Once more on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, incipit (1, 16 a 3-8)

  • Patrizia Laspia University of Palermo
Keywords: letters, syllabes, words, proposition, voice, meaning


The most famous description of language in Aristotle’s Corpus is the incipit of De interpretatione. Most of scholars recognize in it the very beginning of a descriptive theory of meaning: words refer to concepts, and concepts refer to things, or facts, in the external world. In my opinion, in De interpretatione’s incipit we do not find a descriptive theory of meaning; we are faced with a well-articulated semantic theory based on a two-levels representation of the phrasal meaning. The graphic representation of spoken language plays in De interpretatione the same role as shadows and images in Plato’s Divided Line. Letters are perceptible, so they can be used as countresignes (σύμβολα) of spoken language, which divides into syllables. But letters are like irrelated atoms, while phonetic syllables are prosodic unities. Thus, graphic language is only a deformed copy, i.e. an ‘imitation’ of phonetic language. In the same way, on the semantic level τὰ ἐν τῇ φωνῇ (i.e. words) are ‘expressions’ (σημεῖα) of τῶν ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ παθημάτων but only ‘firstly’ (πρώτως): because at a deeper level they are ‘imitations’ (ὁμοιώματα) of πράγματα (i.e. propositional contents). Thus, words behave to λόγος as graphic signs to the phonetic syllable as prosodic unity.