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I've been reading an old logic text (Deductive Logic. George Stock. 1888) and he describes something very like Aristotle's notion of a definition, but in his description, it is clearly a matter of intensions, of concepts alone. His notion of a definition is entirely analytical; you analyze the content of a concept, and come up with no new knowledge of the thing being defined, only a clearer understanding of your own judgment. This contrasts with my understanding of Aristotle's notion of definitions in which the point of a definition is to understand the form of a thing in order to reveal, new, non-analytical knowledge of the thing.

So I have two questions.

  1. Is my understanding of Aristotle wrong, or is this account of definition different from Aristotle's?

  2. I associate Aristotle's definitions with essentialism, which I understand as being an ontological position about things. Is my understanding of essentialism wrong? Is it really just a case (as the book I'm reading seems to imply) that an essential property is simply one that is analyzed from the concept of the thing? Is it purely a matter of intensions and not extensions?

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  • Your understanding sounds right to me. Aristotle says "a definition is an account that signifies what a thing is” (typically translated as "the essence of a thing") in Topica, for example. But revealing new knowledge is the point of searching for good definitions, not of analyzing definitions already in place. Stock appears to be influenced by Kant's formulations, but Aristotle's definitional scheme via genus and differentia is a clear precursor, and one can at most clarify by belaboring the Porphyrian tree. The new about a thing comes from finding its rightful place on that tree.
    – Conifold
    May 16, 2023 at 2:06
  • I intelligo mon ami. Aristotle is well-known for being the first in many areas in philosophy. It's only natural that he should have an opinion as described in the OP. It's intriguing, isn't it, that Alexander the Great's teach was working with what was passed down to his gen and this is precisely the point where George Stock comes into the picture ... Cogito ... ergo sum. May 16, 2023 at 3:34
  • Consider Aristotle’s Categories: A's discussion is at the same time ontological: a classification of beings and logico-semantical: predication. Thus, the "analysis" is aimed exactly at achieving the correct classification, i.e the essence. May 16, 2023 at 6:20
  • I have the impression that many, if not all, objects have more than one correct classification. So how is the correct classification determined?
    – Ludwig V
    May 28, 2023 at 21:18
  • @LudwigV, Stock distinguishes classification from definition. May 28, 2023 at 21:22

1 Answer 1

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  1. Aristotle's Essentialism and Definitions

    For Aristotle, a definition is supposed to capture the essence of the thing defined, and this essence is not merely a matter of intension, but also of extension. It's not just about the concept in our minds, but also about the reality of the thing in the world.

    Aristotle's essentialism is indeed an ontological position. It's the view that for any specific entity (such as an individual animal, a species, or a genus), there is a set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function. This is often tied to his hylomorphic theory: the view that physical objects are composed of both matter (hyle) and form (morphe).

    However while Aristotle's definitions aim to capture the essence of things, it doesn't mean that they always yield new, non-analytical knowledge. Sometimes, they might just help us understand better what we already know implicitly.

  2. Essentialism and Concepts

    Essentialism can be understood in various ways, and not all of them involve ontological commitments. For instance, one could adopt a conceptual form of essentialism, where the focus is not on the properties that a thing must have in reality, but on the properties that a concept must include to be the concept that it is. In this sense, an essential property would be one that is analyzable from the concept of the thing, as you put it.

    But this conceptual form of essentialism is different from the ontological form of essentialism that Aristotle endorsed. For Aristotle, the essence of a thing is not just about how we conceive of that thing, but about what that thing is in itself. So, it's not purely a matter of intensions, but also of extensions.

So while there might be some overlap between the notions of definition and essentialism in Aristotle and in the logic text you're reading, there are also important differences. Aristotle's definitions aim to capture the essence of things in an ontological sense, while the definitions in your text seem to aim at clarifying our concepts in a more purely intensional sense.

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