only ten predicables and that there are a hundred predicables, and that there are a thousand predicables, for we can take ten common terms which are all predicables, and those are only ten, and then we can take a hundred, or a thousand in the same way, Buridan goes on to say the following:

"But then there still remains the question of how Porphyry and others who posited five predicables, and no more than five, understood the issue." (p. 184, ll. 2240-2241.)

So, having disposed of the trivial issue concerning the several inadequate ways in which one can understand, or rather misunderstand the question, he raises the issue according to the proper, intended meaning of its terms, appealing to how we are supposed to understand it, given the meaning established by authority, as recognized by common usage.

Indeed, the same goes for the question of the number of the categories, once Buridan establishes that "Aristotle intended to distinguish them only according to the diverse modes of predicating them of primary substances, which he posited to be the primary and most principal subjects of all predicables. He said, therefore, that those [terms] which are predicated of these in response to the question ‘What is it?’ pertain to the category of substance, those which are predicated in response to the question ‘How much [or how many]?’ pertain to the category of quantity, etc." [p. 186, ll. 2290-2295.]

But then, once with this understanding it is established that there are ten categories of predicates, one can unambiguously raise the non-trivial issue whether to these ten classes of predicates there correspond ten non-overlapping classes of entities. [In the sense that if we take the abstract forms of the accidental terms plus the concrete terms of the category of substance, then the unions of the extensions of the terms thus classified form ten mutually exclusive classes, so that any entity in a given class falls under the terms of the corresponding category, but under no term of any other category.] Buridan’s answer to this question is that there are only three such classes of entities, namely, the class of entities referred to by substance terms, the class of entities referred to by abstract quantity-terms, and the class of entities referred to by some abstract quality-terms, but the terms in any other categories all refer to the entities contained in these three classes. Furthermore, as we know, Ockham provides the answer that there are only two such classes of entities, for according to him, abstract quantity-terms should refer to the same things as substance-terms. On the other hand, his most uncompromising realist foe, Pseudo-Campsall, insists that the correct answer should be ten. But Domingo Soto [1494-1560], who about two centuries later still advocates a "realist", via antiqua semantics, gives exactly the same answer to this question as Buridan, namely, three. Thus, despite the fact that Soto and Pseudo-Campsall have essentially the same type of semantics, and so do Ockham and Buridan, still, as far as their ontologies are concerned, Soto can side with Buridan both against Ockham and against Pseudo-Campsall. [By the way, Pseudo-Campsall was an extreme case also in his own century; I know of no "realist", even earlier, who would have sided with Pseudo-Campsall without reservations concerning the last six categories.]

The lesson of this seems to be that even after the trivial issues of semantics are settled by fixing the meanings of terms with reference to common usage, there can still be vast theoretical differences between philosophers in their semantics, and, rather independently from this, in their ontologies.

Therefore, I perfectly agree with Jack on the point that "philosophical problems are not context-free", in the sense that no philosophical, or in this particular case, ontological, position can properly be discussed without reconstructing the actual semantic framework within which it is formulated, especially, if that framework is radically different from the one we normally presuppose in our own reasonings. Nevertheless, in view of his subsequent discussion I feel compelled to add that in these discussions we should always watch very carefully whether the related semantic issues belong to the sphere of the trivial questions of aberrant usage, or to the sphere of systematic theoretical differences. For, as the previous example about the categories shows, trivial disagreements stemming from aberrant usage can easily be settled by correcting the aberration, but such censures may leave related substantial issues completely untouched. On the other hand, the systematic theoretical differences in semantics cannot be settled by such censures.

Let me try to clarify this with reference to the issues Jack discusses in the subsequent sections of his paper. The issue of certainty between Nicholas of Autrecourt and Buridan seems to be what I described as a trivial semantic disagreement. After all, the whole disagreement apparently boils down to the issue of whether one should call any cognition that is not based on the certainty of the principle of non-contradiction ‘knowledge’. Autrecourt’s position is that cognition of this type cannot be called knowledge, since it can always be falsified by God’s absolute power, and only that cognition can be called knowledge, which can in no way be falsified. Buridan, on the other hand, is willing to call even this type of cognition ‘knowledge’, although he also thinks that it can be falsified by divine power. Buridan easily settles the issue of this verbal disagreement with reference to authorities recognized by common usage. [Let me quote the relevant passage from his Summulae:

It is true that, because of the above-mentioned requirements demanded by the concept [ratio] of knowledge, some people, wanting to do theology, denied that we could have knowledge about natural and moral [phenomena]. For example, we could not know that the sky is moving, that the sun is bright and that fire is hot, because these are not evident. For God could annihilate all these, and it is not evident to you whether He wills to annihilate them or not; and thus it is not evident to you whether they exist. Or God could even put the sky to rest or remove light from the sun or heat from fire. And finally they say that it is not evident to you concerning the stone you see as white that it is such that it is white, for even without the whiteness and the stone God can create in your eye an image [species] entirely similar to the one you have now from the object; and thus you would judge the same as you do now, namely, that there is a white stone here. And the judgment would be false, whence it would not be certain and evident; and, consequently, it would not be evident even now, for it is not evident to you whether God wills it so or not.

But these objections are solved on the basis of bk. 2 of the Metaphysics. For there Aristotle says: "mathematical exactitude is not to be demanded in all cases, but only in the case of those things that do not have matter; for this reason this is not the method of natural science". And consequently the Commentator remarks on this passage that one need not demand the kind of belief in natural demonstrations as in mathematics. We shall therefore declare that there are many diverse kinds of certainty and evidence. ]

However, Buridan’s appeal to the common usage of the term ‘knowledge’, as Jack also points this out, leaves the big issue of the possibility of "demon-skepticism" raised by Autrecourt completely untouched. For the big question here is not whether we can call cognition gained by sense-perception ‘knowledge’, but whether the situation used as the starting point of demon skepticism is possible. But on this point both Autrecourt and Buridan agree. So the grave and genuine conceptual difference, as opposed to a mere verbal difference, is not between Autrecourt and Buridan, but rather between Ockham, Autrecourt, Buridan and their ilk on the one hand and the philosophers and theologians of the 13th century on the other, whose conceptual framework did not allow the emergence of demon-skepticism in the first place. [For this point see my "Ontological Alternatives"] In fact, I suspect that Buridan’s censures directed against Autrecourt both on the academic and on the administrative fronts were but well-devised moves in his great maneuver of depriving Ockhamism of its menacing radical look, and presenting it as a calm, harmless, and simple alternative way of doing philosophy. But all he did with these censures was basically just tone down Autrecourt’s language, while leaving the conceptual framework which in fact introduced a radical novelty, namely, the possibility of demon skepticism, entirely untouched. Indeed, it was precisely this "toning down" of the language that allowed the radically new conceptual framework to catch on and to gain its own authority.

So, the lesson here seems to be that when there are basic conceptual agreements, then the semantic differences are trivial, the conflicts are merely verbal, and the situation can be rectified by correcting aberrant usage by an appeal to authority and common usage. But such maneuvers will never make any difference in the solution of serious conceptual differences on other fronts, of which the radical, aberrant language may have been just an exaggerated expression.

The case seems to be rather different, however, with the conflict concerning complexe significabilia.

As Jack’s references very nicely illustrate this point, complexe significabilia belong to an older conceptual framework, in which assigning distinct semantic values to different syntactic items was not thought to generate unwanted ontological commitment, as long as the "extra" semantic values were assigned a diminished ontological status in terms of distinctions between various senses of the terms ‘being’, ‘thing’, ‘something’, etc.

[Indeed, this general strategy is obvious not only in the treatment of complexe significabilia by their advocates, but also in the treatment of the categories by those who wanted to assign distinct entities to the terms in the accidental categories as their semantic values. When Pseudo-Campsall answers Ockham’s charges that positing distinct relational entities would have weird ontological consequences, such as action at distance, he points out that those consequences are not weird at all, but they only confirm the fact that those entities are entities of a radically different kind.]

On the other hand, in the new nominalist semantics unwanted ontological commitment was handled always in terms of identifying the semantic values of different syntactic categories, in a radically different logical framework. So, when nominalists accuse realists of overpopulating their ontology only because of their "ignorance of logic", one feels the urge to ask: ignorance of which logic?

To be sure, from the point of view of nominalist, via moderna logic, complexe significabilia and inherent universals signified by common terms in all categories are semantically superfluous, and ontologically weird items. But given the analysis of predication and the corresponding semantic theory of the copula in the "realist" via antiqua logic, they are necessary components of the semantic theory, which have to be accounted for separately in a relatively independent ontology (in which, nevertheless, they may still be eliminated in various ways). Now in this situation the semantic disagreement is far from trivial, and cannot be settled with an appeal to common usage. For the point is that in this case there is no common usage. The new semantics of the nominalists simply managed to catch on, thereby establishing a new usage with its own authoritative positions, but apparently without any sound theoretical justification. For example, the only justification Buridan offers for his identity-theory of the copula is that it is a first principle. But how could it be, if just a generation earlier everybody thought otherwise, and advocated the inherence-theory? But then, what can possibly justify Buridan’s move? Indeed, the big questions for us are precisely whether there is, can be, or has to be such a justification, and if so, then what such a justification can appeal to.

From this point of view the work of the medieval artistae can hardly be deemed insignificant. On the contrary, their work constituted the first and most significant move towards the emergence of modern philosophy, in which the type of paradigm-shift they initiated, introducing profound theoretical changes on the semantic level of philosophical discourse, has become the rule, rather than the exception. But then we can understand our modern situation much better, if we carefully study this phenomenon at its roots, as it first emerged in a very different intellectual historical context.

Therefore, in conclusion, let me just raise for the discussion what I described above as the big questions for us in this context, namely, whether there is, can be, or has to be a theoretical justification for the paradigm-shift introduced by the new nominalist semantics, and if so, what is it that such a justification can appeal to, and if not, on what basis can we claim the opposite?