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Aristotle and Nonreferring Subjects

Author(s): William Jacobs

Source: Phronesis, Vol. 24, No. 3 (1979), pp. 282-300
Published by: BRILL
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Aristotle and Nonreferring Subjects


It is a widely acceptedview amongstscholarsthat Aristotlebelieved that

the subjectof an assertionmight fail to refer.Two texts,De Interpretatione
xi 21 a 25-28and Categoriesx 13b 12-35,aregenerallycited as evidencefor
this belief. In this paper I will argue that both passageshave previously
been misunderstood and that Aristotle did not accept the possible
referentialfailure of the subject of an assertion.In Section I, after first
discussingthe standardinterpretationsof both texts,I note the difficulties
which result from these accounts. In Section II I offer a brief general
argumentshowing that Aristotle'sown account of what an assertion is
impliesthatit is impossiblefor the subjectof an assertionto fail to refer.In
Section III I presentmy own analysisof each passageand show that when
properlyunderstoodneitheris in any way concernedwith the problemof
The two passageswith which we are presentlyconcernedcome from two
unrelated discussions.The first, De Interpretationexi 21 a 25-28, is a
tangential comment made after a discussion of certain types of
predications.Afterworryingfirstabout determiningthe complexityof an
assertion,Aristotlethen shifts the discussion to the circumstancesunder
which it is permissibleto move fromassertingtwo predicatesseparatelyof
a subject to assertingthem togetherof the subject. Near the end of this
discussion,in 21 a 25-28, Aristotle remarks(accordingto John Ackrill's
For example, Homer is something(say, a poet). Does it follow that he is?No, for the
'is' is predicatedaccidentallyof Homer; for it is because he is a poet, not in its own
right,that the 'is' is predicatedof Homer.'

When renderedin thisway, it is easy to see why the standardinterpretation

of this passageis in termsof Aristotle'squeryingwhetheror not "Homer
exists"follows from"Homeris a poet."
The second passage with which we are concerned, Categoriesx 13 b
12-35, forms the concluding section of a discussion of the types of

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opposition.2After briefly listing the four types of opposites, Categories x

proceeds to discuss each successively: the opposition of relatives (e.g.
double and half), the oppositionof contraries(e.g. odd and even or white
and black),the oppositionof possessionand privation(e.g. blindnessand
sight),and finally the oppositionof thingsthat are opposed as affirmation
and denial (e.g. "Socratesis seated" and "Socratesis not seated"). The
distinguishingfeatureof this last sortof oppositionis that only in this kind
of oppositionmust one oppositebe trueand the otherbe false. Though,in
part, this criterionis triviallytrue since only this fourthsort of opposition
involves combined terms, Aristotle goes furtherand adds that not even
when contrariesor possessions and their privations are combined with
subjects in order to form assertions are these resultant assertions so
opposed that alwaysone is true and the other is false.
Ourconcernis with Aristotle'sexplanationof this concludingpoint. For
a typicaltranslationof these remarks,let me againcite Ackrill'srendering:
It might, indeed, very well seem that the same sort of thing does occur in the case of
contrariessaid with combination, 'Socrates is well' being contrary to 'Socrates is
sick'. Yet not even with these is it necessaryalways for one to be true and the other
false. For if Socratesexists one will be trueand one false, but if he does not both will
be false; neither'Socratesis sick' nor 'Socratesis well' will be true if Socrateshimself
does not exist at all. As for possessionand privation,if he does not exist at all neither
is true,while not always one or the other is true if he does. For 'Socrateshas sight' is
opposed to 'Socrates is blind' as possession to privation; and if he exists it is not
necessary for one or the other to be true or false (since until the time when it is
naturalfor him to have it both are false), while if Socratesdoes not exist at all then
again both are false, both 'he has sight' and 'he is blind'. But with an affirmationand
negation one will always be false and the other true whether he exists or not. For
take 'Socratesis sick' and 'Socratesis not sick': if he exists it is clear that one or the
other of them will be true or false, and equally if he does not; for if he does not exist
'he is sick' is false but 'he is not sick' true.Thus it would be distinctiveof these alone
- opposed affirmations and negations - that always one or the other is true or

The commonly accepted interpretationof Aristotle'sremarksis given in

termsof nonreferringsubjects.4Thus,when he writesin 13b 12-19thatif A
and B are contraries,predicatingA and B of some individual(e.g. Socrates)
need not resultin two assertionsone of whichis trueand the otherof which
is false, Aristotle'sexplanationis said to be that should Socratesnot exist
then both assertions

"Socrates is A" and "Socrates is B" - are false due

to the subject'sfailure to refer.Similarly,when Aristotlenotes in 13 b 20

-27 that if C and D are a possessionand its privation,then predicatingC
and D of some individual(e.g. Socrates)need not resultin one trueand one

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false assertion,Aristotle'spoint is takento be thatshouldSocratesnot exist,

then both assertionsare false. Only in the case of contradictorieswhichare
opposed as affirmationto denial - "Socratesis E" and "Socratesis not E"
- need alwaysone be true and the otherbe false. On the standardaccount
this is because(1) if Socratesexists, then "Socratesis E" and "Socratesis
not E" will be true or false dependingupon whetherSocratesis or is not E
while (2) if Socrates does not exist, then since that which is not is not
anything, Socrates is not A and .. . and Socrates is not E and ... and

therefore being E cannot and not being E can be truly aflirmed of

The proponentsof these two interpretationshave themselvesrecognized
the fatal difficultywith which theirreadingsare confronted- namelythat
on theirunderstandingthe two textsapparentlycontradictone another,for
whereasCategoriesx 13 b 12-35is taken to imply that if Socratesdoes not
xi 21 a
exist, then "Socratesis a poet" would be false, De Interpretatione
25-28 seems to deny this implication.To the best of my knowledge,no
adequate resolution of this problem has been proposed.6However, in
addition to this difficulty, there are other objections to the traditional
xi 21 a 25-28,
interpretationof these texts.In the case of De Interpretatione
us to underforce
the standard
with their
stand the two crucialtermsof the passagein a way that
normal senses.7In the case of Categoriesx 13 b 12-35,it is unclearwhy
Aristotleshould suddenlyintroducethe notion of referentialfailurewithout even the briefestexplanation.Even for Aristotleit is a bit peculiarto
introducesomethingso problematicwithoutpriorexplanation.
All of these considerationslead us to suspect the adequacyof the standard account of these two remarksand cause us to seek alternativeexplanationswhich do not involve the notion of referentialfailure.However,
before offeringsuch analysis,I firstwish to presentone final, and perhaps
the most important,argumentagainstreadingeitherDe Interpretatione
21 a 25-28 and Categoriesx 13 b
terms of nonreferringsubjects - namely that the adoption of such a
positionwould contradictAristotle'saccountof whatit is foran assertionto
be capable of being true or false.

While previousinterpretershave quite readilynoted how on theirreading

Aristotle'sremarksin Categoriesx conflictwith his commentsin De Interpretatione xi, they have overlooked how Aristotle could not accept the

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possible referential failure of the subject of an assertion without contradicting his account of affirmation and denial in De Interpretatione v, vi,
and x.
According to Aristotle, those things which are true or false are not
propositions or statements (where these two terms have their modern
technical senses) but rather sentences. On his account, whereas every
sentence is meaningful, only certain sentences are either true or false.
Many, such as those in prayers, are neither true nor false and hence are fit
objects of rhetorical or poetic study only. Other sentences, by virtue of their
being either true or false, make assertions about the world. Aristotle calls
such literal fact-asserting sentences TOqX(OVTLXOL
Xo-yoi("assertions"; literally: "assertive sentences").
Aristotle's discussion of assertions makes clear the existential import
which he finds in them:
But of assertions,some such as those affirmingsomething of something or denying
something of something [TirZTt1 TLVosii Ti &rr6 T1V6o] are simple assertions, others
such as a composite assertionare compounded out of these.8

Similarly, since an assertion must be either an affirmation or a denial,

Aristotle's remarks on these relationships also are revealing:
An affirmationis an assertionaffirming something of something [TLV6s xoxr&TLV6S].
A denial is an assertiondenying something of something [TLVOS&iT6 rLVOSJ.9
But since an affirmationmeans something is affirmed about something, the subject
is either a name or a 'non-name' and what is affirmed must be one thing about one
thing. . . Thus every affirmationand denial is either by means of a name and verb or
by means of an indefinite name and verb. Unless there is a verb there is no
affirmationand denial.10

Each of these passages reveals that for Aristotle, affirmation and denial
indicate relationships holding between things. As his analysis of homonymy and synonymy,11 his discussions of the respective roles of words and
of things in our reasoning,12 and his view that ov andTL are coextensive
show, Aristotle's understanding of the relation of language to the world is
such that in the above texts 'Ti? must signify an actual thing.13 Though
every affirmation and denial is by means of a noun or indefinite noun and
a verb or indefinite verb, what is being asserted in the affirmation or denial
is not solely or even primarily a linguistic relationship. Rather, Aristotle's
concern is with what this linguistic vehicle indicates about the relation of
things in the world, namely that in an affirmation one thing is being

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assertedto belong to one thingwhile in a denialone thingis beingasserted

not to belong to one thing.
It is this ontological aspect of affirmationand denial that precludes
Aristotle'sbelievingin the referentialfailureof the subjectof an assertion.
Since an assertion,in orderfor it to be an assertion,mustasserteitherthat
one thing belongs to one thing or that one thing does not belong to one
thing, should the subject fail to refer, then there will not be anythingto
which we can assert the predicate belongs. In other words, should the
subjectof a sentencefail to refer,the sentencewill be neithertruenor false
and hence will not be an assertion.Thus, to use a standardexample, for
Aristotle,since there is no presentKing of France,we can neitheraffirm
nor deny anything of him and hence no sentence in which "the present
King of France"is the subject, such as "The present King of France is
bald,"will be an assertion.
The argumentthat I havejust offered showswhy Aristotle'sanalysisof
affirmationand denial preventshis believing that the subjectof an assertion mightfail to refer.To do so wouldsimplycontradictDe Interpretatione
v, vi, and x.
Turning first to De Interpretatione xi 21 a 25-28, I will argue that rather
than asking whether "Homer exists" follows from "Homer is a poet,"
Aristotleis reallymerelypointingout that since being a poet is not partof
Homer's essence, "Homer is a poet" is a contingent truth. However,in
orderto recognizethat this is Aristotle'sintention,we mustnot neglectthe
contextof his remark.Whereasothercommentatorshave tendedto treat21
a 25-28 in isolation, we can properlyinterpretthese lines only by understandingthe issueswith which the wholechapteris concerned.
De Interpretatione xi opens with a discussion of the problem of
determiningthe complexityof an assertionand then shifts to the question
of the permissibilityof compoundingpredicates,i.e. moving from saying
"Xis Y"and "Xis Z" to saying"Xis YZ."Thoughon certainoccasionsthis
is allowable,on othersit is not. Aristotleoffersus two such cases.The first
(20 b 35-36)concernsthe use of an adjectivethatcan both be predicatedof
the subjectof a sentence and be used as a modifierof a directobject(e.g.
"The man is good"'and "The man is a cobbler"do not imply that "The
man is a good cobbler").The second (20 b 37-21 a 3) is that unrestricted
combinationof predicateswill lead to redundantpredications(e.g. "The
man is white"'and "The man is a white man"are acceptable,while "The

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man is a white white man" is not allowable). In order to avoid these

problemsAristotleconcludes (21 a 5-7) that unrestrictedcombinationof
predicatesis unacceptable.
But when is such combination permissible? Not when either an
accidentalpredicate is asserted of a subject (e.g. moving from asserting
"Manis musical"and "Manis white"to asserting"Manis musicalwhite")
nor when two accidentalpredicatesof a given subjectare assertedof one
another(e.g. movingfromasserting"Thewhite is musical"to "Thewhite is
musicalwhite").Nor, Aristotleadds, with as many predicatesas inhere in
the essenseof a subject(e.g. "Manis a man animal"or "Manis a two-legged man").
However,at 21 a 18-20Aristotlerecognizesthat this last blanketstatement needs qualification since such combination is acceptable when
speakingof a single individual(e.g. "This particularman is a two-legged
man").Yet before allowingsuch combinationsin all cases wherewe speak
of individuals singly, Aristotle has second thoughts and argues that we
cannot alwaysdo this.
There are two cases to be considered.First are those where the added
term implies a contradiction.Whenevera contradictionfollows because
the added termcontradictsthat which inheresin the subject'sessence, the
assertionis not true but false. In an example reminiscentof the Phaedo
Aristotlenotes that it is simplyfalse to say that a dead man is a man. Since
to be a man is to function in a certainway and that which is dead cannot
functionin this manner,a dead man is only a man homonymously.Second
are those cases where, because the added term does not contradictsomething which already inheres in the subject'sessence, we will not have a
contradictionand the assertionwill be true.In this secondcase, Aristotleis
thinkingof assertionssuch as "Thewhite man is a man."Since being white
is not essentialto that which is a man, this assertionis true.
Now come the cruciallines immediatelyprecedingthe text with which
we are concerned.At 21 a 24 Aristotlerepeatswhat he has just said:
In other words, whenever on the one hand one of the opposites should inhere
the assertionis always not true; whenever on the other hand neither of
the opposites should inhere [Ivut.6ppxJn,
the assertionis not always true.14

If we see Aristotle'spoint as a repetitionof what he hasjust said, then his

remarkis quite straightforward.Since for AristotlekvvudLpxO
has the technical sense of "to inhere in the essence of a thing," the first alternative
simplynotes that when we have a pairof oppositessuch as being dead and
being alive, one of which inheres in the subject(e.g. being alive in man),

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then should we predicate its opposite of the subject (e.g. "The man is
dead"), the assertion will always be false. The second alternative is the case
where, since neither opposite should inhere in the subject (e.g. being white
and being non-white), then predicating either opposite of the subject (e.g.
"The man is white") will not always be false. In other words, on the second
alternative, since we are merely predicating an accident of the subject, then
the assertion will sometimes be true and sometimes be false.
The reason why 21 a 24-25 is another way of saying what is said in the
preceding lines is that the point of the previous sentence was to note how
the adjective modifying the subject (e.g. "dead" in "The dead man is a
man" and "white" in "The white man is a man") was related to the subject.
In the first case, we had the adjective contradicting the essence of what it
modified, in the second it merely denotes an accident of the thing modified.
Thus Aristotle realizes that the key issue about which he should be concerned is predication of the essence and predication of an accident.
That 21 a 25-28 should be understood as an example relating to 21 a
24-25 and, in particular, as an explication of the second alternative, is
clearly implied by Aristotle's beginning his comment by WLarreop,
showing that he simply is illustrating what he has just said. Therefore the
aim of 2 Ia 25-28 merely is to provide us with an example of an assertion
which involves something which does not inhere in the subject, i.e. an
accident, and hence is "not always true." Thus the full passage reads:
In other words, whenever on the one hand one of the opposites should inhere
the assertionis always not true; whenever on the other hand neitherof
the assertion is not always true. As for
the opposites should inhere [ll ivvu1T&px-ql,
instance Homer is something, e.g. a poet. Well now, is he or isn't he? For of what is
accidentalis "is"predicatedof Homer, for it is the case that he is a poet, but not of to
what is essential is "is" predicatedof Homer.15

Aristotle's worry is the following: Assert of Homer something which does

not belong to him essentially, for example his being a poet. Because being a
poet does not inhere in Homer's essence, i.e. since Homer is essentially a
man and since he would continue to be a man even if he ceased to be a poet
and became a shoemaker or a shipbuilder, being a poet is only an accident
of Homer. Hence "Homer is a poet" need not be true but might be false.
This reveals that the real point of the question "Well now, is he or isn't he?"
is not a query about whether Homer does or does not exist. Rather it is
simply a question as to the truth of "Homer is a poet," namely that since
being a poet is accidental to Homer, is it true that Homer is a poet or isn't it?
It is in this context that 21 a 26-28 is to be understood. Because in these
lines Aristotle is clearly talking about "is" and since he intends these lines

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to be an explanationof his precedingremarks,21 a 26-28mustreferbackto

whether or not "Homer is a poet" is true or false. Therefore,since (1)
Aristotleis concernedwith "is,"(2) being a poet is an accidentof a man,not
partof his essence,(3) Aristotleis concernedwith the sentence"Homeris a
poet," and (4) Aristotlenow says that in the sentence "Homeris a poet"
"is" is being used of what is accidental,not of what is essential, then it
followsthat 21 a 26-28 simplypointsout that "is"is being used to predicate
something which is an accident of Homer rather than being used to
predicateeither the whole or a part of his essence, i. e. somethingwhich
inheres in Homer. Hence ratherthan making any referencewhatever to
existence, predicating"is" of what is essential refers to what "is" in the
sentence "Homer is a poet" does not do - namely predicateof Homer
eitherhis essence or a partof his essence.16
Such a readingas I have proposedwould be perfectlyconsistentwith the
conclusionwhich Aristotleoffersto his discussionof those cases where the
predicationsare said singlyof a particularinstance,namelythat if we take
any sentence which (1) involves a predicationwhich does not contradict
what is inherentin the subjectand (2) should be a predicationof what is
essential,not of what is accidental,then the replacementof nouns by their
definitionswill mean thatwhat we will be sayingof the particularinstance
will be true. Nor does the afterthoughtwith which Aristotle closes De
Interpretatione xi - namelythatjust becausethat which is not is an object
of opinion, it is not true to say that it is something- in any way conflict
with my interpretationof 21 a 25-28.17
Thus we see that the traditionalinterpretationof Aristotle'sremarksis
unjustified. Rather than asking whether "Homer exists" follows from
"Homeris a poet,"this passagemerelynotes thatbecausebeing a poet is an
accidentof Homer,"Homeris a poet" may be trueor false.
Turningnow to the second text, Categories x 13b 12-35, I will arguethat
in this passageAristotlereallyexplainsthe oppositionof contradictoriesin
terms of the applicabilityor inapplicabilityof certain predicates to the
subjectof an assertion.My proposalis thatin 13b 12-19Aristotlenotes that
only when a given pair of contrariesare predicatedof a subjectto which
they are applicablewill necessarilyone assertionbe true and the other be
false, since should both contrariesbe inapplicableto the subjectof which
they are predicated,then both assertionswill be false. In 13 b 20-27 he
makes a similar observationwith respect to possessionsand their correspondingprivations.Should a possessionand its privationboth be inapplicable to a given subject,or even if they are applicable but the appropriatetime for the acquisitionof eitherone or the otherhas not yet arrived,

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then it will be false to predicateeitherthe possessionor its privationof the

given subject.Only when the possessionand its privationare applicableto
a given subjectand the time is appropriatefor theiracquisition,need one
of the two assertionsbe true and the other be false. In 13 b 27-35 Aristotle
concludes that the case of affirmationand denial is differentsimply because, whether or not the predicate is applicable to the subject, either
affirming this predicate of this subject or denying this predicateof this
subjectwill be true.Thus in none of these threecases does Aristotlemake
any mention of the nonexistenceof that to which the subjectpurportedly
In order to appreciate this analysis of 13 b 12-35 fully we first must
review the vital role which the notion of applicabilityplays in Aristotle's
earlierdiscussionsof contrarietyand of possessionand privation.Rather
thanbeing of only slightimportance,applicabilityin fact is fundamentalto
the explanationof both notions.Aristotle'sdiscussionsof contrariety,both
here in Categories x and elsewhere,repeatedlystressthat the basis of the
notion of contrarietyis notjust any sortof differencebut ratherdifference
with respect to some thing.18Thus even if A and B are not opposed as
relations,it does not follow from the fact that A is differentfromB thatA
and B are contraries.Rather only when individualsof some kind Z are
eithercapable of receivingA or capableof receivingB but not bothA and
B at the same time areA and B said to be contraries.
Let us consider how this applies to several of Aristotle'sexamples of
contrariessuch as odd and even, well and sick, white and black, andjust
and unjust.Eachof thesepairsof contrariesproperlybelongsonly to things
of a certainkind. Thus being odd and being even properlybelong only to
numbers,being well and being sick to living things,being white and being
black to physical surfaces, and being just and being unjust to human
beings. Aristotle divides contrariesinto those which do not have intermediates(e.g. odd and even) and those whichdo (e.g. white and black).In
the formercase, everythingwhich is capable of being odd or capable of
being even must be either odd or even. However in the latter case, a
physical surface need not be either white or black. Ratherit also can be
some intermediatecolorsuch as greyor brown.Sometimes,as in the caseof
colors, these intermediateshave names;sometimes,as in the case of being
just or being unjust,the intermediatedoes not. In this event we only can
designatethis state by sayingthat it is neitherone extremenor the other.
Examine the first two pairs of contraries,both of which lack intermediates. Even though every integer must either be odd or be even and
every living thing either be well or be sick, it does not follow that every

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living thing must eitherbe odd or be even or that everyintegermusteither

be well or be sick.In fact,exceptin an accidentalway,it is impossibleforan
integer to be well or to be sick and it is impossiblefor a living thing to be
odd or to be even. The reasonis clear: except in an accidentalway living
things simply are not capable of being odd or of being even and integers
simply are not capable of being well or of being sick.Hence sayingthatthe
number five neither is well nor is sick does not show that being well and
being sick are not contrariessince the numberfive simply is incapableof
receivingeither of these contrariesexcept in an accidentalway. The same
remarkappliesmutatismutandisfor some living thingsuch as Socratesand
the contraryqualitiesbeing odd and being even.
In the case of contraries which do have intermediates,there is no
necessitythat that which is capableof receivingeithercontrarypossessone
contrary or the other simply because that which is capable of receiving
either contrary might instead possess some intermediate.However, the
necessity that the recipienteither be one of the extremesor be one of the
intermediatesremains.Thus a physicalsurfaceneed not eitherbe white or
be black since it also might be brown or be gray or be some other color.
Neverthelessevery physicalsurfacemust be some color or other.Justas in
the previouscase, contrariesare contrariesonly with respectto that which
is capable of receivingthem. Hence no physicalsurfaceeitheris well or is
sick; nor is any physical surfacejust, unjust, or the intermediatestate
neitherjust nor unjust.Therefore,saying that this physicalsurfaceneither
is well nor is sick does not show that being well and being sick are not
contrariesbut ratherrevealsthat physicalsurfacessimply are not capable
of receivingthese qualitiesexceptin an accidentalway.Aristotlewritesthat
With contrariesbetween which there is nothing intermediateit is necessaryfor one
or the other of them always to belong to the things they naturallyoccur in or are
predicated of. For there was nothing intermediatein just those cases where it was
necessaryfor one or the other to belong to a thing capable of receivingthem, as with
sickness and health and odd and even. But where there is something intermediateit
is never necessaryfor one or the other to belong to everything;it is not necessaryfor
everything to be white or black that is capable of receiving them ... , since something intermediatebetween these may perfectlywell be present.19

Turning to the opposition of possession and privation,it is clear that

considerationsof applicabilityagain determinewhetherit is necessaryfor
one or the other to belong. Thus, as Aristotle explains the terms
"possession"and "privation,"if C is somethingwhich individualsof some
kind Z can possessand D is the privationof C in these individuals,then (I)
nothingcan have both C and D at the same time,(2) neitherC norD can be

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essential to being a Z in the sense that if an individualZ ceases to have

either C or D, then it ceases to be, (3) at some time t, it becomesnecessary
for an individualZ eitherto have the possessionC or its privationD, (4) if
at some time t an individual Z loses C, then at no later time can the
individualZ reacquireC, and (5) if at some time t an individualZ has the
privationD, then at all latertimesthe individualZ will have the privation
D. Applying these considerationsto Aristotle'sstandard example of a
possessionand its privation,namelybeing sightedand being blind (where
"X is blind"means"Xdoes not have the visionthatX naturallywould have
when X naturallywould have it"20),we see that: (1) Nothing is ever both
sightedand blind;(2) Beingsightedand being blind are not essentialto any
of those animalswhichpossessthem(afterall, blind men are still men); (3)
Though in the case of human beings we are born either sighted or blind,
other species such as dogs are neithersighted nor blind at birth. However
there does come a point in time when puppies' eyes open and at that
moment the puppies must either be sighted or be blind; (4) If an animal
possessing sight loses its sight, then it can never regain it; and (5) Blind
More clearly even than in the case of contraries,the opposition of a
possessionand its privationdepends upon the natureof that to which the
possessionand its privationbelong.Not only will the failureof everything
either to be sightedor to be blind be due to those cases whereboth simply
do not belongat all, but thereareothercaseswhereboth the possessionand
its privationfail to belongsimplybecausethe recipienthas not yet reached
the stage where it would either acquire the possessionor suffer the privation.Thus the fact that this tree or that newbornpuppy neitheris blind
nor is sighted does not show that being blind and being sighted are not
opposedas a possessionto its privation.Ratherwhat it shows-isthata thing
musthave eitherthe possessionsightor its privationblindnessonly when a
thing both is capableof receivingthe possessionand its privationand has
reachedthe properstage of its development.
For it is necessaryfor one or the other of them li.e. the possession and its privation]
alwaysto belong to a thingcapable of receivingthem, since if it is not yet naturalfor
somethingto have sight it is not said either to be blind or to have sight ... [However]
once it is naturalfor something to have sight then it will be said either to be blind or
to have sight . . 22

Returningto 13 b 12-35,it is clear that the phenomenathat Aristotle

theredescribescould be explainedby means of the notion of applicability.
Thus, for example,one of the pair of contrariesbeing odd and being even
need only belong to that which is a number;if being odd and being even

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are predicatedof that which is not a number,then both assertionswill be

false. Or again, the possessionsight and its privationblindnessneed only
belong to those things capable of receivingsight and even then only when
they have arrivedat the point in life when it is necessaryfor the thing to
have received either the possessionor its privation.Should the thing be a
stone, a plant, or even a newbornpuppywhose eyes have not yet opened,it
is false to say that the thing eitheris sightedor is blind. Finally,in the case
of the opposition of contradictories,if, on the one hand, the predicateis
capable of belonging to the subject,then accordingto whetherit does or
does not belong, either the affirmationof this will be true and the denial
will be false or vice versa (e.g. since being wise is capable of belongingto
Socrates,whetheror not Socratesis wise will determinewhichof the pairof
assertions"Socratesis wise"and "Socratesis not wise"is trueand whichis
false). If, on the other hand, the predicateis incapableof belongingto the
subject,then it will be false to affirmand trueto deny this predicateof this
subject(e.g. since being even is incapableof belongingto anythingthat is
not a number,"Socratesis not even"is trueand "Socratesis even"is false).
However can such an analysisfit the text of 13 b 12-35?The answeris
clearlyyes. The cruxof any explanationof theselineswill be the translation
and interpretationof a number of occurrencesof the genitive singular
participialform of Ea'L, often accompaniedby the genitiveE2xp6vrouV.23
Whereasprevioustranslatorshave understoodall of these phrasesin terms
of Socrates'existence, it also is possible to read these clauses as genitive
absolutes that elliptically refer to Socrates'being, i.e. to what Socrates
essentially is. Thus, instead of rendering such phrases as OVTOs yap
as "For if Socratesexists,"it also is perfectlyacceptableto treat
the remarkas "Forof Socrates'being,"wherethis expressionis understood
as referringto his being what he is, i.e. his essence. Since Socrates'being is
to be a sort of living thing or, more specifically,to be a certain kind of
animal, understandingthese clauses in the manner that I am suggesting
allows us to read these phrasesas referringto the generain virtueof which
Socratesnecessarilyis eitherwell or sickand eithersightedor blind.24Read
in this way, in 13b 12-19Aristotlewould be noting,on the one hand,thatof
Socrates'being, i.e. of his being a living thing,then,since everyliving thing
must either be well or be sick, necessarilyone of the pair of assertions
"Socratesis well" and "Socratesis sick"will be true and the otherwill be
false. On the otherhand, of Socrates'not being, i.e. of his not beinga living
thing, then Socratesis not capable of receivingeither contraryand hence
both assertionsare false. In 13 b 20-27 Aristotle'spoint would be that of
Socrates'not being, i.e. of his not being an animalwhich normallywould

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possess sight, then neither "Socrates has sight" nor "Socrates is blind" will
be true. Even were Socrates an animal of the appropriate sort, both assertions still might be false because he might not yet have reached the
appropriate stage of his development to acquire either the possession or its
privation. Only if Socrates is a sufficiently mature animal of a certain kind
will it be necessary for one of the pair of assertions "Socrates has sight" and
"Socrates is blind" to be true while the other is false. Finally, in 13 b 27-35
Aristotle would be noting that regardless of Socrates' being a living thing or
not being a living thing, either the affirmation "Socrates is sick" or the
denial "Socrates is not sick" will be true and the other will be false.
With these points in mind, I propose to translate 13 b 12-35 as:
It might, indeed, very well seem that such happens [i.e. necessarilyit will always be
the case that one assertionwill be true and the other assertionwill be falsel in the
case of those contrariessaid with combination- "Socratesis well" being contraryto
"Socratesis sick" - but not even as concerns these is it necessaryalways for one to
be true and the other to be false. For, on the one hand, of Socrates'being a living
thing, one will be true and one will be false, while, on the other hand, of Socrates'
not being a living thing, both will be false. For of Socrateshimself not being a living
thing at all, neither"Socratesis sick" nor "Socratesis well" will be true.
As for privation,andpossession,of Socrates'not being an animal which normallyis
sighted at all, neitherare true. Even of Socrates'being an animal which normally is
sighted,not alwayswill one or the other be true. For "Socrateshas sight"is opposed
to "Socratesis blind"as privationand possession.Even of Socrates'being an animal
which normallyis sighted, it is not necessaryfor one or the other to be true or false,
since until the time when it is naturalto have the possessionor its privation,both are
false. For of Socrates' not being an animal which normally is sighted at all, then
again both are false, both "he has sight"and "he is blind,"
As for affirmation and denial, always, if Socrates should be a living thing or if
Socratesshould not be a living thing, one will be false and the otherwill be true. For
consider"Socratesis sick"and 'Socrates is not sick."Of his being a living thing it is
evident thatone of them will be truewhile the otherwill be false and of his not being
a living thing "he is sick"is false while "he is not sick"is true.Thus only of these is it
distinctivethatalwaysone of these is truewhile the otherwill be false -just as many
as are opposed as affirmationand denial.

Since so much of Aristotle's Categories x discussion of the opposition of

contraries and of possessions and privations concerns their applicability to
the recipient, it is only natural to try to see his discussion of contradictories
in these terms. When we further recognize that it is possible to read 13 b
12-35 in terms of this relatively clear notion, it becomes obviously preferable to interpret these lines as concerning applicability rather than as
dealing with referential failure.

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Hence, to summarizethissection:Neither Categoriesx 13b 12-35norDe

Interpretationexi 21 a 25-28, the two texts that generally are cited as
evidence for contendingthat Aristotleheld that the subjectof an assertion
might not refer,in any wayjustify ascribingsuch a view to him.

In this paper I have arguedthat the traditionalview thatAristotlebelieved

that the subjectof an assertionmightfail to referis falseby showing(1) that
Aristotlecannot accept this position without contradictinghis accountof
affirmationand denial and (2) that the two textswhichusuallyareadduced
as evidence for ascribingto him such a belief previouslyhave been misinterpreted.Obviously the doctrineswhich I have discussedin this paper
have significantimplicationsupon Aristotle'saccountof existentialassertion, implicationswhich I hope to drawin later papers.25'26

Subsequent to the above article's being accepted, Michael Wedin has

published a piece on the same problem ("Aristotleon the Existential
Importof SingularSentences,"Phronesis23 (1978) 179-196).For the sake
of clarifyingthe issue,the editorkindlyhas permittedme brieflyto indicate
my differenceswith ProfessorWedin.
1. To a large extent Wedin's interpretationof De Interpretatione21 a
25-28 restson an indefensiblereadingof MetaphysicsA. vii. Pace Wedin,
Aristotlenever uses the expressionsxaO'ov'o / XaT& aV,uEPXOS To ov (and
its cognates) to denote anythingother than the differencebetween using
"is"(and its cognates) to assertwhat is essentialand what is accidental(cf.
notes 6 and 7 above; given thatThorp'sarticleappearedin thisjournal,it is
disturbingthat Wedin fails to mention it).
2. Even aside from I1,Wedinstillwould errin reading21 a 25-28in terms
of the distinction between what is accidentallya predicationand what is
essentially a predication (e.g. "That white is wood" vs. "That wood is
white") rather than the distinction between predication of what is
accidentaland predicationof what is essential(e.g. "Theman is white"vs.
"The man is an animal").Given Aristotle'sexamplein 21 a 23 and his use
of the technicaltermkVV1rPX.ELV in 21 a 24-25, Aristotle'sconcernmustbe
with essencesand accidents.Hence in 21 a 25-28 he mustintend the latter,
not the former, contrast.

3. At best Wedin's reading would resolve the apparentcontradiction


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between De Interpretatione 21 a 25-28 and Categories 13 b 12-35. It would

not resolve the contradiction between his reading of these texts and Aristotle's theory of predication (cf. Section II above).
4. Finally Wedin's analysis of Prior Analytics I.xlvi involves several
serious difficulties, the most noticeable being his inadequate basis for
rejecting the traditional reading of this text (cf. his paper, p. 195 n. 19).
Standard Greek usage of course permits a definite article + adjective
construction to refer either to an attribute or to the individual to which the
attribute belongs (cf. Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966, ? 1153a). Just because Aristotle
uses ToO1VLGJOVin the first way in one place does not imply that he cannot use
it in the second way in another place. Thus, while Wedin is quite correct in
noting that in Categories vi 6 a 26-35 To&Lvloovconcerns the quantity itself,
this provides him with no basis whatsoever for denying that, as the
refers to
traditional reading holds, in Prior A nalytics I.xlvi 5 1 b 27 To6XVLCoOV
the quantified individuals.
Virginia Commonwealth University

1 Categoriesand De Interpretatione,Oxford 1963p. 59. On the crucialpoints, the Oxford

translationby E. M. Edghill (in The Basic Worksof Aristotleed. by Richard McKeon.
New York, 1941)is basicallythe same as John Ackrill's.On the other hand, H. P. Cooke's
Loeb edition, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1967 is somewhat confusing. Initially he
adopts the same readingas Edghill and Ackrill,i.e. that the question in 21 a 26 concerns
the existenceof Homer:

For example, take 'Homer is something'- 'a poet' will do for our purpose. But can
we say also 'he is'? Or will that be incorrectlyinferred?
However, then Cooke appears to adopt what I will argue is the correct reading of 21 a
'Is' was used incidentallyhere. For our statementwas 'he is a poet,' and 'is' was not
predicatedof him in the substantivesense of the word.
So as to leave no doubt concerning the meaning of these lines, Cooke adds a footnote
claiming that by the substantivesense of "is" Aristotle "Otherwise[means] the sense of
existence. For the word 'is' expressesexists in addition to being the copula"(p. 154 n. a).
If "otherwise"here means "in other words,"then contraryto appearances,Cooke's view
is really the same as those which I have alreadycited. However,if "otherwise"means "in
other places"then Cooke (1) correctlyunderstoodthe real point of lines 21 a 26-28 but (2)
misunderstoodthe X1Y0'iv,T6("'essential")use of "is" since nowhere,despite what various
commentatorshave alleged, does the xoa'c,-r6use of "is" have the meaning of "exists".
On this last point, cf. below n. 7.


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Because it is a part of the Postpraedicamenta,Categoriesx throughxv, doubt may be

cast on the authenticityof Categoriesx. Though I am inclined to accept the authenticityof
the Postpraedicamenta,the argument of this paper in no way depends upon such an
assumption. Since my sole reason for treatingCategoriesx 13 b 12-35is to examine the
evidence which it may provide that Aristotle believed that the subject of an assertion
might fail ro refer, should Categoriesx prove spurious then it will of course provide no
supportfor the ascriptionto him of such a position. On the other hand, should Categories
x prove to be authentic, then my analysis of 13 b 12-35 will show why this text does not
provide any evidence for believing that Aristotle thought that the subjectof an assertion
might not refer.
3 Op. cit., p. 37-38. On the crucialpoints, the translationsof E. M. Edghill,op. cit., and H.
P. Cooke, op. cit., are the same as John Ackrill's,all three seeing Aristotle'sexplanationas
involving nonreferringsubjects.
4 It should be noted that Aristotledoes not even mention the oppositionof relativesin his
explanation of the opposition of contradictoriesin 13 b 12-35.The reasonis simply that
since pairs of relatives will clearly always be true or false together, no one would think
that they might be similar to the opposition of things opposed as affirmationand denial.
5 Amongst the commentators who accept this analysis are: John Ackrill, op. cit., p.
110-11 1; Nicholas White, "Originsof Aristotle'sEssentialism," Reviewof Metaphysics26
(1973) 62; Eugene Babin, The Theoryof Oppositionin Aristotle,Notre Dame, Indiana,
1940 p. 81; and Manley Thompson, "On Aristotle'sSquare of Opposition,"The Philosophical Review62 (1953) [Reprintedin Aristotleed. by J. M. E. Moravcsik,GardenCity,
New York, 1967 p. 55-57. Subsequent references to Thompson's article are to this
6 Both Manley Thompson (ibid.,p. 55-57) and R. M. Dancy (Sense and Contradiction:
Study in Aristotle,Dordrecht 1975,Appendix II) have attemptedto resolve the apparent
contradiction by reinterpretingDe Interpretationexi 21 a 25-28. Thompson's proposal
was to see the xaO'aVOr6
use of "is" in 21 a 25-28 as being ". . . the substantivesense of the
word . . . [meaning] the same as 'is a substance"' (Thompson, op. cit., p. 56). Thus Aristotle
would not be baldly contradictinghimself since in 21 a 25-28 he would not be denying
that "Homer is a poet" implies "Homer exists." Rather, according to Thompson, Aristotle's point is to deny that "Homer is a substance"follows from "Homeris a poet."
Though this interpretationmay resolve the apparentcontradictionbetween Categories
x and De Interpretationexi, it isprimafacie mistaken.First,there is the obvious point that
"Homer is a poet" does imply that "Homer is a substance,"just as much as "Homeris a
man" implies that "Homer is a substance,"since being a poet is being a certain sort of
man. Second, and more deeply, Thompson's claim that the xoHo',x{r6
use of "is" is ". . .
clearly . . . 'is' in the substantivesense of the word and means the same as 'is a substance"'
contradictsMetaphysicsA. vii 1017a 22-27, where Aristotlesays that the verb "to be"can
be said xa0'avr6 in each of the categories,i.e. not merely "is a substance"but also "is a
quantity," "is a quality," etc. Perhaps Thompson's reading of TO6Ov xa0'nv{T6
as the
substantive sense of"is" may be due to his erroneouslyconflating the sense of"is" where
"is"is used to make an essential predication(e.g. "Manis an animal"or "Blueis a color")
with the way in which, for Aristotle,all secondaryuses of"is" must ultimatelyrelateto a
primaryuse of"is", i.e. ". . . is a substance,"because everythingelse which is, is only due
to its in some way being related to that which is a substance.These two points are quite
different and should not be equated. Regardingthe correctinterpretationof the xn0'aVOr6
sense of"is," again cf. below, n. 7.


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Dancy's proposal is to understand Aristotle as asking whether "Homer is a man"

follows from"Homeris a poet." However,since to be a poet is to be a certainsort of man,
Dancy would have us read Aristotleas ratherimplausiblyaskingwhetherbeing a certain
sort of man implies being a man. FurthermoreDancy's suggestion rests on a misinterpretationof De Interpretationexi. ContraDancy, Aristotleis not concernedwith whether
assertionsof the form "X is YZ"entail those of the form "X is Y,"but ratherthe reverse,
i.e. whetherwe can compound assertionsof the forms "X is Y"and "X is Z" together to
yield "X is YZ." On this point, cf. below, p. 286-7.
7 The use of EIV4tLxVTr&
(v R0EPqx6OS
and xa0`avT6 elsewhere means using the verb "to be"
or one of its cognates to assert of a subject what is accidental or essential to it (cf.
MetaphysicsA.vii 1017a 7-30 and VI.ii). However readingDe Interpretatione21 a 25-28
in the traditionalmannerforces us to find the xaxo'T6 use of ELvat
in the existentialuse of
"to be" (e.g. "Homer is") and to relegate all copulative uses of ELVIL to being the xaT&
use of rIvaL. For a defense of readingthe xa-r av[upEJx6s and xOt`aVTO uses
of ElVaLas the use of "to be" to predicatewhat is accidentaland what is essential,cf. J. W.
Thorp, "Aristotle'sUse of Categories,"Phronesis 19 (1974) 238-256 and my thesis Ervat
and Existencein Aristotle(unpublished Ph. D. dissertation,Ohio State University, 1974)
ChapterFour ("'Being'in the Dictionary:An Analysisof MetaphysicsA.vii").
8 De Interpretatione
v 17 a 20-22. Unless otherwise noted, all remainingtranslationsare
my own. The text used was L. Minio-Paluello'sO.C.T. edition.
9 De Interpretatione vi 17 a 25-26.
"0 De Interpretatione x 19 b 5-12.

1 For example, cf. Categoriesi 1 a 1-12and Acrill,op. cit., p. 71.

E. g., TopicsI.xviii 108 a 18-26, Sophistici Elenchi i 165 a 6-9, and Metaphysicsr.iv
1006b 20-22.
13 Though it might be thought that for Aristotle,justas for the Stoics,TLnot only refersto
actual entities but also to merely possible entities or to fictional entities, such an interpretationclearlyis unacceptable.For example, cf. De Interpretationexi 21 a 32-33 ("But
just because that which is not is an object of opinion, it is not true to say that it is
something.For opinion of it is not that it is, but that it is not."),PriorAnalyticsLxxxviii49
a 36, SophisticiElenchixxv 180a 32-38, and MetaphysicsA.xxix 1024b 21-24. Unlike the
Stoics, Aristotledoes not believe that TL has wider scope than "ov."
Also compareJ. M. Rist'sdiscussionof the Stoic that view 6ovand ri are not coextensive
since there are things which are not (cf. his Stoic Philosophy, Cambridge. U.K.,
Cambridge University Press, 1969 p. 153-155). While citing the differences between
Alexanderof Aphrodisias(who, in his commentaryon Aristotle's Topics,preservesthe
Aristotelianconception of the relation of ov and Tv(cf. M. Wallies (ed.), In Aristotelis
TopicorumLibrosOcto Commentaria(Berlin, 1891) p. 301, 19 ff. and p. 359,12 ff.)) and
the orthodox Stoics, Rist seems not to appreciate that this divergence is not due to

Alexander's ". . . ignoring problems ... about fictional or otherwise non-existent name-

ables" (op. cit., p. 154) but ratherstems from real philosophical disagreement between
Peripateticsand Stoics on the relationof language to the world.

De Interpretatione xi 21 a 24-25.

15 De Interpretatione xi 21 a 24-28.

In his edition of De InterpretationeAckrillconsiders the very treatmentwhich I have

proposed,only to rejectit:
It is clear that the accidentalpredicationof which Aristotlespeaks in this paragraph
[21 a 18-33]is 'accidental'in the second sense of the two senses distinguishedabove;



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it is incidental or indirect predication.Aristotle'sexample is not a happy one. But

when he says that in 'Homer is a poet' the 'is' is predicatedaccidentally of Homer
('becausehe is a poet, not in its own right')his point evidently is not that 'is' gives an
accidentalas opposed to essential propertyof Homer, but that it attaches to Homer
only indirectly,qualifying him only qua poet. (p. 148)
In other words, Ackrillis conceding that his interpretationof 21 a 25-28 forces him to be
dissatisfied with Aristotle's example. However, rather than accept the interpretationI
have proposedfor these lines, Ackrilladvocatesa theorywherebythe text claims that "is"
is being linked to "Homer"only via the direct object "poet" and not unqualifiedly as in
Aside from the intrinsicawkwardnessof such an interpretation- one which does not
even fully please its author - the crucial question which we must consider is why
Aristotle's". . . point evidently is not that 'is' gives an accidental as opposed to essential
propertyof Homer . . . " i.e. what basis Ackrill has for rejectingthe much simpler and
more straightforwardexplanation. Unfortunately, we are left ignorant as to what are
these evident grounds.Are they that such an interpretationcannot be reconciledwith the
rest of chapter xi and, in particular,the lines immediately preceding 21 a 25? If so, my
proposal that 21 a 25-28 simply is meant to be an illustration of 21 a 24-25 not only
dissolves this difficulty but in fact shows that the interpretationwhich Ackrill rejects is
correct.However,if this is not the alleged ground for Ackrill'sdismissal,then the basis of
his rejectionis not the least bit evident. In short, Ackrill'srejectionof an analysisof 21 a
25-28 in terms of "is" giving ". .. an accidental as opposed to an essential property of
Homer .. ." appears to be inadequate.

Manley Thompson read 21 a 32-33 as evidence in favor of his understanding the

xc0'eavf'rmeaning of E'vast as "is a substance":

[T]he fact that a non-existentHomer may be the object of opinion, as he would be if

we were to constructa myth about him, does not mean that it is true to say Homer is
something.The assertions"Homeris merely an object of opinion" and "Homer is a
mythical being" are about Homer only in the sense of denying that he is in fact
anything.While we might say that "Homeris a poet" is true in fiction,what is true in
this case is trueof the myth and not of Homer.And the myth does exist, even though
not per se as a substance does. (Op. cit., p. 57)
However, surely Aristotle'spoint is not merely that myths are not substances.Of course,
to use Thompson'sexample, that Homer is a part of a myth is in and of itself sufficient
indication that the mythical Homer is not the same as the flesh and blood man; simply
because it is a myth, it is about something which is not. Nevertheless,contra Thompson,
this does not in any way imply that the focus of Aristotle'sclosing remarkis that to think
about what is contrary-to-fact,such as a myth, is to think about what is not a substance.
Rather, the point simply is that what is not is not by virtue of our thinking about it,
something which is (cf. above, n. 13).
18 E.g., MetaphysicsA.x and liv and TopicsIl.ii.
19 Categoriesx 12 b 27-35 (Translatedby Ackrill,op. cit., p. 34-35).
20 Cf. TopicsVl.vi 143 b 34-35 and MetaphysicsE.iii 1047 a 8-9.
21 Though modern medicine obviously would force us to modify Aristotle'sexample, the
point which he is trying to explain still is clear and could be defended via suitable


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Categoriesx 13 a 4-10 (Translatedby Acrill, op. cit., p. 35-36).

Since the two occurrencesof the presentsubjunctiveof eLvcLin 13 a 28 (Qiv T?E EOLV
j) clearly take the same sense as the previous occurrencesof the genitive participleof


it is these prior uses of eLVoXL

that are crucial to the understanding of these later

24 1 would like to thank Nicholas Smith for suggestingthis readingto me.
25 For severalof these implications,cf. my "The ExistentialPresuppositionsof Aristotle's
Logic" (forthcomingin PhilosophicalStudies).
26 1 am indebted to Marvin Fox and Robert Turnbull for their many helpful criticisms
and suggestions on an earlier version of this paper. Any errorsare, of course, my own


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