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Non-Discursive Thought: An Enigma of Greek Philosophy

Author(s): A. C. Lloyd
Source: Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 70 (1969 - 1970), pp. 261-
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Aristotelian Society
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Meeting of the Aristotelian Society at 5/7, Tavistock Place, London, W.C.,1
on Monday, 18th May 1970, at 7.30 p.m.



The jargon word 'discursive' has commonly been used as the

opposite of' intuitive'. But the vagaries and the linguistic origins
of its use and that of its Greek counterparts, will not matter here.
In Greek philosophy two notions can be found which ate or can
be conveyed by ' non-discursive thought '. The more familiar is
the notion of a so-called immediate thinking which is contrasted
with one that is inferred or demonstrative. This notion comes
directly from the ' nous ' which Aristotle called our knowledge of
the premisses of demonstrative knowledge. Like Plato he had of
course, and passed on to the Schoolmen and to Descartes, a
generic concept of thinking which included knowledge as one of
its species. This first kind or alleged kind of non-discursive
thought presents the philosopher with all the problems about
intuitive knowledge. But it is not particularly enigmatic. The
problems have been well canvassed. There is a more radical
notion of non-discursive thought which implies that it is not
propositional thought. This is the kind or alleged kind of thought
that is likely to be associated with the 'intuition ' (' intuitive '
and so on) for which ' contemplation ' ('contemplative ' and so
on) is often a synonym. Roughly speaking, it would be a case of
thinking, or thinking of, say beauty, without thinking something
about beauty, say that beauty is truth. This is speaking roughly
because it is the meaningfulness of such a notion which is to be
considered later. But it is the sort of talk which has come down
from influential Greek philosophers. It is enigmatic in a way
which non-demonstrative or immediate knowledge is not. First
historically, because it is not obvious that Aristotle, or even the
Neoplatonists believed that anything in fact corresponded to the
notion; secondly, because if one or more of them did, there is the
puzzle what led them to do so; thirdly, there is the philosophical
puzzle what, if anything, such a belief could mean. The other

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262 A. C. LLOYD

questions are not altogether separable from the third: but even
to the extent that philosophy and history of philosophy can be
separated I shall choose to raise questions about the validity, as
one might say, of the radical concept of non-discursive thought
in Greek philosophy rather than to answer them. It may help to
have had the concept analysed and some of its problems broken
Purely for convenience of reference ' non-discursive thought'
will be confined, in what follows, to the second and more radical
notion. But two preliminary questions about it must be disposed
of. Why, it might be asked, should both notions be counted as
non-discursive thinking? The answer is that in the jargon
'discursive' has always connoted some passage or transition.
(This can be traced without too much difficulty not only in the
corresponding Latin terms but in the Greek origins of the Latin
terms.) When it means 'demonstrative' or 'inferred' the
reference to a transition of thought from premiss to conclusion
evident. When it is roughly equivalent to 'propositional' the
transition is supposed to be that between concepts. For in their
traditional and simplest form these would be the subject and
predicate of a proposition, which were themselves thoughts; so
for you to think that beauty is truth involved you (or your mind)
passing from the thought of beauty to the thought of truth. Kant's
terminology is thus quite normal when he equates discursive
thinking with thinking by concept and contrasts it with intuition.
It follows too that the second sense of ' non-discursive ' will entail
the first, or 'non-demonstrative ' sense which is logically the
weaker sense. Singular propositions will present difficulties that
have to do with sense and reference, since there are objections to
supposing that Sociates is thought of in the same way that wise is
thought of. But it is fair to say that singular propositions were
largely ignored by Platonists and Aristotelians, and in any case
their difficulties are not peculiarly relevant to the notion of dis-
cursive thought.
There is a second preliminary question about the range of
beliefs represented by " Greek philosophy ". Probably the most
interesting and certainly the most original ancient writer on the
subject of non-discursive thought is Plotinus; and I propose to

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start with an analysis-the results of an analysis, that is-of what

he has to say on the subject. If it is asked whether his is one among
various concepts of non-discursive thought, the correct, though
dogmatic answer is that the features which I shall single out for
their philosophical difficulties are ones which were accepted by
all the writers interested in the subject. But one possible misunder-
standing must be prevented. The reason for starting with this
particular Neoplatonist is not, for the present purpose, any
interest which is possessed intrinsically by the history of philo-
sophy. It is just that in this case philosophy has to be more than
usually parasitic because the concept whose validity we may wish
to examine is on the face of it so bizarre, unplausible, un-
intelligible, that one can do nothing else but start from what
somebody says it is.
Plotinus is concerned with a type of thought which would be
simple, that is, contain no complexity, or as the Neoplatonist puts
it, multiplicity, so that it would be nearer to and more like 'the
One' than any type of thought would be which was complex.
To describe it might therefore help his reader to understand the
One (paradox though that would be), while to practise it would
certainly be a step towards the goal of union with the One. From
its simplicity three properties in particular were to be deduced.
(1) This type of thinking involves no transition from concept
to concept.
This rules out ordinary propositions. And for Plotinus it even
rules out (at this level of thought) what would have been called
'contemplation of essences' if essence was understood as
Aristotle understood it. For he believed that Aristotle's account
of the relation between genus and differentia (animal and rational)
failed to prevent them from being a complex of the same kind
as when something is predicated of something else.
(2) This type of thinking involves no distinction between the
thinker or the thinking on one side and the object of his thinking
or the thought on the other side.
Neoplatonists did not regard this as so idiosyncratic or so hard
a saying as we may, since they supposed that anyone brought up
on Aristotle would be familiar with it. But the trouble with the
central equation, that of thinking and its object, is that it cannot

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264 A. C. LLOYD

really be understood except as part of a philosophical theory.

The alternative would be false history. For suppose we imagine
a blue colour and then imagine ourselves imagining or seeing a
blue colour: it is a familiar and indeed plausible claim that we
are unable to distinguish the two experiences. This has of course
been taken to imply that there is no distinction between any blue
that we are aware of and the so called act of being aware of it.
If this is generalised to cover two kinds of awareness, the one
called seeing, hearing and so on, and the one called thinking of,
we have an argument for the identity of thinking and its object.
There is an obvious objection to the conclusion: it makes qualities
disappear when no one is aware of them. This objection could be
met by Aristotle's distinction between the potential and actual
quality, a distinction which removes the sting from the charge of
idealism. But there is a second objection which will fasten on the
difference between being aware of blue by thinking of it and being
aware of blue by seeing it or imagining it. What we see, it may be
said, or what we imagine is always a particular blue (or blue
thing: the distinction does not matter here), but we can think of
of a particular blue (or blue thing) or we can think of blue in
general. We can be aware, that is think, of blue in general by
thinking that blue is more like purple than red. But when we do
that we may do it by being aware of some particular blue, for
example that of some visual image, or by being aware of a sound
or a shape of the word ' blue ' which may perhaps be imagined or
actual. It does not matter if these alternatives can be extended
indefinitely. Nor does it matter if it is partly and not wholly by
being aware of one of those alternatives that we are aware of blue
in general nor even if we conclude, as we probably should, that
it is not by our awareness of them at all-such an awareness may
or may, not accompany awareness of blue in general. The point is
simply that whatever the relation between awareness of a particular
sound, shape or image (of or associated with blue) and the
awareness of blue in general which is called thinking of blue in
general, it is only the former kind of awareness which could
provide the quasi-introspective argument for identifying act and
object of awareness. (The argument was used by Berkeley and
Hume. It has been simpler to class imagining as they did, with

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seeing and hearing. For at least the images are necessary to it

and have an existence in their own right. But of course it has a
foot in each camp since an image has also to be of something
else.) On grounds which were roughly like this neither Aristotle
nor his successors would have believed that this argument could
be extended to act and object of thought. It was necessary however
to pursue the point for a number of reasons. An over-simplifying
reading of Aristotle may tempt one to exaggerate the use he makes
of his dogma that thinking must stand to its objects in a similar
relation to that between sensation and its objects. Secondly, some
modern apostles of intuitive thinking have (I believe) failed to
appreciate the difficulties of extending the argument. We shall
have also to return (I hope in a more sophisticated manner) to
the problem of thinking and thinking of, because it is crucial to
the notion of non-discursive thinking.
The philosophical theory which explains Plotinus' identifica-
tion of thinking with its object is Aristotle's theory of concepts.
These can be regarded as the meanings of general words; he
called them quite simply ' thoughts ', but also (as meanings of
general words) ' universals '. Again as the meanings of general
words their primary function was as predicates. But the essence
of his theory is to distinguish what a sentence means from what
makes it true when it is true; and correspondingly with the
parts, he distinguishes what a predicate word means from what
makes it truly predicable of the subject when it is truly predicable
of the subject. The meaning of the sentence and the meaning of
the predicate are each described by him as a thought which is a
constituent of a mind. What makes the sentence true and what
makes the predicate applicable is each a constituent of the world
outside the mind, unless per accidens if the sentence happens to
be about thoughts. In the case of the predicate this latter con-
stituent is what he calls a form. He therefore has a solution or a
purported solution to our problem how to find, when we think of
(or about) something, an object of awareness which it is plausible
to identify with the awareness. If we are thinking of Socrates by
thinking that he is wise, and also therefore of his widsom, this
object by which we think of his widsom will be the concept of
wisdom. It is related to our thinking like a so-called internal

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266 A. C. LLOYD

accusative-the dance that is being danced, the dream that is

being dreamed-so that although we can describe the act and the
object distinctly, there is one event to be described. (Aristotle
would in fact have said the same of hearing and the sound heard
when it is heard: but the theory does not depend on that analogy.)
This is the notion of thinking or awareness that is recognised by
the post-classical Latin 'intelligere', whose obvious ambiguity
as between ' understand ' and ' think' is part and parcel of the
theory, the alleged English ' intellection ' and so on.
As well as following Aristotle by identifying thinking and its
object in this way, Neoplatonists spoke of thinking, mind, and
thinker as being commonly interchangeable notions. This difficulty
is fortunately irrelevant here. It is well known though exasperating
how Plato and his heirs spoke of somebody's soul or mind
choosing, understanding, thinking something instead of some-
body choosing, understanding or thinking it; and it is well known
how Aristotle and his heirs believed that the thinker to whom
per excellence non-discursive thinking might be attributed, namely
God, was anyway nothing but a mind.
Denying the distinction between thinker and thought entailed
denying that the thinker in this type of thinking was aware or
conscious of his own thinking. Or rather there would be a sort
of consciousness or a substitute for it which need not concern us
here, but not the ordinary sort that accompanies discursive
thinking, for this consisted according to Plotinus in consciousness
of a self or subject of the thinking. Bergson gives a similar account
of this difference when he distinguishes thought from intuition.
Plotinus has an argument for it which makes a logical connexion
between (1), the denial of transition from concept to concept,
and (2), the denial of distinction between thinker or thinking and
object of thinking. He appeals to Plato's argument that thinking
with a proposition involves sameness and otherness and is thus
incompatible with a type of thinking which is to be simple. This
looks like mistaking (1) for (2): but he believes that (1) entails
(2). For the negation of (2) entails consciousness of self, which
entails the negation of (1). For a subject of thinking which is
aware of itself as a subject is one which has a thought that must
be propositional, of the form " I am . . . " (V 3, 10 and 13).

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(3) This type of thinking involves thinking of everything at

By this is meant, not that at some given time whatever are the
objects of thought must be being thought of simultaneously, but
that all that exists must be thought of simultaneously. In effect,
therefore if there is non-discursive thinking of this type, all things
are eternally and simultaneously being thought of. The truth of
the antecedent and of the consequent is an integral part of Neo-
platonic metaphysics; and of course it was accepted by Christian
theologians who have regularly attributed the property of totum
simul to God's thoughts. Plotinus seems to argue that this pro-
perty follows from the simplicity of the thought since it follows
from (1); for it both implies and is implied by the absence of
succession (IV 4, 1; III 7, 3). This incidentally is the meaning of
'eternity' according to him. But while this may hold for the
'simul' the ' totum ' requires an independent assumption.
Either it assumes that all objects of thought, i.e., existing things,
are connected by what idealists call internal relations-for
example, by being species of a genus existence which itself implies
the existence of its species. Or it assumes the conjunction of
omniscience and uninterrupted thought on the side of the thinker.
To shew how one or the other assumption is required would not
be to the point here. Moreover they are features which are often
attributed only to divine and not to human thinking of this type
and often tied to some metaphysical system. I shall not therefore
consider the meaningfulness of totum simul.
In addition to the three properties that were held to belong
intrinsically to a type of thinking that was non-discursive,
because it was simple, two further features were attributed to it
both by Aristotle and the Neoplatonists. They held that it
differed from ordinary or discursive thought in being unaccom-
panied by imagery. But what is puzzling here is not so much that
the absence of imagery should be required for non-discursive
thought as that its presence should be required for discursive
thought. This is an interesting puzzle, but less relevant (I believe)
than it might seem. Fifthly, it was held to be practised by and about
matterless forms. This even more evidently belongs to a compli-
cated metaphysical system. And even though some people have

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268 A. C. LLOYD

argued that non-discursive thinking ought to be explained in

terms of such a system I shall ignore it.

Suppose we ignore both totum simul and matterless forms.
Are we left even then with a meaningful notion of simple or non-
propositional thinking? Plotinus, but not all Greek philosophers,
said clearly that it should be called ' contact' rather than ' think-
ing' because even in the case of non-empirical concepts thinking
entailed self-consciousness which was ruled out by (2) and
because it excluded language. But he said equally clearly that it
was the first term of the triad identified as thinking (nous). So it
was partly thought and partly not. Anyone in this philosophical
tradition will understand if we say that in order to be more
perfect as an activity it had to be less perfect as a thought.
I have not chosen to consider models of non-discursive thought
which would assimilate it either to emotion or to sense perception
and which sacrifice altogether its link with thought. But it is
worth noticing a difficulty about them which may hold also for
what we can call a semi-intellectual model of Plotinus and others.
The motive for retaining its intellectual aspect is that this activity
of intuition is supposed to be the final stage or the goal of dis-
cursive thought. (It must be remembered all the time that we are
not concerned with the final goal of all, the last stage of non-
discursive thought, which is union with the One and a different
affair altogether.) We are supposed to think ordinarily about
empirical things, then more purely if less ordinarily about
non-empirical things (philosophy), then wholly purely but
extraordinarily about the latter (intuition or contemplation). But
how can the philosophy be connected except contingently with the
intuition? How is it not just training oneself morally and psycho-
logically not to be distracted by, for instance, the world, the flesh
and prejudices, so as to be better at intuition? This is in fact the
position taken by Bergson, who has of course a non-intellectual
model of intuition. Or, to put the same problem in a perhaps more
pointed form, how can the thinker identify his intuition, which is
simple and ineffable with any of the objects studied by his dis-
cursive thinking?

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Plotinus is far from insensitive here. He says that we do not

recognise our intuition until we ' withdraw from it ' again. When
we have done that we reflect and we attend to a ' trace ' of it like a
footprint or an after-image, which we can describe in words; the
words will not describe the intuition but they will describe some-
thing which resembles it.
Again there is the problem how the reflection and the intuition
are connected more than contingently. How is a trace identified
as a trace of the intuition? This is a question I leave open.
To simplify the question whether non-discursive thinking is a
possible form of thinking at all let us suppose, as the Greek
philosophers would have done, that we start from a proposition
such as " beauty is truth " where the subject is not a proper name
or a referring expression. (The fact that for some purposes it may
be necessary to distinguish it from a subject-predicate proposition
does not matter: we can count being identical with truth as a
predicate if we want to.) Suppose further-though again only for
the sake of simplicity-that the proposition is not just thought
but known: we can distinguish so to say its potential from its
actual existence as thought or knowledge, for we can know it
without actually thinking it. A corresponding distinction can ba
made in the case of concepts, that is thoughts which are at least
in relation to the complex thought or proposition simple because
they are its elements. These are beauty and truth and maybe
something which is supposed to be the connexion between them;
and we can distinguish between someone's latent possession of,
let us say, the concept beauty and his actual, conscious use of it
when he actually thinks, let us say, that beauty is truth.
Nothing much hangs logically on this distinction: but it
suggests a clear cut line of argument for the possibility of non-
discursive thought. This argument, it seems to me reasonable to
suggest, represents or schematises the grounds on which Greek
philosophers accepted the validity of the notion. Critics of the
notion commonly attribute it to a fallacious assimilation of
thinking to seeing, hearing and feeling. I do not want to dispute
the contribution or the importance of this assimilation: but the
more specific or immediate cause of it, and one which worked in a
much more sophisticated way, was in my opinion the roughly

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270 A. C. LLOYD

Aristotelian theory of discursive thinking which will be recognised

in the previous paragraph. The argument it suggests is as follows.
Once the problem is put in this setting it is evident that one
crucial step is needed to reach non-discursive thought. This
would be the claim that the simple concept, say beauty, can have
an actual not a ' dispositional ' existence or occurrence on its own,
that is without being part of an actually occurring proposition.
There might seem to be no justification for this claim except the
convenience, as it were, of some metaphysical or theological
system. But in fact it is something that we are committed to ex
hypothesi. We distinguished discursive thought from non-
discursive as the thinking which was complex because it involved
a transition from concept to concept. From this it follows that
every case of discursive thinking exemplifies the possibility, if not
indeed the fact, of a concept being thought on its own. We have
only to suppose somebody starting to think that beauty is truth
but being knocked unconscious just as he is about to make the
transition from the concept beauty to the concept truth (or is,
or is truth, or whatever the next concept is taken to be). Or if it is
objected that he knew what he was going to think-the proposition
he was going to entertain-so that the concept beauty was really
part of proposition, let us suppose explicitly that he did not know
what he was going to think about beauty; he might have been
ordered to think of something about beauty and got only as far
as saying to himself ' beauty ' or imagined Helen of Troy or done
one of a range of things. This range amounts in brief to anything
which he might have done had be been, as we first supposed,
starting to think that beauty was truth and which would have made
the difference between thinking that beauty was truth and thinking
that God or something else was truth.
The second stage of the argument consists in meeting an
objection. The notion of thinking is wide and no doubt elastic.
We are concerned with a central, intellectual form to which the
purported distinction of discursive and non-discursive belongs.
Here, if not throughout the notion, it may reasonable be said, we
need to distinguish what is thought from what is thought of or
about. Suppose, for example, the answer to the question " What
is he thinking? " is " That beauty is truth "; then the answer to the

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question " What is he thinking of or about" will not, indeed

cannot be the same, namely " That beauty is truth ", except
incidentally in so far as "that beauty is truth" may sometimes
be part of the answer to "What is he thinking? " The reason for
this is of course that we need to distinguish between the case of
thinking something about beauty by thinking that beauty is truth
and the case of thinking something about the proposition that
beauty is truth (e.g., by thinking that it is all you need to know).
Grammatical conventions happen to mark this distinction: in
English we are said "to think that S is P" but not " to think of
S is P". In our example the answer to the question " What is he
thinking of?" would have been " Beauty " (or possibly " Truth "
or possibly " Beauty and truth "). But it is important to notice
that it does not name what is being referred to, in the logician's
technical sense of ' refer ', the material object in the mediaeval
jargon. What it names is an intentional object-however we wish
to analyse that notion. Now take the purported case of thinking
beauty. It is not possible there to say what is being thought of,
unless we say that it is identical with what is being thought.
We ought in fact to say this rather than " Nothing". It amountsto
the identity of act and object of thought that was property no:
(2) of ' simple ' thinking, and widely accepted. But it must also be
distinguished from the alternative of merely denying that there is
an object. We must recall the analogy of dancing a dance. Philo-
sophers who have believed in non-discursive thought have wanted
it to be a kind of knowledge or contemplation. Merely denying
that there was an object would make it impossible to satisfy this
demand even if like idealists, we reject the additional demand
for an object independent of our thought.
It can therefore be claimed that this type of thinking satisfies
the requirement that there should be what is thought and what is
thought of. But the objection to it required not only that, but
that what is thought and what is thought of should not be identical.
To require this, it can now be replied, is a petitio. It assumes, in
fact is equivalent to, the identification of thinking as propositional
thinking. For the notion of what is thought of was neither more nor
less than the notion of a subject of which something is predicated.
Thus non-discursive thinking, the point of which is to be non-

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272 A. C. LLOYD

propositional, will be a contradiction in terms: but that is the

question at issue.
Thirdly, we can deal in the same way with a further objection.
If there is something thought of, or about, as we have agreed,
then there must be an answer, it may be said, to the question
"What is being thought about it?" Here again we have the
choice of answering that beauty is being thought about beauty or
that nothing is being thought about it. But in this case we must
answer " Nothing ". In discursive thinking, if S is what is thought
about, that S is P is what is thought about it. To say " Beauty
is what I think about beauty" is to utter plain nonsense. But it is
equally plain that to demand something that is being thought
about something is to demand a form of thought which is pro-
positional. Some people may find it significant that in order to
have made the objection at all the opponent will have found it
easier if not necessary to substitute ' thinking about ' for ' thinking
of'. Thinking evidently entails something thought of or about,
which so far we have treated as synonymous. But while it may
seem immediately evident that thinking about X entails something
thought about X, it does not seem so immediately evident that
thinking of X entails something thought about X.
The conclusion is that a type of non-propositional thinking,
described typically by Plotinus, is implied by a standard model of
ordinary or propositional thinking and fits that model suffi-
ciently for it to count as thinking.
But this conclusion involves a contradiction. It was noticed
earlier how an essential feature of thought is that it must embrace
the general as well as the particular. For the present purpose it
may be easier to see the pair as abstract and concrete. When the
beauty which is thought of is also the beauty which is thought
this beauty must have the incompatible properties of being
abstract and concrete. In order to be what is thought of it must
be abstract. In Aristotle's model of thinking, it will be remem-
bered, it was a concept, which in Greek he called a thought and
identified with a universal; and what was thought of in our
account was a so called intentional object, not the logician's
object of reference. We are unable to say that a concept is a
concept of something other than itself as an image is, so that we

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might think the concept and think of what it is a concept of, one
being concrete and the other abstract. We should not only be
false to the model, but what is more, we should contradict the
hypothesis of non-discursive thinking that what was thought of
was identical with what was thought. But while the beauty which
is thought of must be abstract this same beauty which is thought
must be concrete (and particular), for it is in turn identical with
the act of thinking itself, and this occurs as a datable event.
This suggests a corollary. If the argument from the model of
discursive or propositional thought to the possibility of non-
discursive thought was valid but led to a self-contradictory
conclusion there was something wrong either with the model or
with the interpretation of the model. The critical step which it
permitted was the step to a concept occurring actually, or being
thought on its own. This was possible because the actual complex
thought, the proposition, was taken to be or to involve a transi-
tion from the subject concept to the predicate concept. For the
transition or passage is understood as something that itself occurs
actually, as an event in the life history of a mind, or rather as one
of its acts; and this is what is wrong. (It should be noticed that
this criticism is not the same as a criticism to the effect that this
theory of a thought fails to distinguish an assertion from a propo-
sition. Asserting could, for instance, be an extra act.) If it is said
that this is a fault in interpreting the Aristotelian model and not
in that model it must be remembered that it was at least one of the
normal and traditional interpretations of it. Those who admitted
this radical notion of non-discursive thought classed it with
inference, and it would have been hard to deny that inference
involved actual passage of thought.
More than that, it is hard to see how it is not the interpreta-
tion which is forced on us by another feature of the model, the
theory of terms, although it is open to question whether Aristotle
himself drew the conclusion. I think that terms (as I have said
elsewhere) are the ghosts of Plato's Forms. The subject and the
predicate of a proposition are called terms, and a term is some-
thing which can (in different propositions) function as a subject
or as a predicate. I do not see how they are to be distinguished
from Aristotle's 'simple thoughts' or concepts. If we want to

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274 A. C. LLOYD

prevent a proposition from being a real passage from concept

to concept we must interpret concepts so that their reality consists
only in contributing to a thought, which is a proposition, while in
themselves they are always incomplete. But then each concept
will be defined by the contribution it makes to possible proposi-
tions; and I do not see how this will be compatible with the same
concept contributing as subject and as predicate, since subjects
do not have the same syntactical properties as predicates. The
difference between subject and predicate is irrelevant only if the
concept is a unit of semantic function and nothing more: but
then it would not be definable only by its contribution to possible

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