Abelard on Mental Language

Augustine and Anselm, Abelard was not concerned to explore the theological dimension of the mental Word. Instead, Abelard crafted a ‘language of thought’ to provide the semantics for ordinary languages, based on the idea that thoughts (intellectus) have linguistic character. His is the most sophisticated account of Mental Language until the efforts of Burleigh, Ockham, Buridan, and others at the start of the fourteenth century. Yet unlike these later versions, Abelard’s theory of Mental Language has not received the attention it deserves.1 Most commentators have touched on only three aspects of Abelard’s theory of Mental Language, and that typically as an adjunct to his discussion of the problem of universals: the mechanics of acquiring understandings, the nature of mental content, and the production of one understanding from another (e. g. by abstraction).2 Important as these are for Abelard’s philosophy of mind, they are only a small part of the story for his account of Mental Language. Here I shall concentrate instead on Abelard’s insight that thoughts have linguistic character. To clarify this insight we first have to describe Abelard’s semantic framework (§1), connecting language and thought. According to Abelard, Mental Language generally obeys a principle of compositionality, so that the meaning of a whole is a function of the meaning of its parts — an idea that Abelard applies to words and expressions3 by describing the psychological realities underlying the semantics (§2). Once..
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