[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, 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; exclusive part of 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; exclusive part of 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
SemnaticallyComplexComplex 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

[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:

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


First published: 13/9/2021