From the Spring 1998 issue of Redefining Literacy, an article by M. T. Clanchy called “What medieval philosophers understood by ‘words'”; I found this particularly interesting:

Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142), one of the first professors (‘masters’ is the medieval term) in the university of Paris, used the Biblical belief that Adam had named the animals to distinguish between the natural and the cognitive sciences:

No word (vox – ‘voice’) signifies a reality in nature; it is a construct of men. The Supreme Architect has committed the construction of language (vocum impositionem – the ‘imposition of voices’) to us, but He has reserved the nature of realities to His own disposition… So it does not seem to be due to nature, but to the custom and situation of men that division by words (divisio vocis) pertains.
(Dialectica, ed. L. M. de Rijk, second edition, 1970, p. 576, lines 34-37, p. 577, lines 13-15).

The secrets of nature are God’s business, Abelard is arguing, whereas cognitive science pertains ‘to us’ because ‘division by words’ is man-made. ‘We’ are therefore entitled to interpret texts as we think best. As the greatest logician of his day, Abelard claimed to be the master of language because logic was the science of words.

Via aldiboronti at Wordorigins.org.


  1. John Emerson says

    I just had the idea of reediting Abelard’s Sic et Non (sp.?) with miodern translations of the Bible text, and giving it to all the Christian fundamentalists in the world.

  2. I’m not at all sure that ‘cognitive’ is the right word to contrast with ‘natural’ in this instance. Clanchy (whom I’d trust on court-documents of post-Conquest England, but not on the finer points of scholastic philosophy) seems unable to distinguish between the structure of our thought and the structure of our language. As scholars such as Pieter Verburg and Meyrick Carre have noted, logic after Abelard would be increasingly based in grammar; but Abelard, unlike Ockham, firmly believes in the isomorphism of man’s knowledge with the structure of the natural world. Which means that the thought-world relation is tighter than the word-thought relation (this following Aristotle). As cognitive science seems to deal with the latter relation, it makes no sense to apply this category to Abelard’s thinking.

  3. As Vico says, man only understands what he makes for himself; or as Frye puts it, we do not study nature but physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

  4. Abelard, unlike Ockham, firmly believes in the isomorphism of man’s knowledge with the structure of the natural world.

    This made me think of the Wittgenstein-via-Godard quote (“We could say that the limits of language are the limits of the world… that the limits of my language are the limits of my world”) I posted back in 2003.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    That’s an enlightening comment by Conrad in 2006. I have tucked it away for further consideration.

  6. David Marjanović says

    division by words (divisio vocis)

    …Not “division of the word”? Or is there vocis causa somewhere?

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