In "On What There Is" Quine notes that "there is a gulf between meaning and naming even in the case of a singular term which is genuinely a name of the object". This distinction can be made more clear with the famous example given by Frege: the 'Morning star' and the 'Evening star' both name the same thing, the same light seen in the skies. But each phrase has a different meaning, according to the differing conditions under which the referent exists.

Does this rather modern terminology bear any relation to Buridan's theories of signification and supposition? Buridan thought that signification occurred when a term represented a certain mental act, or concept, by which we understood the referent itself. The supposited term was the specific term, or sense, that was responsible for the formal reference to the object as understand granted the concept by which the object is understood and the intellective act of judgement associated with the concept therein.

So for example, in the signification of the terms 'Morning Star' and 'Evening Star' there is a possible distinction dictated by the different concept that is associated with each. It is only in supposition that the actual referent is identified, wherein the concept by means of which we understand the object is judged to be associated with a specific sense experience or further idea. Thus, for Buridan, supposition, and more importantly a complete account of reference, requires expression in a proposition in the form of a subject and predicate. If not, then all one is left with is a range of possible referents as various as our concepts of the term.

Is this connection a true comparison or is it misreading the intentions of both/either philisopher(s)? Is the similarity between each philosopher illusory or subdued by thoughts they had elsewhere on the subject?

  • I take it they are both different ways of getting at the same problem ... I'll see if we can get you a more detailed answer.
    – virmaior
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 3:10
  • It appears that Buridan's view is very similar to Russell's, who writes "I wish to advocate that: denoting phrases never have any meaning in themselves, but that every proposition in whose verbal expression they occur has a meaning", see philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/29524/… Quine explicitly endorsed Russell's view in On What There Is.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 0:58
  • @Conifold That is a very helpful insight. Thank you kindly.
    – Bombadil
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 19:15

1 Answer 1


You're on to something important--Buridan (like members of both the via antiqua and via moderna logicians who preceded him) was interested in distinguishing signification from supposition. This is analogous to the modern distinction between meaning and reference.

However, there are important differences between Quine and Buridan's philosophies of logic, too. One of the most clear differences concerns what they say about empty terms (i.e. terms whose referents don't exist, like "Julius Caesar").

For Quine, such terms fail to refer. He thinks this is because if you say empty terms refer, then you have to admit that there are some things (the objects referred to) which aren't (because they don't exist.) Buridan would deny this. Buridan thinks that names don't refer outside the context of a whole sentence, and so you don't know what the name is genuinely supposed to refer to until you have a tensed verb involved (like "was" in "Julius Caesar was a roman emperor"). If you've got a past tense verb, then you know you have a linguistic context where the speaker is not literally asserting the existence of the object at the present time, and so you have no worries about there having to be something there is not to make his assertion true.

For more details, I strongly encourage you to take a look at Gyula Klima's Quine, Wyman, and Buridan: Three Approaches to Ontological Commitment, Korean Journal of Logic, 2005. It's not an easy paper, per se, but it's directly relevant to your question.

  • Interestingly enough it is Gyula Kilma's article that encouraged me to ask this question. I was curious if the relation between the two philosophers extended further and whether or not they disagreed about certain things that Klima didn't mention. Your answer has provided important information regarding the philosophers' differences in regard to empty terms for which I am grateful (such information might have been present in Klima's article but I have a bad habit of skimming so I might have missed it). Thanks for the well-thought out answer.
    – Bombadil
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 14:41

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