On Interpretation

Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


There is no unity about an affirmation or denial which, either positively or negatively, predicates one thing of many subjects, or many things of the same subject, unless that which is indicated by the many is really some one thing.

I do not apply this word ’one’ to those things which, though they have a single recognized name, yet do not combine to form a unity. Thus, man may be an animal, and biped, and domesticated, but these three predicates combine to form a unity. On the other hand, the predicates ’white’, ’man’, and ’walking’ do not thus combine. Neither, therefore, if these three form the subject of an affirmation, nor if they form its predicate, is there any unity about that affirmation. In both cases the unity is linguistic, but not real.

If therefore the dialectical question is a request for an answer, i.e. either for the admission of a premiss or for the admission of one of two contradictories- and the premiss is itself always one of two contradictories- the answer to such a question as contains the above predicates cannot be a single proposition. For as I have explained in the Topics, the question is not a single one, even if the answer asked for is true.

At the same time it is plain that a question of the form ’what is it?’ is not a dialectical question, for a dialectical questioner must by the form of his question give his opponent the chance of announcing one of two alternatives, whichever he wishes. He must therefore put the question into a more definite form, and inquire, e.g.. whether man has such and such a characteristic or not.

Some combinations of predicates are such that the separate predicates unite to form a single predicate. Let us consider under what conditions this is and is not possible. We may either state in two separate propositions that man is an animal and that man is a biped, or we may combine the two, and state that man is an animal with two feet. Similarly we may use ’man’ and ’white’ as separate predicates, or unite them into one. Yet if a man is a shoemaker and is also good, we cannot construct a composite proposition and say that he is a good shoemaker. For if, whenever two separate predicates truly belong to a subject, it follows that the predicate resulting from their combination also truly belongs to the subject, many absurd results ensue. For instance, a man is man and white. Therefore, if predicates may always be combined, he is a white man. Again, if the predicate ’white’ belongs to him, then the combination of that predicate with the former composite predicate will be permissible. Thus it will be right to say that he is a white man and so on indefinitely. Or, again, we may combine the predicates ’musical’, ’white’, and ’walking’, and these may be combined many times. Similarly we may say that Socrates is Socrates and a man, and that therefore he is the man Socrates, or that Socrates is a man and a biped, and that therefore he is a two-footed man. Thus it is manifest that if man states unconditionally that predicates can always be combined, many absurd consequences ensue.

We will now explain what ought to be laid down.

Those predicates, and terms forming the subject of predication, which are accidental either to the same subject or to one another, do not combine to form a unity. Take the proposition ’man is white of complexion and musical’. Whiteness and being musical do not coalesce to form a unity, for they belong only accidentally to the same subject. Nor yet, if it were true to say that that which is white is musical, would the terms ’musical’ and ’white’ form a unity, for it is only incidentally that that which is musical is white; the combination of the two will, therefore, not form a unity.

Thus, again, whereas, if a man is both good and a shoemaker, we cannot combine the two propositions and say simply that he is a good shoemaker, we are, at the same time, able to combine the predicates ’animal’ and ’biped’ and say that a man is an animal with two feet, for these predicates are not accidental.

Those predicates, again, cannot form a unity, of which the one is implicit in the other: thus we cannot combine the predicate ’white’ again and again with that which already contains the notion ’white’, nor is it right to call a man an animal-man or a two-footed man; for the notions ’animal’ and ’biped’ are implicit in the word ’man’. On the other hand, it is possible to predicate a term simply of any one instance, and to say that some one particular man is a man or that some one white man is a white man.

Yet this is not always possible: indeed, when in the adjunct there is some opposite which involves a contradiction, the predication of the simple term is impossible. Thus it is not right to call a dead man a man. When, however, this is not the case, it is not impossible.

Yet the facts of the case might rather be stated thus: when some such opposite elements are present, resolution is never possible, but when they are not present, resolution is nevertheless not always possible. Take the proposition ’Homer is so-and-so’, say ’a poet’; does it follow that Homer is, or does it not? The verb ’is’ is here used of Homer only incidentally, the proposition being that Homer is a poet, not that he is, in the independent sense of the word.

Thus, in the case of those predications which have within them no contradiction when the nouns are expanded into definitions, and wherein the predicates belong to the subject in their own proper sense and not in any indirect way, the individual may be the subject of the simple propositions as well as of the composite. But in the case of that which is not, it is not true to say that because it is the object of opinion, it is; for the opinion held about it is that it is not, not that it is.


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Chicago: Aristotle, "Chapter 11," On Interpretation, trans. E. M. Edghill in Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0 (Irvine, CA: World Library, Inc., 1996), Original Sources, accessed September 20, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1GW44J6D5E39UW5.

MLA: Aristotle. "Chapter 11." On Interpretation, translted by E. M. Edghill, in Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0, Irvine, CA, World Library, Inc., 1996, Original Sources. 20 Sep. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1GW44J6D5E39UW5.

Harvard: Aristotle, 'Chapter 11' in On Interpretation, trans. . cited in 1996, Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0, World Library, Inc., Irvine, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 20 September 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1GW44J6D5E39UW5.