Aristotle on Meaning and Essence

Aristotle on Meaning and Essence

Aristotle on Meaning and Essence

Aristotle on Meaning and Essence


David Charles presents a major study of Aristotle's views on meaning, essence, and necessity. Aristotle's discussions of these interconnected topics are central to his account of thought and language, his metaphysics, and his study of biology. They are also of continuing philosophicalimportance, with considerable relevance for modern debates on these issues. Charles aims, on the basis of a careful and detailed reading of Aristotle's texts, to reach a clear understanding of his distinctive claims and arguments, and to assess their value and significance. He argues thatAristotle's actual account is distinct from the one often described and attacked as 'Aristotelian essentialism'. Indeed, in Charles's view, it enjoys considerable advantages over more recent attempts to formulate and defend essentialist theses.


The study of meaning, essence, and necessity is a central part of the philosophical tradition we have inherited from classical Greece. Aristotle initiated the discussion of many of the topics in this area, and advanced debate on others beyond the level achieved by his predecessors. My primary aim is to gain a philosophical understanding of his work on these subjects.

How are we to achieve this type of understanding? Its acquisition requires us to focus on the arguments and motivations which led Aristotle to his views, to state then as precisely as possible, to see them as forming (where appropriate) a coherent overall theory, and (finally) to examine how far they withstand reasonable criticism. In these ways, we can assess the truth and importance of the views themselves.

If one aims to understand earlier writers in this way, one will place their work in some wider philosophical context. One may define that context historically in terms of those who influenced or were influenced by the writer in question. Alternatively, one may characterize it in terms of a broader conceptual framework shared with others who have, at varying times, engaged with similar issues. In this book I have followed the latter path, seeking to compare and contrast Aristotle's views with those of subsequent philosophers, including such present-day writers as Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam. In this way, I hope to show that the study of Aristotle's work can deepen contemporary understanding of these topics.

If one attempts the latter project, one must avoid anachronism: the mistaken assimilation of Aristotle's views and concerns to those of our own day. The most important safeguard against this error is the careful reading of the range of relevant texts, which aims to place his views on particular topics in the context of his own arguments and basic interests. In this, much can be gained from a study of the many commentaries, written from a variety of philosophical standpoints, which have been dedicated to Aristotle's work over the centuries. A second defence is the requirement constantly to search for the conceptual resources which will enable us to see where past and present writers converge and where they diverge. For there can be no general presumption that ancient writers employed either precisely the same concepts as we do or, for that matter, radically different ones.

In writing on these themes, I am following an Oriel College tradition. My three most recent predecessors, Jonathan Barnes, Richard Robinson, and David Ross, have all written on these issues, combining high-grade philological skills and philosophical acumen. Before them, there was a line

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