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On Interpretation

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Aristotle's De Interpretatione (the Latin title by which it is usually known) or On Interpretation (Greek Περὶ Ἑρμηνείας or Peri Hermeneias) is one of the earliest surviving philosophical works in the Western philosophical tradition to deal with the relationship between language and logic in a comprehensive, explicit, and formal way.

The work begins by analyzing simple categoric propositions, and draws a series of basic conclusions on the routine issues of classifying and defining basic linguistic forms, such as simple terms and propositions, nouns and verbs, negation, the quantity of simple propositions (primitive roots of the quantifiers in modern symbolic logic), investigations on the excluded middle (what to Aristotle isn't applicable to future tense propositions — the Problem of future contingents), and on modal propositions.

The first five chapters deal with the terms that form propositions. Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the relationship between affirmative, negative, universal and particular propositions. These relationships are the basis of the well-known Square of opposition. The distinction between universal and particular propositions is the basis of modern quantification theory. Some of the later chapters deal with modal propositions, which assert or deny possibility or impossibility. Chapter 9 is famous for the discussion of the sea-battle. (If it is true that there will be a sea-battle tomorrow, then it is true today that there will be a sea-battle. Thus a sea-battle is apparently unavoidable, and thus necessary).

De Interpretatione is (the second) part of the Organon, Aristotle's collected works on logic.


Chapter 1. Aristotle defines words as symbols of 'affections of the soul' or mental experiences. Spoken and written symbols differ between languages, but the mental experiences are the same for all (so that the English word 'cat' and the French word 'chat' are different symbols, but the mental experience they stand for - the concept of a cat - is the same for English speakers and French speakers). Nouns and verbs on their own do not involve truth or falsity.

Chapter 2. A noun signifies by convention, but without reference to time (i.e. 'Caesar' signifies the same now, two thousand years after his death, as it did in Roman times).

Chapter 3. A verb carries with it the notion of time. 'He was healthy' and 'he will be healthy' are tenses of a verb. An untensed verb indicates the present, the tenses of a verb indicate times outside the present.

Chapter 4. The sentence is an expression whose parts have meaning. The word 'man' signifies something, but is not a sentence. Only when words are added to it do we have affirmation and negation.

Chapter 5. Every simple proposition contains a verb. A simple proposition indicates a single fact, and the conjunction of its parts gives a unity. A complex proposition is several propositions compounded together.

Chapter 6. An affirmation is a assertion of something of something, a denial an assertion denying something of something. (For example, 'a man is an animal' asserts 'animal' of 'man'. 'A stone is not an animal' denies 'animal' of stone').

Chapter 7. Terms. Some terms are universal. A universal term is capable of being asserted of several subjects (for example 'moon' - even though the Earth has one moon, it may have had more, and the noun 'moon' could have been said of them in exactly the same sense). Other terms are individual. An individual or singular term ('Plato') is not predicated (in the same) sense of more than one individual.

A universal affirmative proposition such as 'every man is white', and a universal negative proposition having the same subject and predicate such as 'no man is white' are called contrary. A universal affirmative proposition (every man is white) and the non-universal denial of that proposition in a way (some man is not white) are called contradictories. Of contradictories, one must be true, the other false. Contraries cannot both be true, although they can both be false, and hence there contradictories both true (for example, both 'every man is honest' and 'no man is honest' are false. But their contradictories 'some men are not honest' and 'some man are honest' are both true.

Chapter 8. An affirmation is single, if it expresses a single fact. For example 'every man is white'. However, if a word has two meanings, for example if the word 'garment' meant 'a man and a horse', then 'garment is white' would not be a single affirmation, for it would mean 'a man and a horse are white', which is equivalent to the two simple propositions 'a man is white and a horse is white'.

Chapter 9. Of contradictory propositions about the past, one must be true, the other false. But when the subject is individual, and the proposition is future, this is not the case. For if so, nothing takes place by chance. For either the future proposition such as 'a sea battle will take place' corresponds with future reality, or its negation does, in which case the sea battle will take place with necessity, or not take place with necessity. But in reality, such an event might just as easily not happen as happen; the meaning of the word 'by chance' with regard or future events is that reality is so constituted that it may issue in either of two opposite possibilities. This is known as the problem of future contingents.

Chapter 10. Aristotle enumerates the affirmations and denials that can be assigned when 'indefinite' terms such as 'unjust' are included. He makes a distinction that was to become important later, between the use of the verb 'is' as a mere copula or 'third element', as in the sentence 'a man is wise', and as a predicate signifying existence, as in 'a man is [i.e. exists]'.

Chapter 11 Some propositions appear to be simple which are really composite. A truly single proposition the name of the subject combines to form a unity. Thus 'two-footed domesticated animal' means the same thing as a 'man', and the three predicates combine to form a unity. But in the term 'a white walking man' the three predicates do not combine to form a unity of this sort.

Chapter 12. This chapter considers the mutual relation of modal propositions: affirmations and denials which assert or deny possibility or contingency, impossibility or necessity.

Chapter 13. The relation between such propositions. Logical consequences follow from this arrangement. For example, from the proposition 'it is possible' it follows that it is contingent, that is is not impossible, or from the proposition 'it cannot be the case' there follows 'it is necessarily not the case'.

Chapter 14. Is there an affirmative proposition corresponding to every denial? For example, is the proposition 'every man is unjust' an affirmation (since it seems to affirm being unjust of every man) or is it merely a negative (since it denies justice).

See also

External links

  • Sea Battle Hub, a tutorial introduction to the discussion of the truth status of future events from De Interpretatione 9.