[4.18.1] Ockham on Mental Language

William Ockham (1285-1349 AD) in Summa of Logic and Quodlibet writes about the mental language and its relation to written and spoken language (see also [4.0.1]):

  • Concepts (mental terms) are acts of understanding of objects.
  • Concepts, through their likeness to objects, signify those naturally. Because of this, we say that mental language is natural.
  • The mind combines concepts into mental propositions; both are mental expressions and part of the mental language.
  • Concepts can be mental names, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, propositions.
  • Concepts are non-accidental, meaning that names don’t have case, number, comparison, gender, declension, and verbs don’t have mood, voice, person, number, tense, conjugation, inflection.
  • Spoken terms (utterances) signify concepts conventionally.
  • Spoken terms can be combined into spoken propositions; both are spoken expressions and part of the spoken language.
  • Spoken expressions signify (or are subordinated to) mental expressions through language-specific conventions; this is why the spoken and written language is conventional language. This spoken expression – mental expression signification makes possible the translation between languages.
  • Spoken expressions are synonyms if we have a many-to-one signification relation to mental expressions, and equivocals if we have a one-to-many signification relation to mental expressions.
  • Written terms signify conventionally spoken terms. We can model the written language with similar classes as for the spoken language.

The following OntoUML diagram presents the main classes of Ockham’s theory of mental language.

Ockham on mental language

The following OntoUML diagram pictures the main classes of Ockham’s model of mental language:

ClassDescriptionRelations
ObjectAn object, a thing or state of affairs in the external world.
TermTerm generalizes the properties os concepts, utterances and inscriptions.generalizes Concept; SpokenTerm, WrittenTerm
ConceptA concept [mental term] is an act of understanding of the Object signified:
“There was a great disagreement in the Middle Ages about what it is that linguistic units signify, but there was universal agreement over the Aristotle tells us that although spoken and written terms differ from linguistic community to linguistic community, mental terms or concepts (as Boethius interpreted the passage) do not. They ‘are the same for all.’
This doesn’t mean that everyone has exactly the same supply of concepts, since that’s plainly not so; we think about and know about different things. […] it means is that, for example, my concept 'man‘ and your concept 'man‘ differ only ‘numerically,’ as they said. That is, they are exact duplicates of one another. They do not differ in the way the English spoken word ‘man’ differs from the Latin spoken word ‘homo’ or from the Greek spoken word ‘ἄνθροπος’, which are more than numerically different. (They don’t sound at all alike.) In short, what Aristotle is saying in this text is that, while we may speak and write in different languages, we all think in the same language.
[…] Concepts are private and mind-dependent”
subkind of MentalExpression; signifies naturally the Object; shared part of MentalProposition and MentalLanguage
Non-accidentalConcepts are non-accidental:
“While Ockham says that mental language reflects spoken and written language to the extent that it too has parts of speech, and even (apart from the two doubtful cases we have just discussed) the same parts of speech, nevertheless there are other grammatical features of spoken and written language that do not carry over into mental language [namely in concepts].
Here Ockham’s Quodlibet 5, q. 8, gives the fuller account. In that question he distinguishes two main kinds of grammatical ‘accidents’ — that is, grammatical properties — of spoken (and written) words: ‘common’ accidents and ‘proper’ ones.”
Common grammatical accidents for names are: case, number, comparison, quality.
Proper grammatical accidents for names are: gender, declension.
Common grammatical accidents for verbs are: mood, voice, person, numer, tense.
Proper grammatical accidents for verbs are: conjugation, inflection.
characterizes Concept
Likeness“Aristotle tells us […] that concepts or mental terms are likenesses of real things and that real things are just what they are, the same for everybody. A stone is just a stone, and that’s the end of the matter. It doesn’t change its structure or nature depending on who’s thinking about it. It is “objective” in the sense of being interpersonally invariant. We all therefore live in the same world, ontologically speaking. There is no room for any sort of “ontological relativity” (to use Quine’s phrase) in this Aristotelian doctrine.
Now concepts, Aristotle has just told us, are likenesses of these interpersonally invariant things. That is, the relation between a concept and what it is a concept of is a relation of similarity or likeness. […]
Here let’s just explore some of the consequences of the doctrine. Similarity, when it occurs, is an objective fact. There is nothing conventional about it at all. (Of course, it may be a matter of convention or cultural conditioning which similarities matter to us, or which ones we notice. But that is an altogether different question.) If Socrates and Plato, for example, are alike to the extent that they are both over six feet tall, then that fact does not depend on anyone’s convention; it is, so to speak, a fact of ‘nature.’”
relates Concept with Object
MentalProposition“Ockham many times says explicitly that mental propositions are composed, made up, of mental terms — that is, of concepts. He says it for example in Summa of Logic I.1, § 6:
‘A conceived term is an intention or passion of the soul naturally signifying or consignifying something [and] apt to be a part of a mental proposition…’
[…] This is clear from the fact that for every spoken expression, true or false, there corresponds some mental proposition put together out of concepts. Therefore, just as the parts of the spoken proposition that are imposed to signify things on account of the necessity of signification or expression (for it is impossible to express all [things] by means of verbs and names alone that can be expressed by means of [them together with] the other parts of speech) are distinct parts, so [too] the parts of the mental proposition that correspond to utterances are distinct, to make distinct true and false propositions.”
subkind of MentalExpression; shared part of MentalLanguage
MentalExpressionMental expressions are concepts and mental propositions.
MentalLanguage“Ockham says that there are parts of speech in mental language just as in spoken language — nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc. […]”
Natural“What is the most basic feature that distinguishes mental language from spoken or written language? Answer: Mental language is supposed to be a natural language, whereas spoken language and written languages are conventional. To say that mental language is “natural” is to say that its features are not established by choice or convention, but by nature. They’re not up to us.” characterizes MentalLanguage
MentalName; MentalVerb; MentalAdverb; MentalConjunction; MentalPreposition“As for the first point, I say that just as among spoken and written terms some are names, [while] others [are] verbs, others pronouns, others participles, others adverbs, others conjunctions, [and] others prepositions, so [too] among mental concepts some concepts are [mental] names, others [are] [mental] verbs, others [mental] adverbs, others [mental] conjunctions, [and] others [mental] prepositions.”Subkind of Concept
SpokenTermA spoken term signifes conventionally a Concept. subkind of Term; signifies conventionally Concept
SpokenName; SpokenVerb; SpokenPronoun; SpokenConjunction; SpokenAdverb; SpokenPartciple; SpokenPreposition “As for the first point, I say that just as among spoken […] terms some are [spoken] names, [while] others [are] [spoken] verbs, others [spoken] pronouns, others [spoken] participles, others [spoken] adverbs, others [spoken] conjunctions, [and] others [spoken] prepositions […]”subkinds of SpokenTerms
ConventionA spoken expression signifies a mental expression by convention:
“we will also see authors talking about the signification of words and inscriptions as conventional (= ad placitum, literally “at your pleasure”) signification. So too, we will see people refer to spoken and written language as a whole as artificial or conventional, in contrast to mental language, which is natural. […] The conventions can be changed, with the result that there are different languages over time. And for that matter the conventions can vary at any one time, so that there are several distinct languages all coexisting simultaneously (like English and French).”
relates SpokenExpression with MentalExpression
Synonim “The term ‘rock’ and the term ‘stone’, let us say, are synonyms. They are subordinated to the same concept, which is a natural likeness of all stones (rocks) in the relevant sense […]
In short, where the subordination relation is many-one, we have synonymy.
[…] It is this fact that accounts for the possibility of translating from one language to another. Insofar as a translation is supposed to ‘express the same thought’ as the original, we can say that a statement in one language is a correct translation of a statement in another language iff the two statements are subordinated to the same mental proposition.
This suggests that mental language can provide us with a general account of synonymy, not only of interlinguistic synonymy (as with translation) but of intralinguistic synonymy too. Two expressions — whether terms, whole propositions or whatever, whether from different languages or from the same language —
are synonymous iff they are subordinated to the same mental expression. […]
role of SpokenExpression; relates materially to MentalExpression
SynonimitySynonimity relates Synonim with mental expression. relates Synonim with MentalExpression
Equivocal“Ockham says in his Summa of Logic I.3, § 3:
Now an utterance is ‘equivocal’ if it signifies several [things and] is not a sign subordinated to one concept, but is instead a sign subordinated to several concepts or intentions of the soul.
Thus a spoken (and presumably also a written) expression is equivocal iff it is subordinated to more than one mental expression. Ockham goes on to say this holds not only for intralinguistic equivocation, but also for interlinguistic equivocation. It is a little hard to think of good examples of interlinguistic equivocation, but for spoken language consider the Latin ‘homo’ (= man) and the Greek prefix ‘ὁμο-’ (= the same). For written language, consider the sentence ‘Jam dies’. In English it affirms the mortality of that sweet substance one spreads on toast. (It’s an odd thing to say, of course, but that doesn’t matter here.) In Latin it says ‘Now it is day.’ In short, where the subordination relation is many-one, we have synonymy. Where it is one-many, we have equivocation.”
[…] Ockham’s text in Summa of Logic I.13, rules out equivocal terms in mental language, it says nothing at all about mental propositions.”
role of SpokenExpression; relates materially to MentalExpression
EquivocationEquivocation relates synonim with mental expression. relates Equivocal with MentalExpression
SpokenPropositionSpoken propositions are composed of spoken terms, namely spoken names, verbs, pronouns, conjunctions, adverbs, partciples and prepositions. shared part of SpokenLanguage
SpokenExpressionSpoken expressions are spoken terms and spoken propositions.signifies conventionally MentalExpression
SpokenLanguage“Ockham says (§ 1) that there are parts of speech in mental language just as in spoken language — nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc. He says the same thing […]:
As for the first point, I say that just as among spoken and written terms some are names, [while] others [are] verbs, others pronouns, others participles, others adverbs, others conjunctions, [and] others prepositions, so [too] among mental concepts some concepts are names, others [are] verbs, others adverbs, others conjunctions,
[and] others prepositions.
WrittenTermA written term signifies conventionally a spoken term. We can model the written language with the same class structure as the spoken language. signifies conventionally the SpokenTerm

Sources:

First published: 13/9/2021

[4.17.2] John Buridan on Language

John Buridan (Jean Buridan 1301-1358) in Sophismata, Quaestiones in Porphyrii Isagogen and Summulae de Dialectica writes about the mechanism of interpretation and concept formation in languages:

  • Meaningful utterances and inscriptions generate understanding in the mind; thus, they belong to a conventional language. Buridan thinks that each inscription and utterance is singular, i.e., if a person pronounces twice the phrase "Socrates is a man," that is two utterances, and as such two tokens.
  • Meaningful utterances and inscriptions are singular tokensSimilar tokens are recognized by the human mind and grouped in token types. E.g., the utterance "Socrates is a man" and the inscription "Socrates is a human" are similar, and as such they belong to the same token type.
  • The mind subordinates the token types and the belonging tokens to the mental concept through the interpretation process, characterized by a context, which includes conditions like where, when, by whom, to whom, intention, etc. A mental concept is an act of understanding in a singular mind.
  • The mental concept can not vary its semantic features in a given mind. “The same concept always represents the same things in the same way, so there is not even a variation of supposition in mental language in the way there is in spoken or written languages”.
  • Conventional interpretations are of proper sense, while otherwise of improper sense. Improper sense interpretation can be ironic, figurative, metaphoric, etc.
  • Buridan’s model of language is thoroughly nominalist (see [4.4.1]).
  • Buridan thinks, that the concepts form a natural and mental language, which is prior to spoken and written conventional languages, like English, Latin, French, Greek, Hungarian etc. (see [4.0.1])
  • (Buridan never used the terms token and token type, however, those entities are present in his model.)

The following OntoUML diagram shows the mechanism of understanding for natural language according to Buridan:

ClassDescriptionRelations
MindA human mind.
Conceptconcepts, the acts of understanding which render utterances and inscriptions meaningful, are just as singular as as are the utterances and inscriptions themselves. In addition, the acts of imposition whereby we subordinate utterances and inscriptions to concepts are singular, voluntary acts. This renders the relation of subordination conventional and changeable from one occasion of use to the next. So, the correlation of these singular items, inscriptions, utterances, and concepts is to be established in a piecemeal way, by carefully evaluating which utterance or inscription is subordinated to which concept in whose mind, on which occasion of its use, in what context. […]
Buridan makes it quite clear that in his view a concept cannot vary its semantic features, which means that there is no ambiguity in mental language. The same concept always represents the same things in the same way, so there is not even a variation of supposition in mental language in the way there is in spoken or written languages”
exclusive part of Mind; signifies Object
ObjectAn object, a thing or state of affairs in the external world.
TokenType“Individual linguistic signs, symbol tokens, come in types [token types] based on their recognizable similarities. Indeed, even if some tokens are not inherently similar, such as the íupper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet (A, a, B, b, etc.) or different fonts or typefaces (a, a, a, etc.), we are trained early on to recognize them as similar. Obviously, the same applies to utterances at an even earlier stage, in a less formally educational setting, leaving much to our natural abilities to recognize phonemic similarities. Therefore, what primarily allows any sort of uniformity of interpretation is the fact that even if in principle any token of any type can be interpreted ad placitum at any time, tokens are interpreted in types. Once we specify the relevant variable conditions of interpretation, such as when, where, by whom, to whom, according to what intention, and so on a token is to be interpreted, then any token of the same type under the same conditions is to be interpreted in the same way. That is to say, a rule that applies to a token in virtue of its interpretation as belonging to a given type under such and such conditions of its use applies to all tokens of the same type under the same conditions. To be sure, Buridan never talks about tokens or types. This is modern terminology, which I bring in to summarize the gist of Buridan’s ideas.”subordinated to Concept
Token“Buridan does talk about the fact that any linguistic sign (whether spoken [utterance], written [incription], or even mental) is a singular occurrence (which we call a token). He also talks about the fact that some of these are recognizably similar (thereby constituting what we would call a type), and about the fact that once we fix the variable conditions of interpretation, then talking about one token is equivalent to talking about all.” belongs to TokenType
Similarity “Individual linguistic signs, symbol tokens, come in types [token types] based on their recognizable similarities. Indeed, even if some tokens are not inherently similar, such as the íupper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet (A, a, B, b, etc.) or different fonts or typefaces (a, a, a, etc.), we are trained early on to recognize them as similar.” relates TokenType with Token
Utterance; Inscription “[…] any spoken language is but a system of singular utterances [vox], while any written language is but a system of singular inscriptions. Moreover, it is obvious that any such utterance or inscription belongs to a language only insofar as it produces some understanding in the minds of competent users of the language, that is to say, insofar as it is meaningful at all. […]
Buridan does talk about the fact that any linguistic sign (whether spoken [utterance], written [incription], or even mental) is a singular occurrence (which we call a token) ”
subtype of Token
Interpretation“That is to say, a rule that applies to a token in virtue of its interpretation as belonging to a given type under such and such conditions of its use applies to all tokens of the same type under the same conditions. […]
To be sure, the correct interpretation need not be the interpretation expressing the proper or primary sense, because occasionally the correct, intended interpretation is provided by some improper, secondary sense of the phrase in question. In fact, this is precisely why it is the intention expressed by the phrase on the given occasion of its use that determines its correct semantic evaluation. The reason for this is that the written or spoken phrase has any sense whatsoever only in virtue of the fact that it is subordinated to the concept or intention it is supposed to express according to the intended interpretation, for it signifies just what is conceived by the corresponding concept. So, the correct interpretation of an utterance or inscription is fixed by the mental concept to which the utterance or inscription is actually subordinated on a particular occasion of its use. Consequently, the reason why tokens of the same type have the same semantic features allowing us the primacy of mental language to evaluate them in the same way in the same type of context is that under these circumstances they are subordinated to the same concept. […]
So, although we can use any utterance and inscription in the way we wish, once it is conventionally instituted to signify somehow, that established signifcation is to be regarded as its proper, primary sense, and any other only as a secondary, improper sense. Nevertheless, there is no hard and fast rule that says that we should take the expressions of our spoken or written languages always in their primary sense, and that we should evaluate our propositions for their truth or falsity accordingly. On the contrary, sometimes we are obliged to take written or spoken expressions in their secondary, improper sense, if that is what is intended. […]
the occurrences of two token-terms of the same type (provided they are interpreted in the same way) are subordinated to numerically one and the same concept in the same mind, and so, given that whatever semantic features they have they have from the semantic features of the concept,
no wonder they will have exactly the same semantic features. But then, if the semantic features of concepts are not variable, this certainly suffi ciently fixes the interpretation of token-terms according to a given subordination, for according to that subordination they will all be subordinated”
relates Concept with TokenType
ContextContext is the “variable conditions of interpretation, such as when, where, by whom, to whom, according to what intention, and so on a token is to be interpreted […]
So, in the specification of acts of imposition we might use variables indistinctly referring to any number of individual users, various times, places, or any other relevant contextual factors […]”
characterizes Interpretation
ProperSense; ImproperSense “So, although we can use any utterance and inscription in the way we wish, once it is conventionally instituted to signify somehow, that established signifcation is to be regarded as its proper, primary sense, and any other only as a secondary, improper sense.”
Improper sense interpretation can be ironic, figurative, metaphoric, etc.
subkinds of Interpretation
Convention“So, although we can use any utterance and inscription in the way we wish, once it is conventionally instituted to signify somehow, that established signification is to be regarded as its proper, primary sense, and any other only as a secondary, improper sense.”
Convention might vary in time.
characterizes ProperSense

Sources:

  • All citations from: Klima, Gyula, “John Buridan”, Oxford University Press, 2009
  • Zupko, Jack, “John Buridan“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 14/8/2021
Updated: 20/8/2021