Sunday, August 13, 2006

Commentary: Buridan's Fourth Sophism: The name 'chimera' signifies nothing

Buridan begins by laying out a proof in favor of this sophism. The proof runs:

(1) The name 'chimera' cannot signify anything other than a chimera
(2) A chimera is nothing
(C) Therefore 'chimera' signifies nothing

i.e. if 'chimera' is to signify something, it must signify either a chimera or something other than a chimera. it cannot signify something other than a chimera (by ( 1)). the only other option then is that it signifies a chimera. but a chimera is nothing (by (2)). therefore, 'chimera' signifies nothing.

In support of this, Buridan's opponent says, among other things:

P.1.1.1 'chimera' signifies nothing other than a chimera in the same way that 'man' signifies nothing other than man, 'whiteness' signifies nothing other than whiteness, etc
P.1.1.2 He also offers confirmation by induction, since 'chimera' doesn't signify a donkey, nor a goat, nor whiteness, nor sweetness, etc.
P.1.1.3 Even if it signified something other than a chimera, it would still signify nothing. For, nothing is other than a chimera, which is nothing.
P.1.1.4 Reductio ad absurdum: If 'chimera' signified something, then what it signified would correspond with reality. This would mean that "A chimera is a chimera" would be true, which is not conceded. QED.

Against these, an opponent argues:
O.1 The opposite is argued, by reductio. For then it would not be an utterance any more significative than is 'bu' or 'ba', which is not conceded. I.e. If the name 'chimera' signified nothing, then the name 'chimera' would be no more significative than nonsense words or flatus voci, which is clearly false.

O.2 Names are conventionally significative. They are conventionally significative because they have been imposed to signify something. Therefore every name is significative of something. Since 'chimera' is a name, it must be significative of something. QED.

Buridan responds by saying:

"To the fourth sophism I reply that it is false, and I concede that the name 'chimera' does not signify a chimera, nor something other than a chimera: for nothing is other than a chimera, since a chimera is nothing, and nothing is other than a non-being. But it does signify many things that are not chimeras, but without any of them being a chimera. Nor is the case similar with the terms 'man' and 'whiteness', for to those there correspond simple concepts that supposit for something. And [thus], in short, all the arguments have been solved on the basis of what has been laid down."

Buridan's conclusion is that while there is one sense in which 'chimera' signifies nothing, i.e. it has not been imposed as a conventionally significative name of something, whether a particular or a concept, this does not exhaust the possibility that it signifies. However, the curious thing is that while he makes this point seemingly in opposition to the sophism that would lead one to conclude that 'chimera' has been imposed to signify something, i.e. nothing, he continues to say that "it does signify many things that are not chimeras. " But what are these things that it does signify? And how does this get squared with the fact that he has said that 'chimera' signifies neither a chimera nor something other than a chimera. Mustn't these things that it does signify be either a chimera or something other than a chimera (i.e. either Cx ^ ~Cx), by the law of the excluded middle?

It seems that the solution to this problem is that Buridan is using 'signifies' equivocally in his response. What he means is not that 'chimera' personally (i.e. stands for a chimera) or materially (i.e. stands for the word 'chimera') signifies some things for which it supposits, but that it calls to mind (i.e. signifies) some things other than chimeras without actually suppositing for them.

Earlier in the work, in Treatise 4, Chapter 1, Buridan deals with Peter of Spain's distinction of the difference between signification and supposition. Peter writes:

"(1) Therefore, taking signification and supposition in this way, signification differs from supposition. For any word that is a part of a proposition not taken materially signifies and gives rise to some concept in the person hearing it according to the signification conventionally given to it. (2) But not every such word has supposition, for only such a term is apt to supposit that, when something is pointed out by the pronoun 'this', or when some things are pointed out by the pronoun 'these', can truly be affirmed of that pronoun. Therefore the term 'chimera' cannot supposit, for whatever is pointed out, it is false to say 'This is a chimera', and whichever things are pointed out, it is false to say, 'These are a chimera'."

So, 'chimera' does not supposit for anything, but neither does it supposit or signify nothing. It signifies, but only in the sense of calling to mind, many things in the speaker and the hearer, which are nevertheless not chimeras, as Buridan has said in his response to the sophism. What these are that are called to mind remains shadowy, but Buridan is willing to allow for them, and even allow that what gets called to mind can be the same between speaker and hearer. How this works or could work, or must work, or does not work, brings to light one of the most difficult and profound questions in M&E.


Blogger Ocham said...

Interested to see a blog with this title! I am currently working on translations of the various commentaries on the Perihermaneias (Boethius, Aquinas, Abelard) that deal with this question.

What is the source of your quotations? Are you working from the Latin or translations?

12:07 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

I'm working from translations. Need to learn Latin. For the Buridan I'm using Klima's translation.

12:14 AM  

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