Monthly Archives: November 2015

Whatever happened to the theory of supposition?

Reading Arash Abizadeh’s recent “The Absence of Reference in Hobbes’s Philosophy of Language” reminds me of something that puzzles me about early modern philosophy of language. Whatever happened to the theory of supposition?

If you look at medieval scholastic theories of language, you find repeated mention of signification and supposition, two semantic features of terms. When you look at famous early modern discussions of language, you find discussions of signification, but seem to find no mention at all of supposition.

Thus Hobbes talks at length in the Elements of Law, Leviathan, and De Corpore about signification, but not at all about supposition. Locke, to give just one other example, develops a theory of signification, not of supposition, in Book III of his Essay concerning Human Understanding. (He does occasionally use the words ‘supposition’ and ‘supposing’, but meaning something else by those terms.)

Abizadeh argues that the absence of a theory of supposition is telling about Hobbes’s views:

he conspicuously abandoned the theory of “supposition,” which was the intellectual apparatus used in theories of language prevalent before him to express what corresponds to our contemporary notion of reference, i.e., the notion of an analytically irreducible semantic relation between words and things (objects) (Abidazeh 2015, p2).

That is, Abidazeh takes Hobbes’s abandonment of supposition to be evidence of his abandonment of reference. I wonder, however, how much the rejection (or ignoring) of supposition shows about Hobbes in particular. After all, that rejection seems to have been pretty widespread. Clearly the theory of supposition went away. But when did it go away?

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