Aristotle: A Forefather of General Semantics?

Wayne N. Thompson*

IN 1961, at an invitation to be a guest lecturer, the writer attended a two-day conference of general semanticists. To be the lone Aristotelian at such a gathering, even a decade later, produces vivid memories. Outwardly all was cordiality, but not all was well, so the writer sensed, at deeper levels. At times he felt like a CIA agent whose identity is the subject of whispering at a cocktail in Moscow; at other times the writer thought that he detected overtones of condescension and even pity. Then there were the attempts to engage him in dialectic inquiry with a quick gathering of smiling hostile spectators. Plainly enough, to the housewives, stenographers, engineers, nurses, plumber’s assistants, etc., who made up the gathering, the writer was an outsider to be tolerated and, if possible, converted. To them Korzybski’s posture was not “non-Aristotelian,” as the Count plainly said, but “anti.”

Even in 1961 the writer was without rancor, and certainly he proceeds with this article in the best of spirits.

 * Department of Speech, University of Houston, Houston, Texas.


Forgive him, though, for the hope that some of his two-day associates of ten years ago may now be readers and that they, as a minimum, will eat their hearts out, The news that he has for those who in their “anti-ness” make Aristotle their favorite whipping boy is this: Many of the most common and best known ideas of general semantics are to be found in Aristotle.

On the serious side, the writer does not maintain that the Stagirite developed ideas about the sane use of nervous systems or that he systematized the six separate points that follow. The argument is rather that when the general semanticist proclaims that “the word is not the thing” and that “the map is not the territory” he is making observations that Aristotle expressed more than 2,000 years ago. Moreover, such major tenets as those that words are symbols whose meanings lie in persons, that language functions at different levels of abstraction, and that two-valued orientation may falsify reality were long ago part of Aristotle’s thought. Even dating and indexing, two of   the corrective devices of general semantics, are Aristotelian.

THE FOLLOWING paragraphs contain brief discussion and citations about six of the formulations that are the most closely identified with general semantics.

1. Meanings do not lie within words. Rather, as Aristotle understood fully, they lie within persons. “. . . the same word,” he said in the Poetics, may obviously be at once strange and ordinary, though not in reference to the same people (Ch. 21. 1457b4-6).” He then gives an example of a word that is ordinary in Cyprus but strange in Athens.

Furthermore, definitions do not create meaning or have probative power: no demonstration can prove that any particular name means any particular


thing: neither, therefore, do definitions . . . reveal that the name has this meaning . . . definition neither demonstrates nor proves anything (Posterior Analytics ii, 7,92b32-37).” [1] In other places Aristotle observes that “ . . never yet by defining anything . . . did we get knowledge of it (Ibid., ii. 3.90bl5-16)” and that “ . . . definitions do not carry a further guarantee that the thing defined can exist or that it is what they claim to define (ibid., ii.7.92b 23-25).” A number of similar statements appear elsewhere in ii.7. Clearly in Aristotle’s thinking meanings are not in words.

2. Words are symbols; the word is not the thing.

A variant of the preceding point—this recognition of the symbolic nature of language—also is not new. “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words,” Aristotle says in On Interpretation (Ch. 1.16a4-5). Therefore, “Every sentence has meaning . . . by convention (Ch. 4,17al-2).” The Categories contains this example distinguishing between the real and its representation and also foretelling what the general semanticist was to call the ladder of abstraction: “Thus, a real man and a figure in a picture can both lay claim to the name ‘animal’; yet these are equivocally so named, for, though they have a common name, the definition corresponding with the name differs for each (Ch. 1.1a3-4).”

3. The map is not the territory. A favorite analogy of the general semanticists, this expression does not present a new idea. “Words represent things,” Aristotle states in the Rhetoric; and noting the possibility of map-territory confusion, be says in the Topics, “. . . with a view to ensuring that our reasonings shall be in accordance with the actual facts and not addressed merely to the term used (i,18.108a20‑21; also ibid., v. 7.137 b 3-14).” The Metaphysics also, according to Richard McKeon, is attentive to differences



between the verbal and the “existent”: “In like fashion he investigates carefully the sense in which the parts of a true formula or statement may be said to correspond to the parts of the existent situation of which it is true (p. 239 ).” [5]

4. Dating and indexing. Also clear to Aristotle were the ideas behind these devices. What is lacking is the modern cute system of subscripts: Helen first choice is not Helen 2nd choice; free man1, is not free man2.

The Topics contains this statement:

. . . see whether in rendering the property of the present time he has omitted to make a definite proviso that it is the property of the present time which he is rendering: for else the property will not have been correctly stated . . . a man who omits to provide definitely whether it was the property of the present time which  he intended to state, is obscure (v. 3. 1:31b5-11).

The Rhetoric, too, contains material on dating and indexing. Identified as a false enthymeme is the following: “Another line consists in leaving out any mention of time and circumstances (ii. 24.140lb34-35).” Then, there is this example: “. . . the argument that Paris was justified in taking Helen, since her father left her free to choose: here the freedom was presumably not perpetual; it could only refer to her first choice, beyond which her father’s authority could not go ( 1401b35-1402al ).” The sentence that follows is on the need for indexing: “Or again, one might say that to strike a free man is an act of wanton outrage but it is not so in every case ( 1402al-2).”

5. Levels of abstraction. Here, too, is a concept known to Aristotle, and in this instance it is one of considerable importance to both his logic and his philosophy. The idea appears in several works, but perhaps the clearest statement is in the Categories, where the distinctions among


three levels of substance are critical to the analysis of the proper forming of deductive premises:

Substance, in the truest and primary and most definite sense of the word, is that which is neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject; for instance, the individual man or horse. But in a secondary sense those things are called substances within which, as species, the primary substances are included; also those which, as genera, include the species. For instance, the individual man [first level] is included in the species ‘man’ [second level], and the genus to which the species belongs is ‘animal’ [third level] (ch. 5. 2a,10-18).

Levels of substance, likewise, occupy a prominent position in the Metaphysics, especially book vii (i.1028a10-30; 3.1028b32-35; 3.1029a23-24; 13.1038b9-28; also x.1.1052b11-14). A second manner in which levels of abstraction appear in Aristotle is in the treatment of the particular and universal. Although in some instances the distinction is quantitative, in others it is one of degrees of abstractness. The latter is the significant factor in the following important passage in the Organon on inductive insight:

When one of a number of logically indiscriminable particulars has made a stand, the earliest universal is present in the soul; for though the act of sense-perception is of the particular, its content is universal—is man, for example, not the man Callias. A fresh stand is made among these rudimentary universals, and the process does not cease until the indivisible concepts, the true universals, are established: e.g., such and such a species of animal is a step towards the genus animal, which by the same process is a step towards a further generalization. *

Finally, the method of definition in the Metaphysics vii.12 is one of moving to ever lower levels of abstraction. As      one moves from “animal” to “animal which is two-

* Posterior Analytics ii.19.100a15-b4. See also ibid., i.l.71a7-8 and i.18.81b5-9. Cf. DeAnima iii.3.428bl8-24.


footed and featherless,” for example, he is becoming less abstract (1037b28-34).

6. Two‑valued orientation. The often asserted claim that general semantics is an improvement on Aristotle because of the dependence of the latter on “this or no this” logic is an exaggeration. Only parts of the Aristotelian system are based on discrete categories; in other places he specifically recognizes the existence of continuous variation. For instance, Chapter 6 of the Categories begins with these words:

Quantity is either discrete or continuous, Moreover, some quantities are such that each part of the whole has a relative position to the other parts: others have within them no such relation of part to part.

Instances of discrete quantities are number and speech; of continuous, lines, surfaces, solids, and besides these, time and place (4b20-24).

Nor is this passage a rarity. The following chapter on relatives points out that some have variations in degree and some do not (6b20-26), and Chapter 8 states, “Qualities admit of variation of degree. Whiteness is predicated of one thing in a greater or less degree than of another. This is also the case with reference to justice. Moreover, one and the same thing may exhibit a quality in a greater degree than it did before: if a thing is white, it may become whiter (10b25-28).”

Other works make the same point, Book i, chapters 2b and 3, of Parts of Animals explains forcefully and in detail why animals cannot be satisfactorily classified through dichotomies, and the analysis of the moral virtues in the Nicomachean Ethics is in terms of excess, defect, and mean. Moreover, the doctrine of the mean whose presence in Aristotle is hard to miss, is incompatible with the charge that his whole system rests on two-valued orientation.


MUCH THAT the general semanticist claims as his own, thus, was first Aristotelian. The difference between the two is in attitude and not in recognition or nonrecognition of these selected attributes of language. Whereas the general semanticist rails against two-valued orientation, Aristotle dichotomizes if he finds doing so useful and does otherwise when the concept of the continuum is more sensible. Whereas the semanticist seems to oppose High-level abstraction (although Korzvbski’s own view acknowledges the usefulness of high-level abstraction in 14 certain circumstances [2],[4]), Aristotle prizes such a formulation on the grounds that the higher the level the closer one comes to the appropriate first premise.

For astuteness about the workings of language, therefore, Aristotle was in many ways the equal of the general semanticists and, of course, was their predecessor by 2,000 years. Their unique contribution lies not in originality of conception but in clarity and dramatic power in presentation—ironically, in their rhetoric.


1. Aristotle, Complete Works, ed. W. D. Ross. London: Oxford University Press, 1928.

2. Bois, J. Samuel. An interview with Alfred Korzybski. ETC., XVI (Winter, 1959), 163-173.

3. Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity, 3rd ed. Lakeville, Conn.: International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Co., 1948.

4. Lee, Irving, General Semantics 1952. Quarterly Journal of Speech, XXXVIII (Feb., 1952), 1-12.

5. McKeon Richard. Introduction to Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1947.


SOURCE: Thompson, Wayne N.  “Aristotle: A Forefather of General Semantics?”, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, vol. XXVIII, no. 4, December 1971, pp. 469-475.

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