Volume 81, Issue 2, Spring 2007
Abelard on Context and Signification
Abelard maintains that individual words in a sentence represent distinct semantic units of its overall meaning. He employs two strategies to defend this
position in the face of troublesome counterexamples. One strategy—the earlier of the two—sacrifices normal intuitions about what a word is, often labeling what
seem to be words as non-signifying syllables. The later strategy invokes a rather fluid conception of what the signification of a word is, allowing this signification
considerable latitude to alter under the contextual influence of other words. This evolution of strategy is linked to a new willingness on Abelard’s part to adopt the
principle of charity in interpreting sentences; this approach presumes the truth of the statement, and tries to find an interpretation which bears that presumption
out. This new willingness to adopt the principle is in turn linked to Abelard’s developing vocation as an interpreter of biblical texts.