Aristotle, On Interpretation. Chapter 1


by Mr. William C. Michael

In this lesson, we begin our study of the second book of Aristotle’s Organon, “On Interpretation”. In this work we study “enunciative speech” and in this first chapter, Aristotle sets out the goals for this study.

Aristotle’s Text

Translated by Thomas Taylor

1. In the first place, it is necessary to determine what Noun and Verb are; and in the next place, what Negation, Affirmation, Enunciation, and a Sentence are.

2. Those things which are spoken, are symbols of the passions of the soul; and those things which are written are symbols of the passions in the voice.

3. And as there are not the same letters among all men, so neither are there the same spoken words, or articulate sounds.

4. The passions of the soul, however, of which these are primarily the signs, are the same among all men; and the things of which these are the similitudes are also the same.

5. Concerning these, therefore, we have spoken in the treatise “On the Soul”; for these belong to another discussion.

6. But as in the soul, a conception is at one time without truth or falsehood, but at another time it is that in which one of these is necessarily inherent; thus also it is in speech, or articulate sound. For the false and the true are conversant with composition and division.

7. Nouns and verbs, therefore, are assimilated to the conception which is without composition and division; such, for instance, as “man”, or “white”, when something is not added; for then it is neither true nor false.

8. Of which this is an indication, that the word tragelaphos signifies, indeed, something, but not yet any thing true or false, unless “to be” or not “to be” is added, either simply, or according to time.

Lesson Commentary

by Mr. William C. Michael

1. The subject of this study is enunciative speech and the parts of enunciative speech are the noun and the verb. Enunciative speech is one kind of sentence (speech).

2. Note that this study relates to things which are spoken. We are not discussing things that exist outside the mind, but those “conceptions” (ideas) in the mind and the communication of them by means of symbols (spoken language). It is also important to note that written language is used to represent spoken words and not the passions of the soul directly. This is why our focus in this study is on spoken words and not written words.

3-5. The passions of the soul are shared by all men, but spoken words are not. This is why we must study spoken things carefully, because they are a source of confusion and error.

6. Conceptions (ideas) of things by themselves (simple) cannot be true or false, but conceptions that join ideas together can be. For example, if the ideas of “grass”, “blue” and “orange” are in the soul and they are joined together, true and false conceptions can be formed. “Grass is green.” is true; “Grass is orange.” is false. Think of the verb “is” (the copula) as the link that joins the ideas together.

7. In Grammar, we learn of the eight parts of speech, but here we speak only of two: Nouns and Verbs. Nouns and verbs are principal parts of speech as flour and water are the principal parts of bread. Everything else is simply added to them to change the quality of the bread, and without them there is no bread. The other parts of speech simply serve the noun and the verb in speech. These parts of speech, and the simple ideas they symbolize, cannot be true or false.

8. Truth and falsehood arises in the mind (and in speech) when we rightly or wrongly join ideas together, as explained in note 6 above. The verb “to be” or “not to be” refers to the verb “is” or “is not”, as (1) “Grass is green.” (True); (2) “Grass is orange.” (False); (3) Grass is not green.” (False); (4) “Grass is not orange.” (True). Speech that can be true or false is called “enunciative speech”, and this is the subject of our study in Aristotle’s, “On Interpretation”.


In this lesson, Aristotle simply explains for us what is to be studied in this work, and why such needs to be studied. We will be studying enunciative speech, and the parts thereof.