Medieval Theories of Language

Course Status: 
CEU credits: 
ECTS credits: 
Academic year: 
Start and end dates: 
19 Sep 2011 - 9 Dec 2011
György László Geréby
Learning Outcomes: 
Learning outcomes: Familiarity with key issues and terms of medieval logic, like the semantics of terms (Porphyrian semantics), and of the proposition, of basic medieval logical syntax; semantic representation, meaning and reference, significatio, suppositio, connotatio, ampliatio, universals, speculative grammar, modi significandi, entia rationis, primae et secundae intentiones, properties of terms, modi essendi and modi praedicandi, nominalism / realism, modi significandi (and their criticism), intuitive and abstractive cognition, sensible and intelligible species, of the complexe significabile, the enuntiabile, dictum propositionis and the intellectus verus / falsus, significatio propositionis (sentential reference), unity of the proposition. (terministic logic), and finally, the issues of mental language.
Assessment : 
Grading is based on participation (25%), a class journal (an about 1 page summary of the main points in the class), to be submitted every week after the session by Monday noon next week, to the above email address (25%), and 2 in-class tests (25% + 25%).

Learning objectives: 1. to get acquainted with the fundemental developments, persons, schools, and literary forms of medieval linguistics, 2. to understand on a deeper level the medieval linguistic, and semantic theories (except the formal logical parts) as the basic conceptual frameworks of method during the Latin Middle Ages, and 3. to become familiar with the fundamental problems, and their proposed solutions, which were the most widely accepted. Finally, a wider objective is to learn to appreciate the importance of logic and analytic discourse for philosophical and theological problems

Course details:


1. (22 Sept) Introduction. What is a (medieval) theory of language? The basic history. Deconstuction of older historiography. Key figures. Recent work on the area.

Medieval logic: decline or flourish? The unity of discourse. Older historiography. The recent change in perception. The present state of research. Periods. The role of Aristotle, the Stoa and the imperial philosophical schools. The problem of the categories. Signs, meaning, reference. Latin as an artificial language.

Reading: Aristotle, Perihermeneias 1.1. (many translations)

Mates, B., Stoic logic. Ch. 2.  11-26. PDF

Recommended readings:

Spade, P.V., ‘Recent research on Medieval Logic.’ Synthese 40 (1979), 1-17. Repr. in: Lies, language and logic in the Late Middle Ages. London: Variorum, 1988. I.


2. (29 Sept) Foundations I. Porphyrian semantics I.

The basics of Porphyrian semantics. Words, concepts, things, and their properties. The Tree of Porphyry.

Reading:  Porphyry, Eisagoge.

Recommended readings:

Ebbesen, S., Philoponus, ‘'Alexander' and the origins of medieval logic.’ In: Sorabji, R., Aristotle transformed. The ancient commentators and their influence. London: Duckworth, 1990, 445-461.

Markus, R.A., St. Augustine on signs. Phronesis 2 (1957), 60-83 JSTOR


3. (6 Oct) Foundations II. Porphyrian semantics and the proposition.  

Aristotle and the Stoics on propositions. Facts. The problem of truth bearers. The unity of the proposition.


Ashworth, E. J., ‘Theories of the proposition: some early sixteenth century discussions.’ Franciscan Studies 38 (1978), 81-121. in: Studies in post-medieval semantics. London: Variorum, 1985.  IV.

Recommended reading:  

Nuchelmans, G., Theories of the proposition. Ancient and medieval conceptions of the bearers of truth and falsity. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1973.


4. (13 Oct )The earlier period (until the eleventh c.) and its animating problems.  

The specific Christian problems in semantics and theory of language. General issues. The problem of biblical language. Specific issues: objects of belief (propositional attitudes). Knowledge and propositionality in theology. Language in theology. The semantic problems of Augustine in the On Christian doctrine and On the Trinity.


Jackson, Darrell B. Augustine: De dialectica. Dordrecht and Boston: , 1975. Synthese Historical Library, 16.

Recommended readings:  

Markus, R.A., ‘St. Augustine on signs.’ Phronesis 2 (1957), 60-83. JSTOR


5. (20 Oct – to be rescheduled) The early problems: the name of the rose.

The problem of logic as a discipline in the early Middle Ages. Names for Roscellin, Anselm and Abelard. Early “nominalism” and “realism”. Its theological motivations.


John of Salisbury. The metalogicon of John of Salisbury : a twelfth-century defence of the verbal and logical arts of the Trivium. Translated with an introduciton & notes by Daniel D. McGarry. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1962. Bk I. and IV.

Recommended readings:  

Tweedale, M., ‘Logic (i) : From the late eleventh century to the time of Abelard.’ in: Dronke, 196-226. PDF

Jacobi, K. ‘Logic (ii) : The later twelfth century.’ in: Dronke, P., ed., A history of twelfth century philosophy. Cambridge: CEP, 1988, 227-251. PDF


6. (27 Oct – to be rescheduled)  An original medieval theory of language: speculative grammar.

The metaphysics of language: the reflection of reality in language. Modes of signifying. Word-classes, and their ontological foundations. Construction, congruity, completion.


Bursill-Hall, G.L., ed., Grammatica speculativa of Thomas of Erfurt. An edition with translation and commentary by G.L. Bursill-Hall.  London: Longman, 1972. The Classics of Linguistics.

Recommended readings:

Fredborg, K.M., ‘Speculative grammar.’ In: Dronke, P., ed., A history of twelfth century philosophy. Cambridge: CEP, 1988, 177- 195.

Pinborg, J., ‘Speculative grammar.’ In: CHLMPh, 254-269.



7. (3 Nov) The beginning  medieval logic. Properties of terms. Syncategoreumata.

Connotation. The syncategoramatic terms. Beginnings of logical syntax (regimented scopes of logical constants). Supposition again.

Reading: Spade, P.V., ‘The semantics of terms.’ In: CHLMPh, 188-196.

Recommended readings: Spade, P.V., ‘Late medieval logic.’ In: Marenbon, J., ed. Medieval philosophy. London: Routledge, 1998, 402-425.

De Rijk, L. M., ‘The origins of the theory of the properties of terms.’ In: CHLMPh, 161-172.


8. (10 Nov).  Properties of terms: theories of predication.

Inherence theory. Identity theory.


Geach, P. T., ‘Form and existence.’ In: Kenny, A., Aquinas. A collection of critical essays. London, 1969.

Spade, P. V. ‘Ockham’s distinction between absolute and connotative terms.’ Vivarium 13 (1975), 55-76. in: Lies, language ...

            Recommended reading:

Ashworth, E. J. ‘Two early sixteenth century discussions of the complexe significabilia.’ In: Zimmermann, A., ed. Sprache und Erkenntniss ... 511-516.

Scott, Th. K. ’Geach on Supposition Theory.’ Mind 75 (1966), 586-88.


9. (17 Nov) Sophismata. Insolubilia.


Spade, P. V., The origins of the Medieval Insolubilia-literature. Franciscan Studies 33 (1973), 292-309.

Recommended readings:


10. (24 Nov) Mental language.

The need for the assumption of mental language. Is there a structure to mental language? Surface structure and deep structure (logical structure, or mental structure).  

Readings: Ashworth, J. E. ‘The structure of mental language: some problems discussed by early sixteenth century logicians.’ In: Vivarium 20 (1982), 59-83. JSTOR

Recommended readings:

Karger, E. ‘Mental Sentences According to Burley and to the Early Ockham.’ Vivarium 34 (1996), 192-230.

Tweedale, Martin. “Mental Representation in Later Medieval Scholasticism”, in: Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, ed. J.-C. Smith, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 35-52. 1990.

Broadie, A. Notion and Object. Aspects of Late Medieval Epistemology, Oxford: Clarendon. 1989

Trentman, J. ‘Ockham on Mental.’ Mind 79 (1970), 586-90.


11. (01 Dec) Logic and ontology.

 The rejection of Platonism, and realism. The end of modist grammar. The epistemological turn. Propositional analysis in the sciences.


Rijk, L.-M. de. ‘Logic and ontology in Ockham. Some notes on his view of the categories of being and the nature of its basic principles.’ In: Ockham and Ockhamists. Acts of the Symposium organized by the Dutch Society for Medieval Philosophy ‘Medium Aevum’ on the occasion of its 10th anniversary. ed. E.P. Bos, H.A. Krop. = Artistarium, Supplementa IV. Nijmegen: Ingenium Publishers, 1987. 25-39.  Repr. in: Through language to reality. London: Variorum, 1989. XIII.

Recommended readings:

Henry, D. P. ‘Predicables and categories.’ In: CHLMPh, 5. 128-142.

Murdoch, J.E. ‘Scientia mediantibus vocibus: Metalinguistic analysis in late medieval natural philosophy.’ In: Zimmermann, A. ed. Sprache und Erkenntnis im Mittelalter. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 1981. vol.1., 73-106.


12. (08 Dec) Final discussions.

 No readings.