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American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly

Volume 81, Issue 2, Spring 2007

Abelard

Ian Wilks
Pages 189-208

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.

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