Aristotle's Categories and On Interpretation

Paper 8, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 701, Spring 2003, taught by Dr. Majid Tehranian

Aristotle needs little introduction. He was a great philosopher of ancient Greece. He was a student of Plato, who was a student of Socrates. In Categories, he explores the types of predicates that can be stated of a subject, where a subject is an isolated or uncombined word. This is largely a study of epistemology, but, since Aristotle holds a correspondence theory of truth, it largely parallels his ontology too. Man seems the quintessential subject of Aristotle's Categories. (Of the 10 Categories, Having (possession) and Lying (or attitude) are frequently neglected; these can be little applied to subjects other than humans.) The number of Categories is a maximum--some may not be applicable to all subjects.

In On Interpretation, Aristotle turns from the meaning of single words to the meanings and truths of propositions and language. For Aristotle, truth can only be stated in a proposition.

Here, I have followed The Categories chapter by chapter (hence the numbers), but have been a little looser with On Interpretation. I will begin with The Categories:

(1) Equivocally (homonymously) named things have a name in common, but not a definition. A man is an animal and a picture of a man is an animal, but not the same kind of animal. Univocally (synonymously) named things have both a name and definition in common. A man and an ox are both animals. Derivatively (paronymously) named things derive their name from another, such as a grammarian from grammar or the brave from bravery.

(2) Words can be combined in propositions ("man runs") or uncombined ("man", "runs"). Predicates of an uncombined subject can be said of the subject or can be in the subject, or both, or neither. Predicates said of their subjects are not dependent on their subjects for existence. [They are predicates of abstract universal classes rather than of concrete particulars.] Predicates in their subjects cannot exist without a subject. [They are predicated attributes, whether universal or particular.]

(3) Predicates of another predicate will also apply to its subject. For example, predicates of 'humankind' will also apply to a particular man, since 'humankind' can be predicated of that particular man.

(4) Each uncombined word signifies the following: Substance (man, horse), Quantity (four feet long), Quality (white, grammatical), Relation (half, taller), Place (in the Lyceum), Time (yesterday), Posture (lying down, sitting), State (shod, wearing armor), Action (cutting, burning), or Affection (is cut, is burnt). Uncombined words (unlike propositions) can not be affirmations or denials, and so are neither true nor false.

(5) Primary substances do not exist in nor are they said of a subject [Thus they are, as subjects, particular concrete entities]. Secondary substances include such things as 'animal' and 'man'. They can be said of but are not in their subjects. [Thus, they are abstract classes or forms.] Substances do not have contraries or degrees within themselves; they are essential to their subjects. However, they can support other contrary qualifications [or accidental attributes.]. For instance, while a particular man is always a 'man', he may, at different times, be hot or cold, sitting or standing, good or evil.

(6) Quantities may be discrete (such as numbers) or continuous (such as lines). Their parts may or may not have position relative to each other. A secondary sense of quantity applies to a subject's other qualities, such as the length/duration of an Action. Quantities do not have contraries nor do they have degree. Equality and inequality apply solely to quantities; with other predicates, we use like or unlike.

(7) Relatives are those things said to be of or than or otherwise in relation to another thing--one thing is larger than another thing; a double is twice of a thing. Some relatives are contrary (such as virtue is contrary to vice, though double is not contrary to half), and some admit degree (a thing can be more or less similar, but not more or less double). All relatives reciprocate. For example, a master is a master of a slave; if there is a double, there is a half. If a relative appears not be have a reciprocal, it is because of an error of speech. For example, wing of a bird does not have the reciprocal bird of a wing; but wing of a winged (creature) has a winged (creature) of (or with) a wing. If the proper word does not exist to clarify the proper relation, it may have to be coined--rudder of a boat is more properly stated as rudder of a ruddered. While most relatives are simultaneous (a slave has a master; without a master there is no slave and vice versa), not all are. Loss of perceptions or knowledge of a thing does not mean the loss or destruction of the thing perceived or known.

(8) Qualities, by which a thing may be qualified, primarily come in four forms. The first is states and conditions (or habits and dispositions). States--such as knowledge or virtue--are more permanent and harder to change than conditions--such as hot or ill. The second type are those inborn capacities or incapacities of the sort that makes people good runners or sickly; similarly, a hard physical thing is so called because it cannot be easily divided. The third type consists of affective (or passive) qualities and affections. These are qualities that do not cause a change in the thing itself but in another--honey is called sweet because it causes a sweet taste. The fourth is shape and the external form of a thing, such as triangular or crooked. (Rough and smooth are not qualities but rather a position of a thing's component parts). In most cases a thing may be called paronymously (or derivatively) according to its qualities--a pale man on account of his paleness. Qualities may be contrary (black verses white) or not (yellow), and most admit degrees (more or less white), though not all (shape, particularly, does not admit degree).

(9) Action (doing) and Affection (passion or being affected) have contraries (heating verses cooling) and degrees (heating or being heated more or less). Aristotle considers Posture, Time, Place, and State (or Having, as in being shod or armored) to be obvious enough not to warrant further comment. [This chapter is not to believed to be genuine Aristotle.]

(10) Things are said to be opposed to each other in four ways. The first way is as relatives, in which the one thing is opposite relative to another (double relative to half). The second way is as contraries, as with good and bad, where good is not "the good of the bad", but contrary to the bad. The third type of opposition is privation and possession: blindness is the privation of the possession of sight. The last type is affirmative and negative, in which one must be true and the other false--for example, "Socrates is well" and "Socrates is ill". (One can be true only if Socrates exists. Both are false if he does not exist.)

(11) What is contrary to a good thing is bad. But what is contrary to a bad thing may be good or bad: excess is the opposite of deficiency, but both are bad. All contraries must be of the same genus (black and white are both colors), of contrary genera (justice is in the genus of virtue while injustice in the genus of vice), or be genera themselves (good and bad are opposite genera for other things).

(12) A thing is called prior to another in four ways. The first way is with respect to time, where the first occurs before or is older than the second. The second way is when the second determines the existence of the first: if there are two then there must be one, so one is prior to two. The third way is with respect to some order, such as with speeches, where the introduction comes prior to the exposition. The fourth (and least proper) is when a thing is more valued, such as loved ones have priority in our hearts. There could be fifth type of priority with respect to truth--a man's existence is prior to any statement of truth about that man.

(13) Things are simultaneous in time when neither occurs before the other. They are simultaneous in nature when the existence of one entails the existence of the other, as with the double and the half. Species within a genus are also simultaneous by nature.

(14) There are six kinds of change: generation and destruction (change in substance), increase and diminution (change in quantity), alteration (change in quality), and change in position.

(15) Aristotle concludes The Categories with a brief chapter on the verb "to have".

He then moves on to On Interpretation, in which he explores propositions, meaning, and truth. As introduction, he claims that spoken sounds are symbols of "affections in the soul" and that written marks are symbols of spoken sounds. While speech and writing are not the same for all people, what they stand for--the affections of the soul--are the same. Additionally, the things of which those affections are likenesses are also the same.

He then begins with a few definitions. A name is a spoken sound in conversation that is conventionally significant; none of a name's parts are significant separately. Names are a matter of convention since they do not signify anything naturally, as do "the inarticulate sounds of beasts." While "man" is a name, "not man" is not; nor is it a phrase or negation. Rather, it is an indefinite name.

A verb additionally signifies time and it is a sign of things said of something else. "Recovers" is a verb; "Does not recover" is an indefinite verb. Tenses of a verb are "inflections" and signify times other than the present.

A sentence [or rather logos, which incorporates many meaning, including phrase, rational, and definition] is a spoken sound with significant parts. While all significant, not all sentences are statements, which are either true or false. A prayer is a sentence, but, since it is not true or false, it is not a statement.

Every statement must include a verb or verb infection. A single statement reveals a single thing. If a single statement affirms something of a thing, it is an affirmation; if it denies, it is a negation. A contradiction is when an affirmation and negation univocally say opposite things about a subject. An affirmation has only a single negation, which claims its opposite. Aristotle distinguishes statements about universals (man; all men) verses those about particulars (a man; some man).

Aristotle's chapter on statements concerning the future of particular subjects is the subject of much scholastic debate. He is concerned with the necessary connection between statement and fact, but recognizes that a statement cannot validly correspond to a state of affairs that has not yet come to be. He concludes with a discussion of the contradictory relationships between negatives and affirmatives; this, too, is frequently confusing.

This was the first time I've read a significant amount of Aristotle's own writing. Alternating between two interpretations helped a lot--each would use different words for the same concept, such as "state and condition" in one verses "habit and disposition" in another.

Aristotle basically defines and catalogs the world, with little explanation of the relationships between things. Sometimes he admits that other categories may yet be found, but at other times implies his categories are absolute, even if language has to be changed to reveal them (such as that whole thing about wings of the winged rather than wings of birds). He also occasionally tacks things on at the end, as when he starts out discussing four types of priority and end up with five. Often he arrives at weird conclusions, as in shape is a quality yet rough and smooth are just positions of thing's component parts.

In short, I think Aristotle gets cut a lot of slack. I think that this is because, while maybe simple and confusing on his own, Aristotle has been rediscovered so many times that people have added to and reinterpreted his words to derive the most logical conclusions. He serves as the basis for many other scholars' work (as can be seen below). Also, references to his other works can clarify what he is talking about in the current one. (It reminds me much of Bible interpretations, which can often give a more coherent picture of the work than the text itself.) As such, Ackrill's (and others') commentary was invaluable in understanding the work. Their contributions appeared in brackets.

In terms of communication, the most interesting aspects of this work is Aristotle's view of language and its relationship to his ontology. He claims that symbols signify "affections of the soul" which are likenesses of actual things. This is basically Ogden and Richards' view that a symbol signifies an objective referent through a person's internal mental reference! It is also interesting that written words do not symbolize thoughts directly but only through spoken words. It seems Aristotle would oppose any experiential theory of language, such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, since he claims that all people's thoughts are the same, and different languages simply signify those same thoughts.

His differentiation between conventional names and naturally occurring sounds of beast correlates with the symbolic interactionalism's and semiotic's distinctions between symbols and signs.

His extreme adherence to a correspondence theory of truth does give him some trouble at times. He has difficulty with any claims about the future since they do not necessarily need to occur; there could be some contingency. Also, if the subject doesn't exist, any statement about it is false (rather than simply meaningless). So the statements "Unicorns have horns" and "Unicorns do not have horns" would be equally false for Aristotle. Yet intuitively is seems the first is truer than the second, because if unicorns did exist, they would necessarily have horns.

Overall, I found Aristotle interesting, but I would look elsewhere for the bulk of my communication theory.

Ackrill, J. L. Aristotle's Categories and De Interpretatione. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1963.

Includes many pages of helpful commentary and endnotes.

Cooke, Harold P. The Categories and On Interpretation. Aristotle in Twenty-Three Volumes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Includes the Greek text.

Hsieh, Diana Mertz. "The Substance of Early Aristotle" <> Last edited: 01 Oct 2002.

Flemming, Diana. Handout: Aristotle's Ontology. <> Last accessed: 07 Apr 2003.