19 October 2007

"It does not yet signify whether it is or not"

Ethics gets a lot of attention on the pages of this blog. But here's a passage from De Int (16b19-25) that might be worth considering:

συγκειμένων οὐκ ἔστι νοῆσαι.
For now, John Ackrill's translation:
When uttered just by itself a verb is a name and signifies something--the speaker arrests his thought and the hearer pauses--but it does not yet signify whether it is or not. For not even [a note says: "Read οὐδὲ γὰρ"] 'to be' or 'not to be' is a sign of the actual thing (nor if you say simply 'that which is'); for by itself it is nothing, but it additionally signifies some combination, which cannot be thought of without the components.
I'll post some questions later. But let this sit and stew.


senn said...

I'm sure you mean to get to this question in an upcoming post; but: To what exactly is the "it" in Ackrill's "whether it is or not" supposed to refer? It's not clear what its antecedent is supposed to be. I don't think Ackrill's English captures what Aristotle is doing here. (We don't have here, I'm pretty sure, at all the same problem as we do with Parmenides' infamous "it" in the Truth poem.)

I think Irwin and Fine's rendering is closer to the Greek: "...it does not yet signify whether something is or is not." Since Aristotle is speaking generally about any verb (even, interestingly enough, the verb "is"), the subject of estin in Aristotle's sentence is clearly just a thing, anything (i.e., whatever you like), not something to which Aristotle had referred already, earlier in the text.

We may find it of some small interest that Aristotle's estin, at least here, of course signifies in the very way in which he's saying the verb by itself would not! In fact, I myself would venture to improve on Irwin and Fine by rendering the sentence like so: "...it does not yet signify whether a thing is such-and-such or not."

By the way, thanks for the interesting passage! Aristotle's Greek can be a killer! I'm not sure I'm right...

Michael Pakaluk said...

Here's what Ackrill in his commentary says in defense of his translation:

"It is tempting to translate the last words of the sentence by 'whether anything is or is not the case'; and similarly at 16b29 (instead of 'that it is or is not'). This gives the correct point but is probably an incorrect translation. The natural subject of the 'is' in the Greek is the previously mentioned 'thing' which the verb (or, at 16b28, the name) signifies: 'runs' by itself does signify something, running, but not that that thing is, i.e. not that there is any running; only if you add a name ('Socrates runs') will you be saying that there is some running."

On this understanding, Irwin and Fine's translation is too indefinite, since what the verb on its own would fail to do, is not to assert existence but rather to assert the existence of what the verb signifies.

An advantage of Ackrill's translation is that it avoids your charge, that "Aristotle's estin, at least here, of course signifies in the very way in which he's saying the verb by itself would not!", because estin in the context would be signifying existence only because it attached to an understood subject (the 'thing' which the verb on its own signifies).

Adam Beresford said...

I think that the way to understand this passage is to suppose that the ‘verb’ (i.e., the rhema) that Aristotle has in mind here is actually something like the adjective ‘white’. That may seem like a very strange proposal, since ‘white’ is not a verb. But if we consider ‘white’ as part of the predicate (or predication) ‘is-white’ then we can perhaps at least treat it as a predicate, and Aristotle sometimes seems to mean something like ‘predicate’ by his term rhema. A ‘verb’ in our sense is just a special case of a predication. For example, look at this part of the other passage, posted above:

Thus names (onomata) and verbs (rhemata) by themselves--for instance 'man' or 'white' when nothing further is added--are like the thoughts that are without combination and separation.

Notice that the example here of a “rhema by itself”, “with nothing further added” appears quite clearly to be the predicate “white” (leukos). It’s also pretty clear Aristotle has in mind his favorite minimal sentence “man (onoma) is-white (rhema)” and that he is happy to treat “white” itself (i.e., even without the “is”) as a rhema. That is surely because it is normal Greek to leave out the esti. Aristotle later gives several examples of (minimal) sentences that use the term leukos, on its own, in the sense “is white”. E.g., 17b6, pas anthropos leukos, “every man is white”; 17b19 oudeis anthropos leukos, “no man is white”, etc. So it is certainly possible that he might treat leukos as a rhema, and that it might be a rhema of just that kind that he has in mind in our passage. If we make that assumption, the whole passage can be understood as follows:

When they are said just on their own [i.e., a bare adjective, like leukos, without the esti], then rhemata are names [i.e., “white” is much like a name] and mean something [“white” means something]. The speaker arrests his thought and the hearer pauses [“white” makes up a distinct unit of thought, with a sense for both speaker and listener, whereas “wh…”, for example, does not]. But rhemata on their own do not yet signify whether it is or is not [i.e., “white” on its own does not yet signify that something is, or is not, white.] For that matter, not even [read oude gar] the being or not being is a sign of the thing. [That’s to say, even “is white” or “is not white” gives no indication of the subject, of what is white.] Not even if you say simply that which is.

This last phrase is perhaps the trickiest part of the whole passage, and worth explaining in some detail. I take it as follows:

esti leukos, “is white”, contains no reference to the subject of the predication, not even if you say that the subject is simply the thing that is [white] (whatever that is).]

What Aristotle means is this. Esti leukon means ‘is white’. But we don’t yet know what is white. But it can also mean, in standard Greek, “it is white”. So a Greek speaker might propose that it does have a subject after all, and the subject is (as we would say in English) simply it. But the way to say that in Greek is to say that perhaps the subject is “simply (psilon) the thing that is white (to on). On the other hand, even that subject is still indeterminate. Without context we have no way of knowing what the thing that’s white is. “It’s white” (In English) doesn’t make an assertion that is ture or false when we don’t know what “it” is, and likewise esti leukon makes no assertion that is true or false when we don’t know what the thing that’s white (to on) is.

So Aristotle says, “Even with esti leukon, we have no indication of the subject, not even if you say [that the subject is] simply that which is [white]. For by itself it is nothing; it additionally signifies some combination, which cannot be understood without the component parts. [I.e., esti leukon has an indeterminate subject, the thing that’s white, but that thing isn’t really anything, taken in isolation. The esti shows us that some predication is being made (a “putting together” of a name and a predicate) but until we have both the parts being put together (i.e., until we know the subject) we can’t grasp that predication.

This seems to me to make pretty good sense of the whole passage. Aristotle isn’t ever saying that a rhema on its own gives no indication of something being or not being true. Rather he is saying that a simple predicate like “white” gives no indication that something is or is not white, and hence is not yet an assertion that can be true or false. Even “is white” is not yet true or false, because there is still no subject for the predication. The latter point would also apply in some form to all verbs: uttered without a subject they are not yet true or false.

senn said...

I believe that I agree, for the most part, with what Adam has said, though I must admit I have yet to digest all of it completely; my comments below are meant as a rejoinder to Michael's reply (above) to my original comment; at any rate, I wrote them up before reading Adam's post.

(By the way, my copy of Aristotle's Greek is the Loeb edition. So, for references to line #s, I'm going to use Irwin & Fine's Aristotle: Selections, though I realize they aren't a perfect match with Bekker's lines.)

As I understand him, Ackrill suggests that Aristotle's point at 16b21-22 is that no verb by itself signifies whether the action (or whatever) (which the verb signifies) exists or not; though "runs" signifies running, "runs" doesn't signify whether there is running or not.

One problem with what Ackrill says is that, according to Aristotle, a verb (like "runs") doesn't signify the action (or property or whatever); rather, it signifies something's performing the action (or having the property or whatever): At 16b9-10 Aristotle says that a verb signifies "something's holding now (to nun huparchein)". (It is implied at 16b6 and at 16b10 that a verb "always (aei)" signifies such, even, presumably, when by itself.)

A more significant problem for Ackrill's interpretation is that 16b9-10 suggests that "runs" by itself does indeed signify that there is some running (or other) – i.e., that something or other runs. How is this to be reconciled with 16b21-22? I don't think it can be, on Ackrill's interpretation. But if we go with Fine & Irwin, it can: the point of 16b21-22 is simply that "runs" by itself doesn't signify which running exists – i.e. doesn't signify that one particular (named) running exists or that another particular (named) running exists. In other words, "runs" doesn't signify of a particular subject that it runs. It is consistent with this that "runs" does signify that some subject or other runs (as 16b9-10 appears to require).

(All this is corroborated by what Aristotle says of "is" at 16b24-25: Aristotle says there that "is" signifies "some combination". I think this must mean "some combination or other" – not a specified one. I agree with Ackrill that it is hard to say whether he has in mind the existential "is" or the copulative "is" - or some muddle of both. However we understand Aristotle, though, he must be saying that "is" signifies that some fact or other holds. It just doesn't signify which fact, and so it says nothing.)

A further problem for Ackrill's interpretation, I believe, is that his suggestion - that, for Aristotle, "runs" (a verb) doesn't signify whether running is or not - conflicts with 16b15, which implies that it's only "indefinite verbs" (and not genuine verbs) that "hold indifferently of anything whether existent or non-existent". What is supposed to be unique about an indefinite verb is that it holds "both of a thing that is and of a thing that is not (kai ontos kai mē ontos). If (contrary to my suggestion) "runs" didn't signify that someone or another runs, then it would seem that "runs" would could hold "both of a thing that is and of a thing that is not", just as an indefinite verb does.

By the way, when I said, in my earlier comment, "Aristotle's estin...of course signifies in the very way in which he's saying the verb by itself would not!", I did not think, nor do I now think, that that is a problem for anyone's interpretation. The estin at 16b22 doesn't count as a verb by itself; on both Ackrill's interpretation and mine, it has a subject.

Michael Pakaluk said...


An extremely clever interpretation-- bravo!

Yet I am not entirely convinced.

I agree with you that "it is certainly possible that he might treat leukos as a rhema", however I have difficulty in taking the next step and additionally agreeing that "it might be a rhema of just that kind that he has in mind in our passage", and this for two reasons.

(1) The verb ὑγιαίνει has been his example of a ῥῆμα until this point. Why should he then switch without warning to λευκός? And if one understands ὑγιαίνει rather than λευκός as his example, your interpretation doesn't work.

Also, a related concern:

(2) He plainly says that it is essential to a ῥῆμα that it "additionally signifies time"; but then λευκός, since it does no such thing, would in the context be an odd candidate to bring forward for a ῥῆμα.

In light of these difficulties it seems to me that one must either reject your interpretation or explain why it would have been understandable for him to switch the example without flagging that he was doing so.