I just began reading Aristotle's Categories, and stumbled on the second sentence: a man and a picture are not animals; while a man is an animal, a picture is not, even a picture of a man. In one commentary, this was explained away as the picture in question being of a man, and made it seem as if a child were being asked by a teacher to point to an animal in the room (e.g. the teacher), and then to an animal in a picture book. However, if this is implied, I don't see how, as the commentator seems to be reading into the text an interpretation, rather than drawing it out from textual evidence. To my eye, the sentence itself just looks strange; I can't see deeper into it, as I don't see why Aristotle would choose such a strange example (why not just use the example of two people with the same name, or homonymous words like 'felt'?). When my little sister used to ask me what something meant, I would come up with some reasonable-sounding bullshit; I'd rather not be taken in the same way. What is a good exegetical paraphrase of this sentence?

  • "Thus, for example, 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." It seems pretty straightforward without any reading in. X "being an animal" would need to be defined differently to make it true of each of them.
    – Conifold
    Sep 14, 2020 at 21:20
  • It isn't straightforward to me, and I get twisted up in "a man and a picture are animals". I could read 'picture' as "picture of some animal", but even then it doesn't feel natural on my tongue to say, "The picture [of this duck] is an animal". I would feel compelled to say, "The picture [of this duck] is of an animal". Is it natural in Attic Greek to say a sentence like the former?
    – Nimrod
    Sep 14, 2020 at 22:02
  • He is making a philosophical point, what difference does it make what is or is not "natural" to say in some particular language?
    – Conifold
    Sep 15, 2020 at 0:34
  • In English, "The picture is an animal" is always false; "The picture is of an animal" is sometimes true. "The difference" is an implicitly ontological one. It seems important to my eye whether or not Aristotle believed that "The picture is an animal" can sometimes be said and not be absurd, and if so why.
    – Nimrod
    Sep 15, 2020 at 1:15
  • If it depends on linguistic minutiae there is nothing ontological about it, you are getting bogged down in inconsequential surface grammar. And people often say "this is a lion" pointing at a painting or a statue even in English. If you want to know what Aristotle believed ontologically look elsewhere, like Metaphysics.
    – Conifold
    Sep 15, 2020 at 1:31

1 Answer 1


Based on the text of the definition of ‘homonym’, and contrasting it to the definition of ‘synonym’, my sense is that the homonymous term in question is ‘animal’. The paraphrase would then be: “A man and a picture [of some animal] are both animals; but because the man is a species of the genus ‘living animal’, while the picture is a species of the genus ‘pictured animal’, they are merely homonymous, as the abbreviated term ‘animal’ refers to two different kinds of groups". I am not happy with this, as I have to read into the text the bracketed adjective. Also, I am coming at this post-Frege, with a Platonic distinction between sense and reference, and I suspect - if can't speak to - some anachronism in my interpretation.

  • Aristotle spoke at length about 'mimesus'. By mentioning the picture, in Categories, he may be referring to the picture being an 'imitation'. Don't know if that makes any sense.
    – user37981
    Sep 14, 2020 at 21:05
  • Thanks @CharlesMSaunders! Reading about Aristotle's views on mimesis would go a long way to solving, or at least making clear, some of the difficulties I encountered in my conversation above with @Conifold.
    – Nimrod
    Sep 16, 2020 at 20:19

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