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

By O'Callaghan, John P. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 1997 | Go to article overview

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


O'Callaghan, John P., The Review of Metaphysics


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.