Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 19, 2018, from

4. Thought and language

One means of access to appearances, and especially to common beliefs, is the study of what words and sentences ‘signify’ (sēmainein). This is part of ‘logic’ (logikē, derived from logos, which may be translated ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘statement’, ‘argument’ or ‘reason’: see Logos), which is discussed in the first section of Aristotle’s works (Categories, De Interpretatione, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics). This section of the corpus came to be called the ‘Organon’ (‘instrument’), because logic, as Aristotle conceives it, concerns statements and arguments in general, without restriction to any specific subject matter; it is therefore an instrument of philosophical inquiry in general, rather than a branch of philosophy coordinate with natural philosophy or ethics. The Organon includes some elements of philosophy of language, as well as formal logic (syllogistic; see §5) and epistemology (see §6).

According to Aristotle’s account of signification (see especially De Interpretatione 1–4), as commonly understood, the word ‘horse’ signifies horse by signifying the thought of horse; in using the word, we communicate thoughts about horses. When the thoughts about horses we communicate are true, we communicate truths about the universal horse; even when our thoughts are not completely true, we may signify the same universal horse.

To understand the signification of a name ‘F’, we look for the corresponding definition (logos, horismos) of F. Aristotle distinguishes nominal definitions, stating the beliefs associated with the name, from real definitions, giving a true account of the universal that underlies the beliefs embodied in the nominal definition (see Posterior Analytics II 8–10. Aristotle himself does not use the labels ‘nominal definition’ and ‘real definition’.).

Not every name corresponds to one nominal and one real definition. Some names correspond to no genuine universal; ‘goatstag’ signifies (in one way) animals that are both goats and stags, but it does not signify a genuine universal, since there is no natural kind of goatstag. Other names correspond to more than one universal, as ‘chest’ signifies both a container and a part of an animal. Chests are ‘homonymous’ (homōnyma) or ‘multivocal’ (pollachōs legomena; ‘spoken of in many ways’); more than one definition is needed to capture the signification of the name. By contrast, since only one definition corresponds to the name ‘horse’, horses are ‘synonymous’ (Categories 1).

Other philosophers make serious errors, Aristotle believes, because they suppose they can give a single account of things or properties that are really multivocal. Once we see that different Fs are F in different ways, we see that different, although (in many cases) connected, accounts of what it is to be F must be given. Some philosophically important cases of multivocity are cause (Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes; see §9), being (the doctrine of the categories; see §7) and good (the criticism of Plato’s belief in a Form of the Good; Nicomachean Ethics I 6).

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Thought and language. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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