The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter

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Much contemporary philosophy o f language has shown considerable interest in the relation between our linguistic practice and our metaphysical commitments, and this interest has begun to influence work in the history of philosophy as well. In his Categories and De interpretatione, Aristotle presents an analysis of language that can be read as intended to illustrate an isomorphism between the ontology of the real world and how we talk about that world. Our understanding of language is at least in part dependent upon our understanding of the relationships that exist among the enduring πράγματα that we come across in our daily experience. Part of the foundations underlying Aristotle’s doctrine of categories seems to have been a concern, going back to the Academy, about the problem of false propositions: language is supposed to be a tool for communicating the way things are, and writers in antiquity were often puzzled by the problem of how we are to understand propositions that claim that reality is other than it is. Aristotle’s analysis of propositions raises a particular problem in this regard: if the subject of a proposition does not refer to anything how can the proposition be useful for talking about a state of the world? The problem falls into two separate but related parts: propositions whose subjects are singular terms and hence make claims about some particular thing and propositions whose subjects are general terms and hence make claims about classes. In this paper I will explain Aristotle’s treatment of each kind, focusing in particular on what has widely been perceived as a problem in his treatment of singular terms. My discussion of his treatment of general terms will be more brief, but will show that his treatment of them is consistent with his treatment of singular terms.


Scott Carson presented “Aristotle on Existential Import and Nonreferring Subjects” to the Society at its meeting with the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in Washington DC, 1998. A revised version was published in Synthese 124.3 (2000) 343-360.

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