[4.17.5] John Buridan on Simple and Complex Terms and Concepts

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

  • Terms can be spoken utterances, written inscriptionsand concepts in mind.
  • Syntactically simple spoken and written terms signify concepts that are semantically simple.
  • Syntactically complex expressions combine syntactically simple spoken and written terms (words). 
  • Semantically complex concepts (mental expressions) combine semantically simple concepts.
  • Semantically simple expressions signify concepts. (e.g., when the expression ‘men’s best friend’ signifies a dog)
  • Semantically complex expressions signify complex concepts. (e.g., when the expression ‘men’s best friend’ is taken literally)

Overall, Buridan sustains the divergence between the simplicity/complexity of the grammatical and conceptual structures.

The following OntoUML diagram pictures the main classes of simple and complex terms, expressions and concepts:

Buridan on simple and complex terms, expressions and concepts
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).
Spoken-WrittenTermSpoken or written terms are utterances or inscriptions.
“What a [spoken or written] term immediately signifies is the mental act [concept] 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; signifies Concept; componentOf Expression
SyntacticallySimple“A syntactically simple utterance is one that is imposed to designate a concept as a whole, so that, although it does [or could] have distinguishable parts, none of its parts, as such, is imposed to designate some concept separately. Indeed, even if the utterance in question does have distinguishable parts that are imposed to designate some concepts separately when they do not occur as a part of this utterance, because they do not have the function of designating these concepts when they do occur as parts of this utterance, the utterance is still syntactically simple. For example, the obviously simple English word ‘polecat’ is imposed as a whole to signify a concept whereby we conceive of a particular species of stinky animals. However, a polecat is neither a pole nor a cat. Even if the utterance ‘polecat’ has the distinguishable parts ‘pole’ and ‘cat’ which separately are also imposed in English to signify concepts whereby we conceive of some sorts of things, these concepts have nothing to do with the concept to which ‘polecat’ is subordinated. The representative function of this concept is in no way dependent on the representative function of those other concepts, and, so, the signification of this utterance is in no way dependent on the signification of its parts.” (Klima)characterizes Spoken-WrittenTerm
SemanticallyComplex Spoken-WrittenTermWe have semantically complex spoken and written terms, when a “a syntactically simple utterance may obviously be semantically complex by virtue of being subordinated to a complex concept.” (Klima)subkind of Spoken-WrittenTerm; signifies ComplexConcept
Expression“a spoken expression is an utterance made up of several words” (Buridan)subkind of Spoken-WrittenTerm
SyntacticallyComplexSyntactically Complex: made up of several words. characterizes Expression
SemanticallyComplexExpression “Further, a spoken expression should be called an [semantically complex] ‘expression’ only insofar as it designates a combination of concepts in the mind.” (Buridan)role of Expression; signifies ComplexConcept
SemanticallySimpleExpression“despite possible appearances to the contrary, the combination of written and spoken words does not always have to run strictly parallel to
the combination of concepts in the mind. As Buridan continues:
For if the whole utterance ‘A man runs’ were imposed to signify simply stones, as the utterance ‘stone’ does, then ‘A man runs’ would not be an expression, but a simple word, as is ‘stone’. Hence, something is called a spoken expression or proposition only because it designates a mental expression or proposition, and a spoken proposition is called true or false only because it designates a true or false mental proposition, just as a urine sample is said to be healthy or unhealthy only because it designates that the animal is healthy or ill. It is in the same way that every utterance that appropriately designates a simple concept by convention [ex institutione] is said to be incomplex, [precisely] because it is subordinated in order to designate a simple concept.
That is to say, just because some spoken or written sign has some sort of recognizable complexity (as even single words consist of syllables, and those of sounds or letters), one must not assume that the corresponding concept has some corresponding complexity. Indeed, it happens even in ordinary usage that an originally complex phrase is transferred to designate a simple concept. This is the case, for example, with the phrase “man’s best friend” in English, which, at least according to one of its uses, is transferred to designate the same concept that is designated by the simple word “dog,” which, as we can assume with Buridan, is a simple concept.” (Klima)
role of Expression; signifies Concept
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; componentOf ComplexConcept
SemanticallySimpleA concept is semantically simple.characterizes Concept
ComplexConceptSyncategorematic concepts modify the representative function of categorematic concepts by forming with them new concepts that have a representative function different from that of the original categorematic concept. Therefore, it is natural to think of these new concepts as resulting from the combination of categorematic and syncategorematic concepts, and thus, as having some intrinsic structure, that is to say, a certain complexity. Indeed, when Buridan is talking about complex concepts as being the result of combination [complexio], he definitely gives us the impression that the conceptual combination in question strictly parallels the syntactical combination of the corresponding written or spoken phrases. […]
The combination [complexio] of simple concepts is called a ‘mental expression’, [and results from] compounding or dividing [componendo vel dividendo] by means of the second operation of the intellect, and the terms of such an expression are the simple concepts that the intellect puts together or separates. Now, just as simple concepts are designated for us by means of simple utterances, which we call ‘words’, so also do we designate a combination of simple concepts by a combination of words. It is for this reason that a spoken expression is an utterance made up of several words, which signifies for us the combination of concepts in the mind.” (Klima, Buridan)
subkind of Concept
SemanticallyComplexComplex concepts, or mental expressions are semantically complex. characterizes ComplexConcept
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 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


First published: 3/10/2021

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