I know that there is big debate behind the organizational principle behind Aristotle's ten categories. But, if we assume that his categories actually reflect major linguistic characteristics, how would a modern development of categories look like?

I'm curious how different is today's understanding of language compared to his and how much if any, would his categories be limited due to his limited understanding of language or Greek language.

  • 2
    Try with Categorial grammar and Typelogical Grammar. May 11, 2018 at 17:36
  • He wouldn't. The idea was that "universal features" of language reflect the most fundamental traits of being. Well, linguists are skeptical that "universal features" exist at all even in Chomsky's, species specific, form, and the idea that philosophy of language is the "first philosophy" died along with the linguistic turn. Kant and Peirce were last to believe in a "categorical architectonic".
    – Conifold
    May 11, 2018 at 21:49
  • It's hard to know what exacty Aristotle would say about categories today. People can change their views throughout life and this is the reason why it is unanswerable.
    – rus9384
    May 11, 2018 at 23:20
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA, how limiting is not knowing precisely the rationale behind Aristotle's categories to understand the rest of his work? I mean, if it is key of his whole philosophical system and we do not understand it clearly, can we say that we can understand Aristotle's works? May 13, 2018 at 17:39
  • Categories for A are a way to analyze language (they are "syntactical" objects) and its relation with reality (they have an "ontological" aspect). There are lots of intepretative studies on them: but you can understand A's works with a limited amount of detailed knowledge about categories : more limited for Logic and Physics; less limited for Metaphysics. May 13, 2018 at 18:00

2 Answers 2


It is a good question even if it seems to be inviting speculations rather than historical references. The obvious answer is that we cannot tell how Aristotle would proceed but there is a good exemple of what could be the central issue as it generated the s.c. linguitics wars. (and further a book with that title by Randy A. Harris, Oxf. 1995).

In 1958 Emile Benveniste published Categories de pensee et categories de langue (Jstor), a remarkable analysis how Aristotle took the grammar of his native language to be of metaphysical significance. The mistake was not irreparable as people already in the middle ages (e.g. R.Bacon) understood that it was just an instance of a more general universal grammar. The idea has been reworked in early modern times and it became rather popular with Chomsky's work, who was the commander in chief of one of the warring parties.

The other side was promoting generative semantics but at that time there was already a modern reworking of Aristotle by Joseph Greenberg in his Language Universals (1966). A less known contribution was made Polish linguists and Anna Wierzbicka, who emigrated to Australia, achieved some notoriety with her work on semantic primes or primitives. As the name suggest such entities cannot be defined in a non-circular way in language - but they are understood as they embody human experience. (The best known example seems to be "time" all attempts at whose definition turn out to be circular.)

So what would be Aristotle's view depends essentially on what would be the conception that distinguishes syntax from semantics and the arguments with which it is implemented.


Aristotle's Peri Hermeneias (On Interpretation), part of his Organon or logical works, is what today would probably be classified as grammar, linguistics, or even semiotics.

He discusses what a "name" is:

A name (Ὄνομα), then, is a vocal sound significant by convention, without time, no part of which is significant separately

And what a "verb" is:

The verb (Ῥῆμα) is that which signifies with time; no part of it signifies separately, and it is a sign of something said of something else.

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