“Can I Speak more Clearly than I Understand?”
A Problem of Religious Language in Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and Ockham
The problem discussed in this paper has to do with the relation between our imperfect understanding of God and the words in which we speak of him. Thomas Aquinas had argued that spoken words primarily signify concepts, and as a result he believed that no words could be used to signify or name God more distinctly than our concepts warranted. However, Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus, and Ockham rejected these claims. They argued that words signified things primarily and that as a result the truth or distinctness of our speech need not be closely related to the truth or distinctness of our understanding. Henry of Ghent focussed on the problem of description. He claimed that because words have a common use, a man could describe an object more truly than his degree of understanding warranted. He also claimed that, in the case of God, we tend to speak less truly than our understanding warrants, because our understanding grasps more about God than can be put into words. Duns Scotus and Ockham focussed on the problem of denotation. They both argued that we can use words to denote God’s essence, even though we cannot understand God’s essence. Like Henry, they used examples which show their awareness that their remarks apply to language in general, and not just to religious language.
Published online: 01 January 1980
Cited by 9 other publications
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