The Philosopher, Volume 101 No. 1

Centenary Conference Special Edition 1913-2012

Revisiting Aristotle's Noun

by Thomas O. Scarborough 

What is a noun? This has been the subject of intense study and debate since the ancient Greeks. In a sense, the answer is simple. A noun, it is said, is a word that names a person, place, or thing - a king, for instance, or a town, or an amulet. But then, what should one do with nouns that signify events or ideas - a dance, for instance, or an ideology? The question becomes increasingly complex - and so it is said that perhaps rather, a noun is something that a sentence, in a special way, cannot do without - which is to say, one focuses on syntax or morphology. 

Yet there is a problem with these kinds of answer. Such approaches look at the noun's place in various classifications, its role in various structures - and though they may do this in great detail sometimes, still the essence of the noun would seem to remain largely opaque. One might say, metaphorically, that one has examined how the atom (the noun) binds to form molecules, yet one has not much peered inside the atom. 

Far from being a trivial consideration, the question as to what a noun is may hold within it many secrets of our common life today - to the extent of defining the social construction of modern life. The answer to the question 'What is a noun?' may include within it the key to understanding semantic change, the variability of grammars, the problem of meaning, the fact-value gap. In fact, considerably more. 

But let us begin at the beginning - with the noun. 

In modern times, one has sought to understand the noun in static terms - in atomic, mechanical, structural terms. The textbooks typically speak of components, categories, features, elements, constituents, properties, units. The various metaphors, too, which have been applied to the noun in itself, have tended to be static: a capsule, a package, a chess piece, a unit of currency - items which in themselves are invariant. Yet this modern conception of the noun is not the same as the ancient one. The ancient Greeks viewed the noun quite differently. They viewed it as something dynamic - organic, synthetic, relational. 

It was Socrates who first suggested that the noun may hide important secrets within. In Plato's Cratylus, a noun (example: anthropos, or 'human being') may represent a sentence While Socrates' train of thought seems whimsical, the seed is planted: It was once a sentence, and is now a noun. Here we find the tantalising suggestion that a noun may serve as a kind of wrapper for all that a sentence contains. Further, in Plato, a noun is seen to be something which 'distinguishes things according to their natures'. Yet what are their natures? Such fleeting suggestions foreshadow Aristotle, who, in his Metaphysics, further explores these notions. 

It was Socrates who first
suggested that the noun may hide
important secrets within.

Aristotle viewed the noun as a sentence. In his Metaphysics, he says that the noun is 'a sign of the definition', and that 'definition is one discursus or sentence'. In other words, a noun points to the sentence which defines it. While it is possible that Aristotle was merely stating the obvious - that a noun is defined by a sentence - it would seem likely that he was saying far more and that all the relations which exist within a discursus or sentence are wrapped up within a noun. In other words, a noun is not something to be chopped up and diced, as it is so often today. Rather, it is a bundle of relations. A noun may enfold spatial and temporal relations - causal, social, logical, conceptual relations. 

This becomes clearer as we trace the development of Aristotle's ideas further. In considering the definition of the word 'house', Aristotle sees that its composite substance - the features which are common to all houses - comprises stones, bricks, and rafters. While, by modern standards, Aristotle's thinking is deficient (his are not necessary and sufficient features of a house), this does not matter for our purposes here. 

Crucially, Aristotle does not merely think in terms of features. He thinks in terms of how such features are related. He is careful to specify repeatedly that such features are 'disposed in a certain way'. Of course - if stones, bricks, and rafters are merely piled in a heap, they do not constitute a house, although they might be constituents of a house. Thus Aristotle notes: 'The whole is not, as it were, a heap.' That is to say, the features of the word house need to exist in a certain relation to one another if they are truly to represent its features. For Aristotle, a noun cannot be defined without a statement of the relations in which its features are involved: 'If these be not manifest, neither will be manifest the definition of the thing'. 

For Aristotle, a noun cannot be defined
without a statement of the relations in
which its features are involved.

This explanation requires some expansion. Naturally, the definition of a noun itself contains nouns - not to speak of other parts of speech - with the result that a definition represents an infinite regress of relations. And so the interior life of a noun is infinitely more subtle than at first meets the eye. Not only this, but it might be pointed out that a house, to be a house, must be involved in more relations than its composite substance suggests. If it were buried inaccessibly under the ground, it would not be a house - or not, at least, in the sense that Aristotle conceived of a house, as a place where someone lives. Nor would it be a house if it were suspended upside-down, or reconstructed in outer space. That is, the features of a house involve external relations as well as internal ones. 

Let us pause to consider where this has brought us so far. Aristotle does not treat a noun as a thing which may be slotted into categories or cut into parts. He draws into relation its composite substance - or rather, he views a noun as the web of its relationships. One might say that a definition, in Aristotle's thinking, has to do not only with the features of a noun, but with the relations it suggests. The definition of a noun, rather than enumerating its necessary and sufficient features, draws together its priority relations - not to speak of non-priority relations, or connotative meanings determined by the particular context. As simple as this insight may seem, if it is correct we may now be in possession of solutions to some long-standing problems. 

Firstly, we may have in hand an explanation for semantic change, or meaning drift. Indeed, wholesale language change, which includes the form and meaning of words, as well as syntax and morphology. Straying for a moment beyond the bounds of the noun alone - to include the idea of a word in general - a standard definition of what we mean by a 'word' is 'the union of an invariant form with an invariant meaning'. In this view, there is an obvious problem in seeking to understand semantic change. Yet if one understands the word as a bundle of relations, a solution seems clear. Relations may grow stronger over time, or weaken. They may vary from one situation to the next. They may appear suddenly, or suddenly dissolve. Relations are not static, they are dynamic. So, too, in this view, words are dynamic, and live and move in time. 

If one understands the noun in terms of relations, one may, by and large, understand all of grammar in such terms. And so one may distinguish between words which trace spatial relations (nouns) from those which trace temporal relations (verbs). While a house represents a structure in space, to build it is a process in time. Further, some relations are oft repeated. So for instance, nouns are frequently associated with ownership (the genitive case,), while verbs frequently have to do with past events (the past tense). For the sake of convenience, such recurrent relations are compressed into tables (although not always consistently) called inflectional classes - among them declensions and conjugations. In different cultures, different relations predominate - therefore different cultures use different grammars. 

All language must needs be simplistic for
the reason that words are always limited
in the relations that they encompass.

Straying for a moment beyond the bounds of the word alone, there are wider, epistemological implications. If words are bundles of relations, either singly or in combination, then the best they can offer is to foreground small regions of relations in the midst of a vast expanse. Therefore words cannot ground meaning - for the reason that they cannot encompass all relations. Since it is possible only to trace finite arrangements of relations - let us call them microcosms of relations - language is always going to be incapable of solving the problem of meaning in its widest sense. Similarly, all language must needs be simplistic for the same reason that words are always limited in the relations that they encompass. 

The nature of words further suggests the basis for a reconciliation of the natural and the human sciences. Modernism elevated the natural sciences above the human, on the basis that the natural sciences were exact sciences, a dichotomy which is visible on nearly every university campus today. Yet if all sciences trace relations, since words trace relations, this may suggest a levelling of the academic disciplines. Both the natural and the human sciences trace relations - physics, medicine, geology, politics, poetry, theology all trace relations. In fact, since the natural sciences deliberately proceed by isolating individual mechanisms, in the process excluding wider relations, these may be suspected of being 'lower' sciences. 

Finally, if words trace relations, this may at last suggest a reconciliation of facts and values. Words may trace existing relations, or they may trace anticipated relations. Existing relations, then, are facts, while anticipated relations are values. Rephrasing this a little differently, one may judge that the relations one encounters in the world are as they should be, or one may judge that they are not. When one judges that they are as they should be, one speaks the language of fact :'The dog is in the garden'. When one judges that they are not as they should be, one speaks the language of value: 'The dog should be in the garden'. 

So what is in a noun? What lies behind its simple form? While Aristotle could not foresee how his answer to this deceptively simple question might apply to all the various issues of our own day, his views, if correctly interpreted here, do have profound implications for life in modern society. 


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