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Aristotle, On Interpretation. Chapter 3

Prelection

by Mr. William C. Michael

In the first two lessons, we set out the goals for the study of Aristotle’s work “On Interpretation” and then learned about the Noun–the first of the two parts of enunciative speech. In this lesson, we study the second of the principal parts of speech: the Verb.

Aristotle’s Text

Translated by Thomas Taylor

Chapter 3. Of the Verb

1. A Verb is that which, in addition to something else, signifies time; of which no part is significant; and it is always an indication of those things which are asserted of something else.

2. But I say that “in addition to something else to something else, signifies time”.

3. Thus, for instance, “health” is a noun; but “is healthy” is a verb; for it signifies in addition to being healthy, that health is inherent at the present time (in the subject).

4. And it is always an indication of those things which are asserted of something else; as, for instance, of those things which are predicated of a subject, or which are in a subject.

5. I do not, however, call “is not healthy”, and “is not ill”, verbs.

6. For they signify time in addition to something else, and they are always an indication of something; but a name is not given to this difference.

7. Let them be called indefinite verbs, because they are similarly inherent, both in what exists, and in what does not exist.

8. In like manner, I do not call, “was well”, and “will be well”, verbs, but cases of a verb.

9. They differ from a verb, because a verb signifies in addition to something else the present time; but the others, that which is outside of the present time.

10. Verbs, when spoken by themselves as words, are names, and they signify something; for he who pronounces a verb stops the reasoning power of the hearer, and he who hears rests, but they do not yet signify whether a thing is or is not.

11. For neither is the verb “is”, or “is not”, an enunciation by itself.

12. Nor would it be a sign of the being or non-being of a thing if you were to say it alone, for it is nothing.

13. They signify, however, in addition to something else, a certain composition, without which it is not possible to understand composites.

Lesson Commentary

by Mr. William C. Michael

1. In line 1, we learn the definition of a verb, which ought to be memorized: “A Verb is that which, in addition to something else, signifies time; of which no part is significant, and it is always an indication of those things which are asserted of something else.”. This definition, as St. Thomas explains, consists of three parts: (1) a verb is a spoken thing which signifies time; (2) a verb is a part of speech of which no part is significant, and (3) a verb is a part of speech which is an indication of things asserted of something else.

2. After stating the definition of the Verb, Aristotle examines the three parts of that definition in lines 2-4. First, Aristotle says, “in addition to something else, signifies time”. St. Thomas explains that the Philosopher here distinguishes verbs from nouns in that nouns do not signify time.

3. Next, Aristotle makes a statement that is difficult to understand in English translation. He said “health is a noun; but is healthy is a verb”. In English, “health” is one word and “is healthy” is two words–a verb and an adjective–but in the original Greek both are only one word–the noun ὑγίεια (hygieia), and the verb ὑγιαίνει (hygiainei). So, what he really said was, “the word ὑγίεια is a noun; but the word “ὑγιαίνει” is a verb. He goes on to say, “for it signifies in addition to being healthy, that health is inherent at the present time (in the subject)”. This is clear when we look at what was said in the original Greek text. Read the text of Aristotle again to make sure it is clear now.

4. Aristotle goes on to further clarify how a verb differs from a noun, saying, “it is always an indication of those things which are asserted of something else”. The word “always” is key here because nouns may indicate a subject or a predicate, but verbs always indicate what belongs to the predicate, which is thought of as being “something else” because we are speaking about the subject in a sentence. He explains further, “as, for instance, of those things which are predicated of a subject, or which are in a subject.” Things “predicated of a subject” are substances, whereas things “in a subject” are attributes. Reread this line in Aristotle’s text to make sure the meaning is clear now. You should understand the definition of a verb.

5-7. In line 5, Aristotle speaks of indefinite verbs. He begins by saying, “I do not, however, call ‘is not healthy’, and ‘is not ill’, verbs.”. He explains that they appear to fulfill the requirements of the definition of verbs, but don’t actually do so. He says, “they are similarly inherent, both in what exists, and in what does not exist.” St. Thomas explains, “it is proper to the verb to signify action or passion. But these words remove action or passion rather than signify an action or passion.” Thus, if an action is something done, “is not healthy” is not an action; and, if a passion is something suffered, “is not healthy” is not a passion; therefore these cannot be verbs.

8-9. In line 8, Aristotle goes on to explain that different tenses (cases) of verbs are not verbs. He says, “In like manner, “I do not call, ‘was well’, and ‘will be well’ verbs, but cases of a verb.” This is comparable to what was said about the cases of nouns in chapter 02. He continues, “They differ from a verb, because a verb signifies in addition to something else the present time; but the others, that which is outside of the present time.”. Thus, when we speak of verbs in reasoning, we are speaking of present tense verbs.

10. Aristotle continues working to clarify the essence of verbs and leads us into a very interesting discussion about the effects of speech on our souls. In the introduction to this book taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, we learn of the three operations of the intellect. The first is that by which the intellect apprehends just the essence of a thing alone. This is the simple knowledge of nouns (names) and their definitions. The second operation of the intellect is that by which the intellect composes and divides words by which “affirmative and negative enunciations are made, that is, sentences that are true and false. The third operation of the intellect is that by which reason draw conclusions from enunciative sentences which have been joined together into arguments (syllogisms). The intellect is constantly ready to work, waiting for direction from the voice or senses. When a noun is spoken (or read) and its definition is made known, the mind is able to fix itself on the essence of thing and rest. This is the first operation of the intellect. Aristotle notes that the same thing happens when a verb is spoken, and this proves that “Verbs, when spoken by themselves as words, are nouns and they signify something; for he who pronounces a verb stops the reasoning power of the hearer, and he who hears rest.” However, Aristotle adds, verbs spoken by themselves do not but they do not yet satisfy the second operation of the intellect, for no ideas are joined together in enunciative speech. Words spoken simply, do not assert “whether a thing is or is not”, for this requires composition and division.

11. Consequently, verbs, spoken by themselves, are nouns, for neither is the verb ‘is’, or ‘is not’, an enunciation by itself. Nor would it be a sign of the being or non-being of a thing if you were to say it alone, for it is nothing.

13. Lastly, Aristotle says that “[Verbs] signify, however, in addition to something else, a certain composition, without which it is not possible to understand composites.”. What he seems to mean here is that while verbs do not assert whether a thing is or is not, they do lead us to look for another thing, namely, that which is being said (predicated) of the subject. According to the second operation of the intellect, they lead our minds to seek a predicate.

Conclusion

In this lesson, Aristotle explains for us what Verbs are, the second part of enunciative speech. After studying the commentary above, re-read the text of Aristotle until it is clearly understood and, if possible, memorized.

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