Thursday, December 07, 2006

Buridan on Individuation

Here is a splendid passage from the 14C logician John Buridan. The Latin you can find on Peter King's website, here, of which my hasty English translation is below. The passage is interesting because, while logicians like Ockham anticipate Russell's idea of scope distinction (i.e. between ~ the F is G and the F is ~ G), Buridan here also anticipates the idea that proper names are telescoped definite description. (Buridan uses the wonderful Latin word circumlocutio). Note also the examples of 'teacher of Alexander' (magister Alexandri) and 'student of Plato' (discipulus Platonis) as the relevant circumlocutio of 'Aristotle'. These are familiar from Kripke, but he just got them from Frege, who had a good German classical education, and probably got them from some unknown scholastic source.

Another familiar idea is that genuinely singular terms are really demonstrative. Buridan says that a proper name is a circumlocution, but that a truly singular term is used in the presence ('prospect') of something, whose function is not to indicate similarity, but to indicate that it can belong to no other thing.

See also the following pages in the Logic Museum.

Aquinas on the name 'God'.
Ockham's Theory of definite descriptions.

'But if you say, how can I conceive Aristotle in a singular way, when he was never in my prospect? In reply, I say that it is not possible for you, properly speaking, because you do not conceive him differently from other men except according to a sort of circumlocution, such as 'the greatest philosopher', 'the teacher of Alexander', 'the disciple of Plato', who composed the books of philosophy which we read &c. Now although this description does not in truth belong to anyone but him, yet it is not properly a singular term (terminus singularis) - Although it does not belong to anyone except him alone, it is not inconceivable (repugnat – fudge) that in this way of signifying or imposition that it may belong to many and stand (supponat) for many, and if there were another God similar, the name 'God' would belong to him and would stand for him without a new imposition of the word – and so if there were another who were the greatest philosopher and the master of Alexander and the disciple of Plato &c, the said description would belong to him and would stand for him.
'For thus it is not a term that is absolutely and properly singular. Because if this thing in my prospect I call 'Socrates' by a proper name, it is not because he is such and such but because the name 'Socrates' would never belong to those other things insofar as they are similar – unless from another imposition [that name] were imposed to signify that other thing, and thus equivocally'.