Aristotle - The Organon ANALYTICA POSTERIORA Book 2 Part 7

How then by definition shall we prove essential nature?

1. How then by definition shall we prove substance or essential nature? We cannot show it as a fresh fact necessarily following from the assumption of premisses admitted to be facts - the method of demonstration: we may not proceed as by induction to establish a universal on the evidence of groups of particulars which offer no exception, because induction proves not what the essential nature of a thing is but that it has or has not some attribute. Therefore, since presumably one cannot prove essential nature by an appeal to sense perception or by pointing with the finger, what other method remains?

2. To put it another way: how shall we by definition prove essential nature? He who knows what human - or any other - nature is, must know also that man exists; for no one knows the nature of what does not exist - one can know the meaning of the phrase or name 'goat-stag' but not what the essential nature of a goat-stag is. But further, if definition can prove what is the essential nature of a thing, can it also prove that it exists? And how will it prove them both by the same process, since definition exhibits one single thing and demonstration another single thing, and what human nature is and the fact that man exists are not the same thing? Then too we hold that it is by demonstration that the being of everything must be proved - unless indeed to be were its essence; and, since being is not a genus, it is not the essence of anything. Hence the being of anything as fact is matter for demonstration; and this is the actual procedure of the sciences, for the geometer assumes the meaning of the word triangle, but that it is possessed of some attribute he proves. What is it, then, that we shall prove in defining essential nature? Triangle? In that case a man will know by definition what a thing's nature is without knowing whether it exists. But that is impossible.

3. Moreover it is clear, if we consider the methods of defining actually in use, that definition does not prove that the thing defined exists: since even if there does actually exist something which is equidistant from a centre, yet why should the thing named in the definition exist? Why, in other words, should this be the formula defining circle? One might equally well call it the definition of mountain copper. For definitions do not carry a further guarantee that the thing defined can exist or that it is what they claim to define: one can always ask why.

4. Since, therefore, to define is to prove either a thing's essential nature or the meaning of its name, we may conclude that definition, if it in no sense proves essential nature, is a set of words signifying precisely what a name signifies. But that were a strange consequence; for (1) both what is not substance and what does not exist at all would be definable, since even non-existents can be signified by a name: (2) all sets of words or sentences would be definitions, since any kind of sentence could be given a name; so that we should all be talking in definitions, and even the Iliad would be a definition: (3) no demonstration can prove that any particular name means any particular thing: neither, therefore, do definitions, in addition to revealing the meaning of a name, also reveal that the name has this meaning. It appears then from these considerations that neither definition and syllogism nor their objects are identical, and further that definition neither demonstrates nor proves anything, and that knowledge of essential nature is not to be obtained either by definition or by demonstration.

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