Montag, 20. Dezember 2010

Aristotle & Semantics (V)

(It seems that I never got around to posting the continuation of this series. So here is the much-belated final installment.)

De Partis Animalibus I, 1. 640b 31 – 641a 5

φησὶ γοῦν παντὶ δῆλον εἶναι οἷόν τι τὴν μορφήν ἐστι ὁ ἀνθρωπος, ὡς ὄντος αὐτοῦ τῷ τε σχήματι καὶ τῷ χρώματι γνωρίμου. καίτοι καὶ ὁ τεθνεὼς ἔχει τὴν αὐτὴν τοῦ σχήματος μορφήν, ἀλλ’ ὅμως οὐκ ἔστιν ἄνθρωπος. ἔτι δ’ ἀδύνατον εἶναι χεῖρα ὁπωσοῦν διακειμένην, οἷον χαλκῆν ἤ ξυλίνην, πλὴν ὁμωνύμως, ὥσπερ τὸν γεγραμμένον ἰατρόν. οὐ γὰρ δυνήσεται ποιεῐν τὸ ἑαυτῆς ἔργον, ὥσπερ οὐδ’ αὐλοὶ λίθινοι τὸ ἑαυτῶν ἔργον, οὐδ’ ὁ γεγραμμένος ἰατρός. ὁμοίως δὲ τούτοις οὐδὲ τῶν τοῦ τεθνηκότος μορίων οὐδὲν ἔτι τῶν τοιούτων ἐστί, λέγω δ’ οἷον ὀφθαλμός, χείρ.

He [Demokritos] says that it is clear to each what sort of thing man is in respect to his form, since he is recognizable as being such by his shape and color. However, a dead body also has the same form and shape, but nevertheless is not a man. Moreover, it is impossible [for something] in any way to be a hand, if it is made of bronze or wood, except homonymously, the way a doctor drawn in a picture [is a doctor]. For it will not be able to do its own work, just like a stone flute or a painted doctor cannot perform their functions. Like them, none of the parts of a dead body – say, an eye or a hand – are still of a sort sufficient [to do this].

ὁμωνύμως as it is used here might easily be translated “by analogy”.

Aristotle’s teleological view of nature is particularly evident in this passage, and his assertion that a dead body is not a man must be understood in terms of the fundamental philosophical distinction he draws between potentiality and actuality. He is not talking about language use per se, but using names in a specific, restricted sense to make an analytical point.

Semantically, the passage is interesting, however. Although modern descriptive linguistics rejects the assumption that some uses of words are “more proper” than others, nevertheless, certain senses of words seem to be more central than others. For example, certain kinds of birds seem to be more typically “birdlike” than others (a robin as opposed to a penguin or ostrich). These prototypes should not be confused with biological classification: a whale fits our concept of “fish” in many ways better than our concept of “mammal” (Saeed 37). Something similar seems to happen when we return to Aristotle’s own examples, although the problem is a bit different. The use of “flute” to describe a semblance made of stone feels somehow metaphorical; the sense, in any case, is different than when it is used for a musical instrument, and the stone flute tends to feel less properly a flute than the ‘real’ flute, as our language use when talking about the two demonstrates. Similarly, although Aristotle’s argument about a dead body not being a man is unlikely to be acceptable to most people in a linguistic sense, as we regularly think about and refer to corpses as men (albeit dead ones), on another level Aristotle seems to have a point. A dead man is not a man in the same way that a living, adult human being is; the meaning is less central and requires qualification to make the distinction. What this suggests is interesting; namely, that language is sensitive to the distinction Aristotle makes between having merely the form of something, and having the function as well