The Logicians Who Say ‘Ne’

I’m currently in Stockholm for the 3rd Nordic Logic Summer School where I’ve been giving a introduction to logic in the Middle Ages. I brought along the Big Four (the textbooks of Bacon, Sherwood, Lambert, and Peter), as well as Kretzmann’s translation of Sherwood’s treatise on syncategorematic terms. The latter is a treatise that I’ve been wanting to read cover to cover for some time now, and flipping through it this week has only served to increase this desire.

There is one short chapter which regularly catches my eye because its title is the only one that Kretzmann doesn’t even try to translate: “the particle ‘ne'” (Sherwood/Kretzmann, p. 156).

This word, Sherwood notes, can be used either to turn an assertion (e.g., Socrates currit ‘Socrates runs’) into a question (e.g., Curritne Socrates ‘Is Socrates running?’) or “prohibitively”, that is, as a negation. (Note that English ‘no’ can also have a function of turning an assertion into a question, e.g., “Socrates runs” vs. “Socrates runs, no?” The latter sentence can be understood to be elliptical for something like “Socrates runs, does he not?” or “Doesn’t Socrates run?”).

It is the prohibitive use of ne that Sherwood focuses on, and he distinguishes two ways: ne can effect a prohibition by itself, as in the imperative ne currans (‘Do not run’), or “in such a way that what is prohibited is itself ordered together with something preceding it” (p. 156), as in volo ne curras (‘I want you not to run’).

The sophism sentence that Sherwood focuses his discussion of ‘ne’ around is:

Tu vis ne tibi concludatur, et [tu] caves ne tibi concludatur (p. 156).

The Latin structure is much more nicely parallel than the English; Kretzmann translates this as:

You want not to be confined, and you are wary lest you be confined (p. 156)

and the problem arises in that you can draw the apparent conclusion that you want/desire and are wary of one and the same thing (with the implication that wanting and being wary of are incompatible attitudes to have to one thing.

The first way of solving the sophism that Sherwood offers is one in which the two nes are not the same; the first, “some say”, is equivalent to ut non ‘that not’, and the second is equivalent to ut ‘that’; the latter carries with it a negation that the other doesn’t have, and thus these words only look to be the same but are not. In reply, Sherwood points out that ne always seems to carry with it negation. Furthermore, the second ne can be plausibly interpreted as ‘that not’, “for you are wary on this account, that you not be confined (propter hoc ut non tibi concludatur)” (p. 156).

A better way to solve the sophism is to note that ne can be used transitively and intransitively. If ne is used transitively, then the second sentence is understood as “you are wary of this lest you are confined”, while if it is intransitively, it is understood as “you are wary on this account, lest you are confined”. The first interpretation is false; the second is true. The correct conclusion to draw is that “you want and are wary on account of one and the same thing” (p. 156).

And that is the full and complete account of the Logicians Who Say Ne, as told by Guillelmus de Shyreswode.

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One Response to The Logicians Who Say ‘Ne’

  1. Ezra Keshet says:

    Clarification question: Can you explain what the difference is between your two paraphrased readings: (1) “you are wary of this lest you are confined” and (2) “you are wary on this account, lest you are confined” ?


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