A medieval puzzle of generic subjects and conjunctive predicates

Last weekend I had the pleasure of giving a keynote talk at the Twelfth Annual Cambridge Graduate Conference on the Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic. I was asked to give an overview/introduction to medieval logic (here are my slides), working under the assumption that few people in the audience would know anything about the topic. All of the other speakers presented on much more modern material, so in addition to giving my own talk, I also did my best to play the role of the annoying person in the Q&A who raises their hand and goes “But what about X….” (Or rather: To connect modern questions to medieval ones and suggest them as an interest case for the modern analysis).

One very interesting talk, given by James Kirkpatrick (Oxford), was on generics — things like “Ducks lay eggs” and “Ravens are black”. Listening to it, I was reminded of a particular sentence that occurs in William of Sherwood’s discussion of supposition:

Pepper is sold here and in Rome

The question is what ‘pepper’ supposits for — and in what way does it supposit — in this sentence. It can’t be for the species of pepper, because species are not sold, nor is it an essential part of the species of pepper that it be sold here and in Rome, but rather accidental. But it also cannot be specific pepper individuals, because no individual item is sold both here and in Rome (at the same time; though with modern technology and dropshipping, it’s not longer clear that one and the same cannot be sold in two different places at the same time!). It’s clearly making a generic statement about the subject, pepper, in the same way that “ducks lay eggs” and “ravens are black” does; but there’s an added issue of the conjunctive predicate — “sold here and in Rome”.

So I suggested this to Kirkpatrick as an example he might find interesting to consider in his analysis, and decided myself I was interested in going back to Sherwood, and the other three of the Big Four (Lambert of Auxerre, Peter of Spain, Roger Bacon) to see what they all have to say about the analysis of this sentence. That work is now ongoing, and I’ll probably report back on it occasionally. However, three things surprised me:

  • I searched the archives of Vivarium to see what modern commentators have had to say about this sentence, and found nothing. In fact, when I restricted my search to simply “pepper”, I only got three hits:
    1. The first is “Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme on Natural Knowledge” by Edward Grant (XXXI-1, 1993). Apparently, Oresme wonders “why pepper in small quantities is a laxative and a diuretic in large quantities”. I had no idea… Interesting, but not useful for my purposes.
    2. The second is “The Real Difficulty With Burley’s Realistic Semantics” by Michael J. Fitzgerald (XXVIII-1, 1990). Apparently, Burley doesn’t describe what he means by formal supposition, but Fitzgerald thinks it has to cover sentences like “pepper is hot”. In such a sentence “pepper” supposits for both individual instances of pepper, AND for pepper the species. This account therefore won’t work for “Pepper is sold here and in Rome”, since where pepper is sold is not apart of its essence.
    3. The third is “The Role of Discrete Terms in the Theory of the Properties of Terms” by Julie Brumberg-Chaumont (51, 2013). This is the only paper to actually address the example sentence in question, and does so only in a footnote — part of an explanation of why William of Sherwood thinks that ‘pepper’ has simple supposition in that context.
  • I then searched JSTOR for the English phrase, and also found only three papers!

    1. The first is a review of Grabmann’s edition of Sherwood’s Introductiones (by one “R. McK.” in the Journal of Philosophy in 1938), where it is merely mentioned.
    2. The next is Ivan Boh’s translation of Paul of Pergola’s treatise on supposition (Franciscan Studies 25, 1965). Paul has a rule that numeric adverbs and conjunctive clauses “cause terms to have merely confused mobile supposition”. He gives this sentence as an example of a conjunctive clause.
    3. The final is Tom J. F. Tillemans, “Formal and Semantic Aspects of Tibetan Buddhist Debate Logic” (Journal of Indian Philosophy, 17, no. 3, 1989). Tillemans draws a comparison to the Tibetan question of whether a word refers ONLY to a general notion/property (rang ldog) or whether it ALSO refers to the things having the property (gzhi ldog). Tillemans says “the Tibetans never developed a theory approaching the complexity of the Medievals’ theory of suppositio” (p. 280) — this is definitely a place where some more in-depth comparative work would be super interesting!
  • I then searched for the phrase in Latin on googlebooks, and that got me quite a bit more — but almost all of it was pre-modern!

So it appears that no one has done any sort of systematic survey of this topic, and that there are a large number of medieval and post-medieval occurrences of the sentence (or similar ones, such as “Pepper is sold in Paris and in Rome”)! It just goes to show what I always say when I’m introducing medieval logic to modern logicians — there is so much low-hanging fruit, so apart from any theoretical interest the topic has, there’s good pragmatic reasons for getting involved in medieval logic as a research enterprise!

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5 Responses to A medieval puzzle of generic subjects and conjunctive predicates

  1. Bernadette Preben-Hansen says:

    Nice slides!


  2. Martin Lenz says:

    Nice one! Wouldn’t someone like Ockham say that “pepper” supposits distributively? (Sorry, this is just a half-educated guess).


  3. Pingback: On the selling of pepper: Sherwood, Auxerre, Bacon, and Spain | Medieval Logic & Semantics

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