Philosophy 383: Mediaeval Philosophy

Take Home Exam

Questions 3, 5, and 7

Jamie Mellway

4N Physics and Philosophy


3. Analyze, explain, and comment on HW 655-657 / Spade 1995 p. 25-28

SL I.10—On the Difference between Connotative and Absolute Terms [1]

In chapter 10 of Part 1 of the Summa (Totius) Logicae [SL I.10], Ockham discusses the distinction between absolute and connotative categorematic names. (Categorematic terms have definite and fixed signification [SL I.4]).


Absolute names are names that primarily signify what they signify [§1; HW §2]. Connotative terms are names that can signify some things secondarily and possibly some things primarily [§5; HW §3].

The things that are primarily signified are those individual things that can be equally well represented by the name they are signified by. For example, the name `horse' primarily signifies all individual horses.

Absolute names, then, are terms that represent multiple individuals, and they correspond to what we now call natural kind terms. These include names like `animal', `man', `horse', `apple', `heaven', `fire', `whiteness', `heat', `smell', and `sweetness' [§4; HW §2].

Connotative names are terms that have nominative definition [§5; HW §3], opposed to having a real definition or no definition at all. A real definition is (strictly) a "brief discourse expressing the whole nature of the thing and not indicating anything extrinsic to the defined thing" [I.26 §4]. Real definitions include `rational animal' for `man'. Real definitions can also be "descriptive definitions" that includes certain accidents as well. A nominal definition is "an expression that reveals explicitly what is conveyed by a word" [I.26 §17]. Nominal definitions include `something having a whiteness' for `white' [§5; HW §3] and also things that are impossible to predicate, like, `vacuum', `non-being', and `infinity' [I.26 §17].

Since all and only connotative terms have nominative definitions, absolute names have a real definition if any at all [§2; HW §2]. Hence, if we can show that a name does not have nominal definition, then that name is an absolute name. If we show that several definitions or descriptions signify different elements of the same thing, then that shows that the name is not nominal [§2; HW §2].

For example, the name `bachelor' cannot be defined in such a way that it reflects anything more than `unmarried male', and so it is a connotative name. The name `angel' can be described as `an intellectual and incorruptible substance' or `a simple substance that does not enter into composition with anything else' and these reflect different aspects of the same thing, and so `angel' is an absolute name [§3; HW §2].

Connotative names are terms that have a nominative definition. Connotative term include concrete accidental term such as `white' and impossible-to-predicate terms. Connotative name also include verbs such as `cause' (which has the nominative definition of `something able to produce something else' [§6; HW §3]; all concrete names (as they signify different things depending on the case) such as `just', `animate', and `human' [§7; HW §4]; and names signifying a side of a relation such as `similar' or `father' [§8; HW §4].

Ockham's stripped down ontology has that all names pertaining to the categories beyond substance and quality are connotative. That is, names from other categories must have a nominative definition, as they do not pick out anything that "expresses the whole nature of the thing" as only substance and quality are legitimate categories [§§10-11; HW §5]. For example, the name `body' (a quantity term) has the nominative definition of `some thing having one part distinct from another part according to length, breath, and depth' [§10; HW §5].

The transcendental terms are also connotative names [§§12-13; HW §6], as well as objects of the will such as `intelligible', `will', `volible', `intellect', `power' and `act' [§§12; HW §6].

5. What is Scotus's doctrine of common natures and how does he defend it? How do common natures relate to singulars and to universals? Why is it important to postulate common natures?

Common Natures

Scotus defends the idea of a common nature by arguing that there are objective distinctions to be made between aspects of things that are weaker than the distinction between two aspects that (at least God) can physically disconnect into two things.


Common natures are formally distinct aspects of things that are the primary significate of a common noun. Theses are real in the sense that the distinction is based in reality, but it is not real in the sense that the common natures can be physically separated from what they are in. While common natures have unity and being, this unity is a lesser unity [§§5, 11] and this being is a lesser being.

The formal objective distinction is a kind of middle ground between the distinction between separable things and the distinction that is merely one of convention. The former is called a real distinction and the latter can be called a virtual distinction (or a distinction of reason).

A real distinction can be made between two things that can be physically separated, at least by God. That is, a real distinction can be made when each side of the distinction is numerically one (i.e., a numerical unity). These include a distinction between the hands of a man, and also the matter and form distinction is a real distinction.

A virtual distinction cannot be made into two separate things and there is no objective distinction in the thing itself [§6]. This distinction still leaves us with a single unity, and, as such, each side of the distinction is not a numerical unity. A distinction between `Cicero' and `Tully' or `Cicero' and `little chick pea' can be made, but it is not based on any objective distinction. The distinction between a definition and word for the thing defined is also a virtual distinction; so, `rational animal' and `man' are virtually distinct.

A formal distinction can be made when there is an objective distinction between the two sides of the distinction that cannot be separated from what they are both in. That is, one can conceive of x without conceiving of y, yet one cannot conceive of x-without-y or y-without-x. While each side of the distinction is not a numerical unity, there is an objective unity, such that common natures "have a real unity [that is] less than numerical unity" [§11]. Formally distinct aspects of things include the distinction between divine mercy and divine justice, between the sensitive and intellective soul, between the three persons in the trinity, between God, God's will and God's intellect, between man and animal, between man and donkey, and between Socrates and the common nature man.

Singularity and universality have to do with predication of one and of many, respectively. Since common natures are not predictable, common natures are not directly about singularity or universality. On the other hand, singularity and universality are modes of common natures [§10]. Modes are what can be supplemented to a nature without altering its intelligible content [Spade 1985, ch 57]. That is, we can predicate with common natures using an aspect that does not change its content, but not using the common nature itself, but a mode of the common nature.

It is important to postulate common natures, as they are used, for instance, to explain objective relations that are not what has been called real distinctions and in order to explain how we can use common nouns (given that Scotus limits the functions of the agent intellect compared to Aquinas).

7. What is Ockham's account of intuitive cognition? How does it differ from that of Scotus? What is its relation to abstraction cognition?

Intuitive and Abstract Cognition

For Ockham, the intuitive cognition is that "which a thing is [understood] to exist when it exists and not to exist when it does not exist" [671]. This type of cognition allows us to directly understand that a thing exists by perceiving it. This is distinct from any type of cognition that arrives by reflecting on memory or by a "species[2]".

When we consider natural cognition, and not supernatural cognition, Ockham's formulation of intuitive cognition is similar to Scotus's formulation. Scotus' definition of it is that "intuitive cognition is [direct knowledge] of what is present and existing as it is present and existing" [672]. Ockham says, "by nature, there cannot be intuitive [understanding] without the existence of a thing which is truly the efficient cause of the intuitive [understanding]." That is, the object of the cognition has to be there, acting as a causal (efficient) agent.

Their formulations are similar in the sense that both have direct awareness of the existence of a thing and not the essence of it.

There is a great difference concerning their formulations with respect to supernatural cognition. Ockham wants to allow God's omnipotence to allow him to cause us to have an intuitive cognition of something that is not present or not existing—and yet we know that it does not exist here [672]. Scotus's definition does not allow this act to be an intuitive cognition.

Ockham's version begs for the Cartesian problem of the Evil Demon, in which a supernatural being can place intuitive cognitions in us of something and allows us, mistakenly, "to know" that it exists—when it, in fact, does not.

Ockham does address this problem. He claim that only God can place intuitive cognitions in us, and that it would be absurd to claim that we can have a intuitive cognition that God does not exist, even though we can have intuitive cognition of things that do not exist [Stump p. 185 refers to Sent. I.Prol.I(71)]. While God can cause a false belief in us, this is not done when the judgement is formed by the intuitive cognition [Stump p. 187 refers to Quodl. V.5]. The evil demon problem does not turn into a question of reliability, but instead it is rejected as absurd. We know that an evil demon cannot put false judgments based on intuitive cognition in our heads, and we know that any possible deception on God's part is not with respect to our use of intuitive cognition.

Immediately one can form the proposition (or "complex") "the body is white" when they intuitively see an individual body and its individual whiteness. Once these propositions of this type are formed, the intellect assents to their truth by virtue of the apprehension of the terms involved [671].

Abstraction cognitions are cognitions that are not intuitive and that any judgments regarding whether something exists or not is abstracted and can rise to a false judgement [671, Stump 183].


Cople Copleston, Frederick. 1993 [1962]. A History of Philosophy. Volume 2. New York: Image Books.

Hyman, Arthur and James J. Walsh. 1973. Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Panaccio, Claude. 1999. "Semantics and Mental Language." In Spade 1999 pp. 53-75.

Spade, Paul Vincent. 1985. A Survey of Mediaeval Philosophy (Version 2) Available at:

_________, trans. 1995. William of Ockham:From his Summa of Logic . Available at:

_________. 1996. Thoughts, Words and Things. Available at:

_________, ed. 1999. The Cambridge Companion to Ockham. New York: Cambridge.

Stump, Eleonore. 1999. "The Mechanisms of Cognition: Ockham on Mediating Species". In Spade 1999 pp. 168-203.

[1] I will be using Spade's translation in Spade 1995. All paragraph numbers in round brackets refer to SL I.10 in Spade 1995 and Hyman &Walsh, unless indicated otherwise.

[2] Not that Ockham believes that we can cognitively arrive at an understanding by a species.