The Problem of Language and Mental Representation in Aristotle and St. Thomas

Article excerpt

Introduction. In the opening passages of his De interpretatione,(1) Aristotle provides a simple summary of how he thinks language relates to the mind and the mind to reality, a sketch which has often been called his "semantic triangle." He writes:

Now spoken sounds are symbols of affections in the soul, and written

marks symbols of spoken sounds. And just as written marks are not the

same for all men, neither are spoken sounds. But what these are in the

first place signs of--affections of the soul--are the same for all; and

what these affections are likenesses of--actual things--are also the

same. These matters have been discussed in the work on the soul and

do not belong to the present subject.(2)

It has been called a triangle because of the three vertices, words, affections of the soul, and actual things. It is semantic because it has been interpreted to be providing a sketch of the meaning of words, and how they relate to things. As Norman Kretzmann points out, in the form of Boethius's sixth-century Latin translation, this passage "constitute[s] the most influential text in the history of semantics,"(3) having an enormous influence on the subsequent philosophical tradition of reflection upon the interrelations of language, mind, and the world, or as Hilary Putnam often puts it, "how language hooks onto the world." This is particularly true of the Middle Ages, but also beyond into modern philosophy. Indeed, among some contemporary philosophers, there is a vision of this opening passage that one might call a standard or received view, namely that Aristotle's reflections upon language in the De interpretatione planted a seed that grew relatively continuously in Western philosophy, flowered within British empiricism, and continues to influence the philosophy of language to this day.

In light of criticism in this century directed at this relatively continuous tradition, however, these contemporary philosophers characterize the Aristotelian tradition as fundamentally flawed. Consider Michael Dummett's remarks:

A continuous tradition, from Aristotle to Locke and beyond, had assigned

to individual words the power of expressing `ideas', and to combinations

of words that of expressing complex `ideas'; and this style of

talk had blurred, or at least failed to account for, the crucial distinction

between those combinations of words which constitute a sentence and

those which form mere phrases which could be part of a sentence.(4)

Perhaps the most important of all the contributions made by Grundlagen

to general philosophy is the attack on the imagist or associationist

theory of meaning. This is another of those ideas which, once fully digested,

appear completely obvious: yet Frege was the first to make a

clean break with the tradition which had flourished among the British

empiricists and had its roots as far back as Aristotle. The attack that

was launched by Frege on the theory that the meaning of a word or expression

consists in its capacity to call up in the mind of the hearer an

associated mental image was rounded off by Wittgenstein in the early

part of the Investigations, and it is scarcely necessary to rehearse the

arguments in detail, the imagist theory now being dead without a hope

of revival.(5)

In fact, even recent translators and commentators on the De interpretatione make oblique reference to the "notorious" problems with Aristotle's remarks.(6) Norman Kretzmann, on the other hand, hopes to protect Aristotle from these kinds of criticism by distancing Aristotle's text from its Latin tradition of interpretation. He believes that the "traditional misreading of [these] passages" in the West is a product of Boethius's unfortunate translation of the Greek words for "symbols" ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and "signs" ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) by the single Latin word "notae," thereby "obliterating the Aristotelian distinction between symbols and symptoms. …

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