Ideas and Terms: What are Terms?



  • What are Terms?
  • How Can We Classify Terms?
  • Supposition of Terms


We have now discussed the idea and its various aspects and divisions. It’s time to turn our attention to the term, the expression of language we use to designate the idea. Whenever we speak or write or think, our ideas are always couched in definite words. The idea is not the word or term but we use words or terms to designate ideas.

What are Terms?

We can define a “term” as a sensible conventional sign, expressive of an idea. Let’s consider the meaning of this.

A sign is something which conveys to the mind a knowledge of something else. There must be three elements present:

  • the thing that is signified and becomes known,
  • the signifying thing which makes it known, and
  • the connection between these two, wherein the signifying thing has the power to convey knowledge of the thing signified to the mind.

There are, strictly speaking, different sorts of signs. There are “formal” signs, which are based on a similarity or picturization of the thing signified, such as paintings, photographs, motion pictures, and so on. There are also “instrumental” signs, which are based on something other than a similarity. Examples would be words, facial expressions of anger or humor, smoke indicating fire, pain signifying a cut finger, and so forth.

Some “instrumental” signs are natural, they signify something by their very nature. Smoke indicating fire, a clenched fist indicating anger, an irregular heartbeat indicating a circulatory problem, and smiling indicating some corresponding emotion are examples of natural signs.

Some “instrumental” signs, however, are conventional and, therefore, arbitrary. We stop at a red light because it has been decided that a red light will so indicate this action. Our country’s flag is a conventional sign. It could have been other than it is. It could have been a blue star on a white background, for instance. There are many conventional signs we put up with because we have decided to do so for safety, convenience, or other reasons. Company logos are conventional signs. Companies protect these logos legally because they signify the company and its products and the public identifies with them.

Terms (or words) are also conventional signs. The fact that, in English, we call a certain animal a “horse” is a matter of convention. We agree (actually our ancestors somewhere did) that this term “horse” will represent this idea “horse.” In other languages the same animal is designated by a different set of vowels and consonants.

Terms are also sensible conventional signs. They must be able to be perceived by us. Written words stand for spoken words.

Furthermore, terms are sensible conventional signs that are expressive of ideas. This is the reason for having terms or words. This is the characteristic which distinguishes this sort of sign from other kinds of signs. Crying may be a sign of sadness but only words can express the ideas behind the sadness.

How Can We Classify Terms?

Terms can be divided into different classes.

From the Viewpoint of Perfect and Imperfect Signification

A univocal term is one constantly used in an identical sense. Words such as dog, automobile, gold, planet are univocal terms.

An equivocal term is one used in entirely different meanings. For example, a pen can be a writing instrument or an enclosure for animals. A leaf may be part of a plant or a section of a table top or a thin sheet of paper.

An analogous term is one applied to unlike, but related things, so it is used in a meaning that is partly the same and partly different. And such a term may be based either on an analogy of proportion or on an analogy of attribution.

In the case of an analogy of proportion, a term is applied to unlike things because of some proportion or resemblance existing between them. The “foot” of a mountain is called such because of its resemblance positionally to the “foot” of a human body.

In the case of an analogy of attribution, a term is applied in an absolute sense to one thing and is then attributed to other things because of an intrinsic relation which they have toward the first. Consider the word “health.” It is used in an absolute sense when applied to the condition affecting a living body. But we also say that a food is healthy because it sustains health, exercise is healthy because it promotes health, and going to the doctor is healthy because it preserves or restores health. The term “health” is used analogously.

Terms can also be classified as to whether they are fixed or vague. Fixed terms are those whose signification remains the same and vague terms are those subject to many shades and degrees of meaning. The meaning of vague terms shifts according to the viewpoint and use of the individual.

Fixed terms are such as “triangle,” “human being,” “plant,” “dog,” and “circle.” Vague terms are such as “normal,” “love,” “good,” “unhealthy,” and “dull.” The failure to recognize the difference between fixed terms and vague terms may account for many of the useless arguments carried on between people. The term “democracy” is a vague term used constantly in political arguments. Unfortunately, this word has many shades and degrees of meaning and is used in different ways by different people. The “Democratic People’s Republic of China” without doubt uses the word “democracy” in a different way from the “Democratic Republic of the United States.”

From the Viewpoint of the Comprehension of the Idea Expressed by the Term

Terms can classified into those that are positive and those that are negative. A positive term is one which signifies a real, actual thing. A negative term signifies the absence of a thing. “Desk,” “book,” “woman,” “virus,” and “dog” are positive terms. “Darkness,” “blindness,” “ignorance,” and “vice” are negative terms.

Terms can be concrete or abstract, depending on whether they express concrete or abstract ideas. “Human being” and “dog” are concrete terms. “Humanity” and “redness” are abstract terms.

Terms can be simple or compound. A simple term consists of a single word such as “dog” or “man” or “politician” or “humanity.” A compound term consists of more than one word such as “human being, “United States Senator,” the hard stone,” “the blue car,” and so forth.

Terms can also be either connex or disparate, depending on whether they express connex or disparate ideas. “Teacher-student” and “king-subjects” are connex because there is an intimate relation between the two words expressing each idea. A teacher must have a student in order to be a teacher and a king without subjects would hardly be a monarch. “Dog-running” and “woman-sick” are disparate because there is no intimate and necessary relation the two words expressing each idea. A dog may not be running; he may be eating. A woman may not be sick; she may be merely tired.

Finally, some terms are real terms and some are logical terms. Real terms express real ideas such as “dog,” “stone,” “Jane,” and “fir tree.” Logical terms express logical ideas such as “genus,” “predicate,” and “category.”

From the Viewpoint of the Extension of the Idea Expressed by the Term

Some terms are singular and apply to one individual only. “Peter,” “Sally,” “George Washington,” “the older senator from Ohio,” “that automobile,” “this book,” and “the inventor of the printing press” are singular terms since each applies to only one individual thing or person.

Some terms are universal and can be applied to each individual member of a class and also to the whole class itself (remember universal ideas?). “Tree,” “human being,” “book,” and “planet” are universal terms. The term “tree” can be applied to an individual tree and also to the class of trees as a whole. The same can be said of the other examples given.

Some terms are particular and can be taken partly and indeterminately. We can add words such as “some,” “many,” “certain,” and “a portion of” to a universal term and make it particular. Examples would be: “Certain boys are noisy,” “A portion of the money was stolen,” and “Many trees are dying because of pollution.”

Some terms are collective and represent a class, without applying to the individuals of the class taken singly. “Family,” “army,” and “flock” are examples. The term “family” can be applied to the class of “family,” but each individual taken singly within the class is not a “family.”

Supposition of Terms

All terms have a definite meaning or terms would be essentially meaningless and useless. But the meaning of a term can be taken in different ways, depending on the use to which the term is put. We call this the supposition of a term.

The supposition of a term is the use of a term for the thing which it signifies. Since we cannot always produce the actual thing we wish to discuss, we have to use words or terms to stand for the thing itself. We need, therefore, a clear understanding of the use of terms. Everything depends upon the meaning we give to terms.

The supposition of a term may be either material or formal. The supposition is material if we consider it merely as a word, without any regard to its inherent meaning. When we say that “dog” is a “noun,” we are not considering the inherent meaning of the term “dog.” When, however, we consider the term “dog” according to its signification, we take the term in its formal supposition: for example, when we say “The dog is an animal.” Here we have to consider the inherent meaning of the term “dog.”

The formal supposition of a term will be either real or logical. It is real when the term is used for a thing in its natural existence: “A dog is a living substance.” It is logical when used according to its logical existence in the operations of the mind: “A dog is the ‘species’ of all the individuals in its class.”

The real supposition may be either absolute or personal. The term will be absolute when it designates merely the essence or nature as such, without any reference to the individuals who have the essence or nature. The term “human being” is used in this sense in the sentences “Human beings eventually die” and “Dogs are animals.” The term is used in a personal sense, however, when it signifies both the essence or nature and the individuals who have this common essence or nature. For example: “All human beings eventually die” and “Every dog is an animal.” The words “all” and “every” make the real supposition personal.

The personal supposition of a term can be divided into distributive and collective. A term is distributive when it is used for all the individuals taken singly and together. Consider the following sentence: “Every dog is an animal.” We mean to assert here that each and every dog and all dogs taken together are animals.

A term is collective when it applies to all taken together but not to them taken singly. Consider this sentence: “All parts equal the whole.” This statement is true when we take the term “all parts” together. We cannot say, however, that “each single part” will “equal the whole.” The meanings are not same.

We have to be careful in the distributive supposition of a term. In some cases, the supposition of a term will apply in a completely distributive sense, including all individuals, species, and genera (plural of genus) of the class. Such would be the case in the sentence “Every living thing is a substance.” In other cases, however, the supposition of a term will apply only to the species and genera of a class, but not to the individuals. Such would be the case in the sentence “Every land animal was exhibited in the zoo.” In this case, it means only the species and genera, but not the individuals. With some practice, this subtle difference will not present any major difficulty. Just hang in there.

Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

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