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Stoicism

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10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1
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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1

8The lekton

The fourth incorporeal on the list, the lekton (plural lekta), ‘sayable’, is a key term in Stoicism. Plato in the Sophist (261–2) distinguishes two linguistic tasks: naming, which is to pick out a subject, and ‘saying’ (legein), which is, roughly, to attach a predicate to that subject. This is probably the background to the Stoic lekton, which seems to have originally meant, as distinct from a subject, the sort of thing that you can say about a subject. As in Plato, it is typically expressed by a verb like ‘walks’ or ‘to walk’. The actual action, walking, is itself a body: it is analysed as the commanding faculty of the soul (itself pneuma, and therefore a body) functioning in a certain way. But in certain contexts the predicate expressed by the verb ‘to walk’ is not properly identified with some body. The Stoics noted at least two cases – wishing, and causation. (1) When we say ‘I want to walk’, the soul which wishes is a body, but what it wishes for is not either itself, or for some further body to be added to it: it is for some predicate to become true of it. (2) When, for example, fire causes wood to be burnt, the effect generated is not some new body, burnt wood, since the wood already exists: it is that some new predicate becomes true of the wood. Thus, both the objects of wishes and the effects of causes are incorporeal predicates, technically called lekta.

The most prominent role of the lekton is in logic. Stoic logic (see §§10–11) is less interested in predicates as such – what they call ‘incomplete lekta’ – than in the complete propositions containing them, the primary bearers of truth. Normally speaking the predicate expressed by a verb, for example, ‘…walks’, serves a full linguistic function only when it has a subject term supplied by a noun, for example, when someone says ‘Dion walks’. The notion of a ‘complete lekton’ is used to distinguish such cases. Most commonly, a complete lekton is the proposition expressed by a complete declarative sentence, as in the example given, although other complete lekta include questions (‘Is Dion walking?’), commands (‘Walk, Dion’) and so on.

A complete lekton is said to be produced by attaching a predicate to a ‘nominative case (ptōsis)’. This generates an interpretative puzzle. A lekton is well attested to be an incorporeal, yet a nominative case, being a grammatical form, ought to be a word and hence a body (a spoken word being vibrating air; a written word probably ink). Can a complete lekton be incorporeal and yet have one part which is corporeal? It may be that the subject term, by being expressed, makes the lekton complete without actually becoming part of it. Or it may be that the Stoics posited, in addition to the predicate expressed by the verb, a further incorporeal incomplete lekton, namely the subject of the complete lekton, expressed by the subjective nominative noun of the corresponding uttered sentence. Both suggestions (which do not exhaust those available) are problematic, and neither gains unequivocal support from the surviving evidence.

Nor is it easy to find a link between the incorporeality of the lekton and that of place, void and time (see §7). These latter three have some sort of mind-independent reality. Can the same be said for lekta? This is controversial, but the causal role of lekta must lend them some degree of objectivity, since causal processes presumably go on in the same way whether or not anyone is there to observe or analyse them. The lekton is defined as ‘that which subsists in correspondence with a rational impression’ (that is, roughly, with a human thought (see §12). This could be taken to make it parasitic on the thought processes of rational beings. But it may alternatively mean no more than that a lekton is a formal structure onto which rational thoughts, like the sentences into which they can be translated, must be mapped. This latter possibility bears some comparison to space and time, which, although defined by reference to their potential or actual occupants, are the objective dimensions onto which the positions and motions of those occupants are to be mapped, and are not altogether parasitic on them for their reality. The analogy must not be pushed too far, since the lekton differs from the other three incorporeals in not being any kind of mathematically analysable extension. But rationality is as much an intrinsic feature of the Stoic world as dimensionality, and it would be entirely Stoic to hold that there are objective parameters onto which its rational structures can be mapped

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Citing this article:
Sedley, David. 8The lekton. Stoicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/stoicism/v-1/sections/8the-lekton.
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