I'm just looking at Aristole and homonymy. In Eudemian Ethics he gives the example of

medical man, medical instrument and medical problem

as exhibting homonymy. Anthony Kenny in A New History of Philosophy says that this is the classic example of homonymy.

So the assertion is that in each phrase 'medical 'is not the same. But I am confused. My understanding was that the adjective 'medical' is the same in each case. The meaning being 'an object (noun) that relates to medical practice'.

How is it that Aristole says that medical is a different word (or has a different meaning) in each case? Can anyone clear up my confusion please.

  • 1
    My understanding of Aristotle's definition of homonymy (I believe from the first few pages of De Interpretatione) is this: two terms A and B are homonymous with respect to a name F iff A and B share that name F, but nevertheless have different definitions. The F, in your case, is 'medical', it's the name all three share. But obviously a medical man is defined as a thing of an essentially different kind than say a medical instrument. All three terms are different kinds of things, so their definitions differ, and yet they share this name 'medical'. That means they're homonymous. – Hunan Rostomyan May 10 '14 at 15:18
  • @Hunan Rostomyan To me the word "medical" means the same in medical man or medical instrument or medical problem. That's the OP's question. You only seem to be restating the problem. I cannot discern a difference between medical man and medical instrument. In both cases the modifier "medical" tells us which men and which instruments are of interest. – user4894 May 10 '14 at 19:22

In De Interpretatione 1a1, Aristotle defines and describes homonymy in the following way:

When things have only a name in common and the definition of being which corresponds to the name is different, they are called homonymous. [E.g.,] both a man and a picture are animals. These have only a name in common and the definition of being which corresponds to the name is different; for if one is to say what being an animal is for each of them, one will give two distinct definitions.

Let's apply this to Kenny's example. One thing a doctor, a scalpel, and a cancer have in common is the name 'medical': a doctor is a medical person, a scalpel a medical instrument, and a cancer a medical problem. The question is whether the 'definition of being' which corresponds to 'medical' is the same for all three. To answer, let's ask: what does it mean for each of those things to be medical?:

  • A doctor is medical in the sense that she is a professional who practices medicine.
  • A scalpel is medical in the sense that it is ordinarily used during medical operations.
  • A cancer is medical in the sense that it is a condition that requires medical attention.

For those things, a different definition of what makes the thing medical is used, so they're said to be homonymous. Contrast that with an example Aristotle gives of synonymous things (1a6):

  • A man is an animal in the sense that [insert: your definition of what makes something an animal].
  • An ox is an animal in the sense that [insert: your definition of what makes something an animal].

For these things, the same definition of what makes the thing an animal is used, so they're said to be synonymous. These definitions have certain arbitrariness to them, but the bigger problem here is that:

  1. Aristotle assumes that there is such a definition of being;
  2. Aristotle assumes that that definition of being is unique.

I have tried to guess how Aristotle might have justified the claim that medical man, medical instrument, and medical problem are homonymous. But the explanation I've given rests on Aristotle's assumption that "the definition of being" denotes a unique object, an assumption that you and I might not share. For example, we might, as the OP has, propose a definition of 'medical' in such a broad way that it can act as a definition of being medical for all three things; and so on. There are lots of other avenues open.


Ackrill, J.L. (1963) Aristotle's Categories and De Interpretatione, Clarendon, Oxford.

  • Brilliant. Thank you. So Aristotle has a different conception of homonym than a modern sense might. I think I can see that. Thank you – Crab Bucket May 11 '14 at 7:01
  • No problem. And yes: it's a much more general relation between objects not necessarily of a linguistic kind. In the modern sense, as you know, the relation holds specifically between linguistic objects. The same is true of his definition of synonymy: a man and an ox are synonymous in his sense, but it doesn't even make sense to ask whether a man and an ox are synonymous in our modern sense since a man and an ox are not linguistic objects. – Hunan Rostomyan May 11 '14 at 7:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.