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?

In starting to think about this, I’ve found the history in Marco Sgarbi’s The Aristotelian Tradition and the Rise of British Empiricism: Logic and Epistemology in the British Isles (1570–1689) to be helpful. Suppose I pick out four stages in the narrative of Sgarbi’s chapter 2, “Logic in the British Isles During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries”: (1) the time of scholastic logic lasting into the fifteenth, and indeed the sixteenth, century; (2) humanist textbooks replacing scholastic ones in the early sixteenth century; (3) a rise of Ramism; and (4) a revival of a sort of Aristotelianism.

Just starting to look at works in these groups – and I’m just looking at one example in each of groups (2), (3), and (4), so take this for what it’s worth – it’s notable just how very little talk of supposition there is. As an example of (2), consider (from 1568) Lewis Evans’ Abridgment of Logique. Granted this is short, it does cover a variety of traditional topics: “five common wordes … ye Generall, the Speciall, the Difference, the Propertie, the Accident”; the categories; syllogisms and their moods, etc. But supposition makes no appearance. (Nor, indeed, does signification.) As an example of 3, consider (from 1584) Fenner’s The Artes Of Logike and Rethorike. There’s talk of signification here, but it is not not really heavily theorized about. Supposition, however, appears to be absent. And as an example of (4), consider (from 1599) Blundeville’s The arte of logick. There’s supposition here, but it seems to be more or less the same mental act we will see later in Locke. (“Supposition is that which supposeth a thing to be, or not to be, as the Geometricians do suppose that there is Punctum, (that is to say) a pricke, or a thing indivisible, having neither length, bredth, nor depth” (Blundeville 1599, 165).)

I’m not claiming that talk of supposition went away entirely. (Indeed, see Sgarbi 2013, 233 on the “conservative Aristotelianism” of Narcissus Marsh’s approach in the late seventeenth century: “In Marsh’s textbooks we can find important traces of the theories of connotative terms, suppositio, ampliatio, restrictio and appellatio“.) But my very quick sampling does suggest that several authors of logic books in late sixteenth century England were already happy to omit mention of supposition, even while talking of related matters (signification, truth, etc). So perhaps it would have been surprising for Hobbes, or someone like him, to talk of supposition. To do so would have been to revive a scholastic theory that had already fallen from favour. Thus supposition’s absence is not itself a significant piece of evidence about Hobbes’s intentions.

(Also at https://philosophymodsquad.wordpress.com/2015/11/02/hobbes-supposition/.)

Published by Stewart Duncan

Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Florida