Ockham on the division of linguistic labour

One fascinating feature of language is that it enables us to talk about and thus handle things that we have no clue about. Although I have never seen a dinosaur, I can talk about dinosaurs and even recognise images of them. Arguably, this feature of language is owing to what Putnam called the “division of linguistic labour”. Although I don’t know anything about or at least not much about certain things, I can apply the words correctly. The reason I can do so is that I defer to other speakers, in this case experts who do have the knowledge I lack. According to this view, language is not a solitary tool like a hammer, but a social tool, only working in a collective, like a steamship. Although the social understanding of language is often portrayed as a modern idea, I’d like to suggest that it dates back at least to the early 14th century.

Thinking about language in wake of Putnam, we might find the thesis of the division of linguistic labour quite intuitive. But it doesn’t come naturally if we follow the standard interpretation of what is now known as the semantic triangle as sketched in Aristotle’s Peri hermenias (16a3-9). Here, Aristotle suggests that words relate to things in virtue of the mental concepts we have of things. The reason that words like “apple”, “pomum” or “Apfel” signify the same things is that they signify the same non-linguistic concepts. A common way to take this mediation of the word-thing relation through concepts is to assume that speakers must know the things they refer to. Using the word “apple”, then, requires me to have the concept of apple and thus knowledge of apples. – Now, in the first chapter of his Summa logicae, Ockham rejects this assumption. As is often the case, he frames his rejection as the proper interpretation of Aristotle. The details are a bit technical, but his own view is clear enough. In the translation by Paul Spade (p. 5-6), Ockham argues as follows:

Now I say that utterances are signs subordinated to concepts …, not because, taking the word ‘signs’ in a proper sense, these utterances always signify those concepts of the soul primarily and properly, but rather because utterances are imposed to signify the same things that are signified by the concepts of the mind, so that the concept primarily signifies something naturally, and the utterance secondarily signifies the same thing, to such an extent that once an utterance is instituted to signify something signified by a concept in the mind, if that concept were to change its significate, the utterance itself would by that fact, without any new institution, change its significate. The Philosopher says as much when he says that utterances are “the marks of the passions that are in the soul”. Boethius too means the same thing when he says that utterances “signify” concepts.

According to Ockham, then, words (translated as “utterances”) don’t signify things by signifying concepts first; rather it is enough that words signify the same things that are signified by the concepts that the words are subordinated to. Let’s compare these views schematically (the arrow indicates a signification relation):

Aristotle:            word     –>         concept  –>     thing

Ockham:            concept –>       thing

                            word      –>         “

So while the Aristotelian model suggests that each successful use of a word requires the user to have a concept that is signified by the word, Ockham’s model only requires that the word be subordinated to a concept. It is neither required that every actual use is mediated by a concept, nor is it required that the actual user does have the concept in question. Arguably, it is enough if some users have such a concept. If this is correct, we can assume that even those users who don’t have the pertinent concepts can use words correctly.

Although Ockham does not develop this idea straightforwardly into a thesis of division of linguistic labour, his rejection of the standard Aristotelian model clearly opens the door to such a view. Although she does not ascribe such a division thesis to Ockham, Sonja Schierbaum’s discussion of Ockham provides further evidence for such a reading. Ockham doesn’t develop this subordination semantics out of the blue. The discussion about the naming of God already led others before him to acknowledge that the use of words allows for talk about things that we don’t understand or have concepts of. (See here for more on this issue.) What Ockham adds in the Summa logicae is the idea that words can generally be used for referring to things irrespective of our concepts or knowledge. All that we need is that some other users have those concepts.

The upshot is (1) that conventional language is a more powerful tool than the mental concepts to which conventional language is subordinated and (2) that individual language use requires other users, especially for cases in which we lack pertinent concepts or knowledge.

4 thoughts on “Ockham on the division of linguistic labour

  1. Super interesting! I think Abelard articulated a similar view in the Logica Ingredientibus. Could Ockham possibly have had access to him?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Could you point to a particular passage in Abelard’s LI (probably on impositio)? – Sadly, it’s hard to tell whether Ockham read any 12th-century logicians. The terminology and the models had shifted by then, leaving not many traces to earlier material. In this case, Ockham mainly seems to draw on Duns Scotus.


      1. I don’t have it at hand at the moment, but I noticed this when I taught from the Bosley/Tweedale collection, so I think it would be there. There is also some discussion on the SEP entry for Abelard.

        Liked by 1 person

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