Posts Tagged ‘Aristotle’


So, friends and faithful followers, it seems that a website I used to publish my work on has gone bottom up… and not in a good way. is no more. I hadn’t published much there before the company went under, but I’d like to preserve it somewhere on the boundless internet, so I’m posting it on my own little chunk of the blogosphere.

In memory of ViewsHound, let me preserve these few articles here:

“Explaining psychologism, considering Husserl.”

“Evaluating empiricism in ethics, considering Hume and Levinas.”

“Aristotle’s syllogism and scientific knowledge.”

Stay tuned for further blog updates over the summer months! In the meantime, feast your minds on these previous hits!


To say that Aristotle was a prominent philosopher would be an understatement. He studied under Plato’s tutelage, he became the tutor of Alexander the Great, and he sired syllogistic logic. Aristotle was one of the greats. Perhaps the most enduring element of his philosophical meditations has been his syllogistic logic. To facilitate a better understanding of this, it is helpful to contextualize and explain what constitutes the syllogism and scientific knowledge in Aristotle’s epistemology.

Aristotle had loved truth more than the ideas of Plato, and he deviated from those teachings. A significant difference arose as Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s theory of the Forms. While Aristotle sought to discover universals, he did not hold that universals existed separately from their particular cases; he claimed that universals consisted of the collection of particulars and there was no appeal to some abstract Form. In the Posterior Analytics, Aristotle considers the nature of the relationship between universals and particulars. It is here that he discusses the syllogism, demonstration, and scientific knowledge, and here he relates the differences between his own ideas and those of his tutor, Plato.

Aristotle asserts that our knowledge of events comes from demonstration (71b.18). He makes this claim after addressing the dilemma of Plato’s Meno – that is, if knowledge is recollection, “either a man will learn nothing or what he already knows” (71a.29). The problem with this recollection theory of knowledge, as Aristotle points out, is that it renders the notion of learning meaningless: “the strange thing would be… if he were to know [something] in that precise manner in which he was learning it” (71b.8-10). Furthermore, Aristotle will affirm that scientific knowledge is a matter of understanding the cause of an event (71b.9-12), an understanding which need not be derived from some recollective sense of knowledge.

The essence of Aristotle’s view of attaining scientific knowledge is summarized in the following passage:

What I now assert is that all events we do know by demonstration. By demonstration I mean a syllogism productive of scientific knowledge, a syllogism, that is, the grasp of which is eo ipso such knowledge. Assuming then that my thesis as to the nature of scientific knowing is correct, the premises of demonstrated knowledge must be true, primary, immediate, better known than and prior to the conclusion, which is further related to them as effect to a cause. Unless these conditions are satisfied, the basic truths will not be “appropriate” to the conclusion. (71b.18-23)

Unfortunately, this passage may be difficult for some readers to fully and accurately interpret due to the large amount of loaded terminology. Thus, an explanation of the complex terms and their relevance follows.

Aristotle argues here that we uncover scientific knowledge through his logical syllogism (71b.18-20). His syllogism is the “recognition through a middle term of a minor term as subject to a major” (71a.24-25). Accordingly, the following is a logical syllogism:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The conclusion follows from the truth of the premises where “men/man” is the middle term, “Socrates” is the minor, and “mortal” is the major. The syllogism functions such that the given premises lead us to, presumably, new information in the conclusion by means of the shared middle term in the premises.

However, Aristotle asserts that there are further criteria to be fulfilled before the syllogism will yield scientific knowledge. Before the syllogism can produce scientific knowledge, Aristotle requires that the premises “must be true, primary, immediate, better known than and prior to the conclusion” (71b.21-22). With these qualifications, Aristotle’s empiricist tendencies become evident. That the premises must be true places them as affirmations regarding existence, “for that which is non-existent cannot be known” (71b25-26). The premises must be primary and immediate in so far as they require no further appeal to account for their truth (71b.27-29). This also avoids the chance of infinite regress in founding the premises. When Aristotle requires that the premises be better known than the conclusion, he means there must be a particular in the given premises – that is, particulars are examples known to our senses and this restricts our truth claims to phenomena within the sensible realm (72a.1-5). Furthermore, Aristotle places the premises as prior to the conclusion because he claims that the premises cause the conclusion, and that scientific knowledge is only made clear upon discovery of the cause (71b.29-32). These conditions are meant to empower the syllogism to yield scientific knowledge without committing a fallacy.

As Aristotle asserts that scientific knowledge can only be demonstrated by the account of such a rigorous syllogism (72a.25-26), he effectively restricts scientific knowledge to that which can be observed in experience; he limits our knowledge to the a posteriori. With this theory of knowledge, Aristotle continues to argue against Plato’s a priori recollection theory of knowledge later in the Posterior Analytics. He claims that the a priori recollection of knowledge requires us to have an innate possession of apprehensions more accurate than those that demonstration could provide (99b.26-28). In the light of Aristotle’s argument, this seems counterintuitive.

Aristotle’s account of empirical, scientific knowledge is appealing and appears to be quite legitimate. However, while I agree with the notion that a posteriori sense perception is crucial in scientific accounts of the world and its causes, I do not feel that the syllogism’s premises need to have Aristotle’s degree of immediacy. Arguably, neither scientist nor philosopher has ever accomplished a solid foundation for scientific knowledge. As such, it is doubtful that we could know any premise as an immediate truth. Further, science builds upon its discoveries with a significant degree of accuracy. Surely, if science were to employ the syllogism as Aristotle prescribed it, then they would need to dismiss the immediacy criterion as it would hinder scientific progress. Nevertheless, that may be nitpicking over trivial matters.

The essence of Aristotle’s syllogism and account for scientific knowledge has endured much criticism and the test of time. The ideas he fostered have flourished and evolved throughout the history of philosophy. Aristotle affected philosophy, scientific knowledge, even the way we think about the world around us in a profound manner with his ideas about the nature of knowledge and the role of logic.

Language as a Public Manifestation of Thought

The nature of language has intrigued philosophers for ages. Once a topic of considerable interest for Plato and Aristotle, language continues to fascinate contemporary philosophers, as well, such as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Kripke, and Searle. However, despite all of the philosophical reflection focusing on language, the nature of language is still a matter of debate and concern. Here, I will offer my own brief account of language, which consolidates significant aspects of the philosophy of language from both ancient and contemporary philosophy of language. Through an examination of selected philosophers on language, I will intuitively argue that language is the manifestation of thought as it would be publicly expressed.

Initially, consider the traditional view of language as proposed in Plato and Aristotle. In the “Seventh Letter,” Plato introduces a picture of our understanding of the world, which he claims is “true doctrine” (Plato 342a). Plato asserts that “first, we have a name, second, a description, third, an image, and fourth, a knowledge of the object” (Plato 342b). He also holds “that we must put as a fifth the actual object of knowledge which is the true reality” (Plato 342b). In Plato’s account, the fifth is the object in the external world, the first three are mimetic representations of the fifth, and the fourth is knowledge that aims towards the fifth. All of our internal processes – names, descriptions, images, and knowledge – reach out to the external object. Perhaps this process is explained more clearly in Martin Heidegger’s commentary on Aristotle’s account of language. According to Heidegger, Aristotle holds that “the letters are signs of sounds, the sounds are signs of mental experiences, and these are signs of things” (Heidegger 97). Unlike Plato’s account in the Seventh Letter, Aristotle accounts for the relationship between writing and speech. Writing imitates speech as speech imitates thought, and each of those three represent things in the external world. The most significant aspect shared between Plato and Aristotle, here, is that since language is representative, language is always about something. Heidegger briefly acknowledges this in his lectures, “The Nature of Language.” There, he states:

…at whatever time and in whatever way we speak language, language itself never has the

floor. Any number of things are given voice in speaking, above all what we are speaking

about…. (Heidegger 59, italics added).

In each of Plato, Aristotle, and Heidegger, there is a subtle acknowledgement of intentionality, that all consciousness is consciousness about something. This is important in the philosophy of language because it is the ever-present link between our internal representations and the external world.

One key aspect of intentionality in language is that it has a significant subjective influence. While all of our consciousness is about something, the way it is represented in language is subject to the way in which we use language. The role of language usage has been influential in contemporary philosophy of language, and it has led the way to ordinary language philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein. In Wittgenstein’s Philosphical Investigations, language usage helps illustrate how we use words and what meaning is intended in their use. For Wittgenstein, this is the “language game.” Basically, a language game is the socially understood context within which a word finds meaning (Wittgenstein S7, S47, S65). The social context of a language game need not be universal; rather, it could be a community of any size. For instance, how “wicked” is understood by Newfoundlanders to mean “really good,” or how “red” can mean “under fire” or “hostile” in military lingo. If one were to ask a question that has no specified language game (or comes from one language game inquiring of another), then one cannot expect to understand or appreciate the answer (Wittgenstein S47). In this sense, you need to be in tune with how a word is used in order to understand its meaning. According to Wittgenstein, the word’s meaning is whatever the speaker intends and others, who are in tune with this usage of the word, can best understand its meaning. In Wittgenstein, not only is language a representation of the external world, it is the manifestation of our own intention, our thought.

It is important to note, however, that some philosophers argue that meaning may not be adequate in reaching out to the objects in the external world. Within discussions on the philosophy of language, there is an important distinction between meaning and reference. This distinction asserts that a name or word’s meaning comes from its description or cluster of descriptions, while the referent is the object that the name or word singles out in the external world. With regards to reference in language, Saul A. Kripke is amongst the more notable philosophers. His lectures, collected in Naming and Necessity, express his causal chain theory of reference, such that:

An initial ‘baptism’ takes place. Here the object may be named by ostension, or the

reference may be fixed by a description. When the name is ‘passed from link to link,’ the

receiver of the name must, I think, intend when he learns it to use it with the same

reference as the man from whom he heard it. If I hear the name ‘Napoleon’ and decide it

would be a nice name for my pet aardvark, I do not satisfy this condition. (Kripke 96)

Basically, Kripke’s causal chain theory of reference has two parts – the initial baptism that connects a name to its referent, and the socially communicated chain where each speaker defers to the referent intended by the initial baptism. The baptism may fix a name to its referent by either pointing it out or uniquely describing it. From the baptism onwards, each speaker defers to the person from whom he/she had learned the term, and this ought to reach back to the initial referent at the baptism of the term. Kripke had hoped to provide a better picture of the nature of language by divorcing intentional content and description from fixing reference.

However, it is arguable that he was sorely unsuccessful in completely separating intent and description from reference. As John R. Searle indicates in “Proper Names and Intentionality,” Kripke’s causal chain theory only reaches to the baptism of the object, where the referent of the name is fixed only by the intention of the baptizer (Searle 308). Furthermore, each speaker thereafter “must intend to refer to the same object as the person from whom he learned the name” (Searle 308). Both of the significant portions of the causal chain theory contain intentional elements. It appears that Kripke’s theory of language and reference cannot avoid strong ties to intentions. Kripke’s causal chain theory can also be understood in the terms of Wittgenstein’s language game. Once the object is baptized, when speakers defer to one another in fixing the referent of a name or word, they essentially constitute the social context of Wittgenstein’s language game. The consistent deferral from speaker to speaker in the causal chain bears a striking resemblance to the social context of the language game. Both accounts of language emphasize the communicative nature of language, the social necessity of language in both meaning and reference. It is important to recognize, here, that each of these philosophies on language share an emphasis on the communicative nature of language – that is, they both rely on language being a public expression.

These insights on the nature of language have developed separately over the ages and, in some cases, they developed as reactions to each other; however, this does not mean that they are entirely incommensurable. The accounts that Plato and Aristotle offer show us that language is the expression of our thoughts or passions, and that our thoughts or passions are representative of the external world. Heidegger also acknowledges that language is an expression of thought in “The Nature of Language.” There is also a strong public aspect to language. This communicative aspect is most evident in contemporary philosophy of language. In Wittgenstein and Kripke, a community of speakers is necessary to determine meaning and reference. This contemporary insight into the use of language in a public forum is not incommensurable with ancient accounts of language as the expression of thoughts and passions; instead, perhaps the two areas should be regarded as interdependent. Together, language begins intentionally and is expressed publicly. As such, language is the manifestation of thought as it would be publicly expressed.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “The nature of Language.” On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 57-105. Print.

Kripke, Saul A. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980. Print.

Plato. “Letters: VII.” Trans. L. A. Post. Plato: The Collected Dialogues. Eds. Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005. 421-474. Print.

Searle, John R. “Proper Names and Intentionality.” The Philosophy of Language. 5th Edition. Ed. A. P. Martinich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Print.