[4.17.4] John Buridan on the Supposition of Categorematic and Syncategorematic Term

John Buridan (Jean Buridan 1301-1358) in Summulae de Dialectica writes about types of terms, signification, and supposition:

  • Propositions (sentences) are made up of terms.
  • Terms in a proposition refer to others (suppositum or supposita); this relation is called supposition. The supposition of a term always occurs in a propositional context and can be entirely different from its signification (see [4.0.1][4.17.2][4.17.3]).
  • Spoken and written terms and concepts can be categorematic and syncategorematic.  The former represents something in themselves (e.g., man, Aristotle, number), the latter represents something connected with other concepts (e.g. non in nonhuman).
  • Syncategorematic terms signify immediately syncategorematiconcepts, while categorematic terms signify immediatley categorematiconcepts and ultimately objects.
  • Categorematic terms can participate in material and personal supposition (see [4.0.2]), while syncategorematic terms can participate only in material supposition.

The following OntoUML diagram pictures the main classes of the types of terms, signification and supposition.

Buridan on terms, signification, supposition
Propositionproposition or sentence is made up of terms.
TermA mental, spoken, or written term.
“It should, therefore, be realized that three kinds of expressions and three kinds of terms can be distinguished, as is touched upon at the beginning of On Interpretation: namely, mental, spoken, and written” (Buridan)
shared part of Proposition
Supposition“What sort of relation is supposition? Well, the first thing we can say about it is that supposition is a semantic relation. To a first (but pretty good) approximation, supposition in this first part of the theory is what nowadays we call ‘reference.’ It is the relation between the terms used in a proposition and the things those terms are used to talk about in that proposition. […] supposition occurs only in a propositional context. And this is the first main difference between supposition and signification, which can occur outside a propositional context according to almost any author.
The second main difference is this: We do not always in practice use terms in propositions to talk about what those terms signify. We use them in a variety of other ways too. Hence supposition also differs from signification insofar as a term may signify one thing, but supposit on a given occasion for something entirely different.” (Spade)
relates Terms
Spoken_WrittenTermSpoken or written terms are utterances or inscriptions.
“What a [spoken or written] term immediately signifies is the mental act on account of which we recognize the term as a significative utterance or inscription, as opposed to some articulate sound or discernible scribble that makes no sense to us at all. Thus, those utterances that do have signifi cation are meaningful precisely because they are associated with some act of understanding, or, in late scholastic terminology, because they are subordinated to some concept of the human mind, whatever such a concept is, namely, whether it is some spiritual modification of an immaterial mind or just a firing pattern of neurons in the brain.” (Klima)
subkind of Term
SyncategorematicTermSyncategorematic terms may signify only the syncategorematic concept to which they are subordinated. Because the function of such a concept (for example, the concept of negation, conjunction, and similar logical connectives) is not to conceive of anything, but merely to modify the representative function of other concepts, the purely syncategorematic term subordinated to it will not signify anything else. […]
For example, the term-negation ‘non’ in the term ‘nonhuman’ does not signify anything in extramental reality, for there is no such a thing as a negation in re existing on a par with humans, beasts, plants, and rocks. However, this does not mean that this word does not signify at all. For even if it does not signify something, it does signify somehow: even if it does not signify a negation in re, it does signify negatively, namely, by negating the significata of the categorematic term with which it is construed, so that the resulting complex term supposits in a proposition for what is not signified by the negated categorematic term. […]
syncategorematic terms can have material supposition (thus the term ‘non’ in ‘Non est negatio’ can be taken to stand materiallyfor its immediate signifi cata, the token concepts of negation in individual human minds or itself and other tokens of the same type).”
subkind of Spoken_WrittenTerm; immediately signifies SyncategorematicConcept
CategorematicTerm“A categorematic term, therefore, is said to signify the concept to which it is subordinated immediately, but it is imposed to signify ultimately the object (or objects) conceived by this concept, in the manner that it is (or they are) conceived by means of this concept […]
Obviously, in accordance with these descriptions, only categorematic terms can have personal supposition (since only they have ultimate signifi cata), but both categorematic and syncategorematic terms can have material supposition“. (Klima)
subkind of Spoken_WrittenTerm; immediately signifies CategorematicConcept; ultimately signifies Object
MixedTerm“To be sure, there are also some “mixed” terms, which, for example primarily signify some syncategorematic act of the mind, but also connote, on account of the connotation of the concept they are subordinated to, something ad extra, such as the verbal copula, which primarily signifies the mental act of composition (the joining of subject and predicate in a proposition), but also connotes some time relative to the present time of the speaker.” (Klima)mixes CategorematicTerm and SyncategorematicTerm
MaterialSupposition; PersonalSupposition“We have also seen that in various propositional contexts the same term may not stand for its ultimatesignificata at all, but either for its immediate significata (the token concepts it is subordinated to) or for itself and other token terms of the same kind. In all such cases, when a term does not stand for its ultimate significata, Buridan says that it is taken nonsignificatively, that is, materially, or in material supposition. By contrast, when a categorematic term stands for its ultimate significata, it is taken significatively, or in personal supposition.” (Klima)
Material supposition is a subkind of supposition. For conventional (written and spoken) languages Buridan accepts Ockham’s view on supposition. For more details please check [4.0.2].
subkind of Supposition; relates CategorematicTerms
MaterialSupposition forSyncatogramaticTermsSyncategorematic terms can have just material suppositionsubkind of Supposition
ConceptA concept is a term in mental language an act of understanding. 
“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” (Klima)
subkind of Term
SyncategorematicConcept“Concepts, being representative acts of the mind, are naturally classified in terms of their representative function, which in turn is specified in terms of what and how these concepts represent or naturally signify. However, some concepts represent something only in connection with other concepts, whereas others represent something in themselves. The former are called syncategorematic, whereas the latter are called categorematic concepts.” (Klima)subkind of Concept
CategorematicConcept“Concepts, being representative acts of the mind, are naturally classified in terms of their representative function, which in turn is specifi ed in terms of what and how these concepts represent or naturally signify. However, some concepts represent something only in connection with other concepts, whereas others represent something in themselves. The former are called syncategorematic, whereas the latter are called categorematic concepts.” (Klima)subkind of Concept; signifies Object
ObjectAn object, a thing or state of affairs in the external (or internal) world.


First published: 3/10/2021 first use of VisualParadigm OntoUML plugin

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