© 1985 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.
March 18, 1985*
In "On Interpretation", Aristotle sets up his description of what we could call a formal structure for a part of language. In his opening remarks he makes statements which are remarkably reminiscent of Frege. Compare the Ackrill and McKeon translations of 16, a. 2-7.
Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. Just as all men have not the same writings, so all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all,1
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;2
Aristotle intends for us to consider two functional relations, one in which the written word symbolizes the spoken word, and one in which the spoken word symbolizes the mental experiences. The written word symbolizes mental experiences once removed or indirectly, while the spoken word symbolizes mental experiences directly.
Aristotle is, however, primarily interested in the spoken words. He makes little further reference to written words, but frequently refers to 'expressions' or 'statements'. We can easily presume that the written words symbolize the spoken words as in the manner of the identity function. Each word (written) symbolizes itself (spoken). By presuming this identity function we can henceforth speak of words as symbolizing mental experience, without regard for whether the words are spoken or written.
What can Aristotle mean by 'mental experiences' or 'affections of the soul'? There are several possibilities; he could mean thoughts, images, sensations, etc. The phrase ". . . the same for all, . . . " is a key point. He has ruled out images and sensations as possible interpretations for "mental experiences" or "affections of the soul". He is indicating the kinds of thoughts which are of such a nature as to be experienced in the same way by all people. Gottlob Frege called these 'senses'.
In "On Sense and Nominatum"3, Frege states:
The sense of a proper name is grasped by everyone who knows the language or the totality of designations of which the proper name is a part;
The regular connection between a sign, its sense, and its nominatum is such that there corresponds a definite sense to the sign and to this sense there corresponds again a definite nominatum; whereas not one sign only belongs to one nominatum (object). . . . the same sense is represented by different expressions.
Both the nominatum and the sense of a sign must be distinguished from the associated image. . . . Even with the same person the same sense is not always accompanied by the same image. The image is subjective; the image of one person is not that of another. Hence [there are] various differences between the images connected with one and the same sense. . . . The image thereby differs essentially from the connotation of a sign, which latter may well be the common property of many and is therefore not a part or mode of the single person's mind; for it cannot well be denied that mankind possesses a common treasure of thoughts which is transmitted from generation to generation. (Op. cit.)
Frege is reserving the term 'sense' to refer to these common connotations for proper names; he does allow that different people can use the same sign (proper name) to express (symbolize) different senses. He is however, not allowing the same sense to designate different nominata (objects). Although Frege is not distinguishing between the written and the spoken word, we can see compatibility with Aristotle through our assumption of the identity function as the relation between spoken and written words.
Aristotle suggested that different words may be used to express the same senses.
. . . all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images.1
McKeon's translation has '(mental) experiences' being 'images' of things, and as such is in conflict with our notion that 'images' are ultra-subjective and idiosyncratic. (Frege distinguished between 'images' and 'senses'.) Clearly the qualification that these 'mental experiences' ". . . are the same for all . . ." renders this conflict impotent by denying our connotation for 'image'. What Aristotle is talking about is the kind of mental experience that Frege called 'senses'.
Ackrill's translation also has these 'affections of the soul' being ". . . the same for all . . .", while he uses 'likenesses of actual things' to indicate the character of the relation between the mind and reality.
. . . 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.2
In defining 'noun', Aristotle uses 'significant' and 'convention'. 'Significant' or signifier indicates that 'nouns' are signs, and 'convention' indicates that nothing is a noun per se; it is only by common (tacit) agreement within a speech community that a particular noun may refer to some object. Since different words may be used to symbolize the same mental experience, but each mental experience is a likeness of only one object, Aristotle is talking here of the case in which only one word is being considered, along with only one object. Were he to have been more precise, he would have explicitly included a proviso excluding homonymous things.
Different groups of people may use the same symbol to refer to different objects. This fact is accounted for in the theory by a two level relation. It is the 'mental experience' that is connected with the object, and that the noun symbolizes or is a sign for that mental experience, which in turn represents the object.
Frege states that it is the "connotation of a sign" (a particular sense) which is "the common property of many". He is talking here of the case in which only one word is being considered, along with only one object.
We can conclude that Frege's theory of meaning may have had its inspiration in Aristotle's "De Interpretatione".
Richard McKeon The Basic Works of Aristotle, New York, 1941
J.L. Ackrill, Aristotle's Categories and De Interpratatione, Oxford, 1963
Gottlob Frege, "On Sense and Nominatum", Language, Meaning, and Truth