Aristotelian Semantics

When Aristotle talks about ways in which a word “is said” — which is one of the main things he does — it is not inappropriate to reconstruct this as a semantic concern. I would say the same about both Plato and Aristotle’s concern with definition and classification of terms. This is taking “semantics” in the broad sense of having to do with meaning.

For Aristotle and Plato, meanings are developed principally in terms of other meanings. Aristotle also pays a lot of attention to use. For neither of them is there any thought of reducing meaning to extensional criteria, as in modern model-theoretic semantics. Plato famously contrasted definition of “what” something is with enumeration of examples. Aristotle was interested in both, but respected the contrast.

Aristotle agreed with Frege that the minimal unit of truth or falsity is a complete proposition. (Medieval logicians working in a broadly Aristotelian tradition extended this to an elaborate theory of what they called “supposition” (see de Rijk, Logica Modernorum), which concerned meanings in the context of concretely uttered sentences. Various kinds of “supposition” — or ways in which a referential meaning can be logically intended — were analyzed, in a now forgotten technical vocabulary largely shared by realist and nominalist logicians.)

Aristotelian practical judgment (phronesis) is a kind of interpretation or hermeneutics of the implications of situations. Ultimately, I think Kantian judgment moves into the same territory. Judgment in general involves far more than mere assertion or belief. “Judgment” should refer first and foremost to a process, an investigation, and only very secondarily to a conclusion. All such processes are in principle open. The final word is never said.

For both Plato and Aristotle, implications and presuppositions uncovered in dialogue or many-sided monologue are more important in getting at meaning and truth than any referential pointing. Even medieval scholastics arguing for or against a proposition did this largely in terms of analyzing its implications and presuppositions.

I don’t think it’s possible to cleanly separate considerations of truth from considerations of meaning. Truth can only be apprehended in terms of some meaning. Much more interesting than the abstract question whether some proposition is true is insight into what is really being said. (See also Dialectic, Semantics; “Said of”; Aristotelian Propositions; Univocity; Agency; Inferential Semantics; Edifying Semantics.)

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