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The theory of supposition

The theory of supposition

Many of the characteristically medieval logical doctrines in the Logica moderna centred on the notion of "supposition" (suppositio). Already by the late 12th century, the theory of supposition had begun to form. In the 13th century, special treatises on the topic multiplied. The summulists all discussed it at length. Then, after about 1270, rela...

The theory of supposition

Many of the characteristically medieval logical doctrines in the Logica moderna centered on the notion of “supposition” (suppositio). Already by the late 12th century, the theory of supposition had begun to form. In the 13th century, special treatises on the topic multiplied. The summulists all discussed it at length. Then, after about 1270, relatively little was heard about it. In France, supposition theory was replaced by a theory of “speculative grammar” or “modism” (so called because it appealed to “modes of signifying”). Modism was not so popular in England, but there too the theory of supposition was largely neglected in the late 13th century. In the early 14th century, the theory reemerged both in England and on the Continent. Burley wrote a treatise on the topic about 1302, and Buridan revived the theory in France in the 1320s. Thereafter the theory remained the main vehicle for semantic analysis until the end of the Middle Ages.

Supposition theory, at least in its 14th-century form, is best viewed as two theories under one name. The first, sometimes called the theory of “supposition proper,” is a theory of reference and answers the question “To what does a given occurrence of a term refer in a given proposition?” In general (the details depend on the author), three main types of supposition were distinguished: (1) personal supposition (which, despite the name, need not have anything to do with persons), (2) simple supposition, and (3) material supposition. These types are illustrated, respectively, by the occurrences of the term horse in the statements “Every horse is an animal” (in which the term horse refers to individual horses), “Horse is a species” (in which the term refers to a universal), and “Horse is a monosyllable” (in which it refers to the spoken or written word). The theory was elaborated and refined by considering how reference may be broadened by tense and modal factors (for example, the term horse in “Every horse will die,” which may refer to future as well as present horses) or narrowed by adjectives or other factors (for example, horse in “Every horse in the race is less than two years old”).

The second part of supposition theory applies only to terms in personal supposition. It divides personal supposition into several types, including (again the details vary according to the author): (1) determinate (e.g., horse in “Some horse is running”), (2) confused and distributive (e.g., horse in “Every horse is an animal”), and (3) merely confused (e.g., animal in “Every horse is an animal”). These types were described in terms of a notion of “descent to (or ascent from) singulars.” For example, in the statement “Every horse is an animal,” one can “descend” under the term horse to: “This horse is an animal, and that horse is an animal, and so on,” but one cannot validly “ascend” from “This horse is an animal” to the original proposition. There are many refinements and complications.

The purpose of this second part of the theory of supposition has been disputed. Since the question of what it is to which a given occurrence of a term refers is already answered in the first part of supposition theory, the purpose of this second part must have been different. The main suggestions are (1) that it was devised to help detect and diagnose fallacies, (2) that it was intended as a theory of truth conditions for propositions or as a theory of analyzing the senses of propositions, and (3) that, like the first half of supposition theory, it originated as part of an account of reference, but, once its theoretical insufficiency for that task was recognized, it was gradually divorced from that first part of supposition theory and by the early 14th century was left as a conservative vestige that continued to be disputed but no longer had any question of its own to answer. There are difficulties with all these suggestions. The theory of supposition survived beyond the Middle Ages and was frequently applied not only in logical discussions but also in theology and in the natural sciences.

In addition to supposition and its satellite theories, several logicians during the 14th century developed a sophisticated theory of “connotation” (connotatio or appellatio; in which the term black, for instance, not only refers to black things but also “connotes” the quality, blackness, that they possess) and a subtle theory of “mental language,” in which tools of semantic analysis were applied to epistemology and the philosophy of mind. Important treatises on insolubilia and obligationes, as well as on the theory of consequence or inference, continued to be produced in the 14th century, although the main developments there were completed by mid-century.

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