Aristotle - The Organon TOPICA Book 6 Part 4

Intelligibility, priority, circularity

1. Whether, then, a man defines a thing correctly or incorrectly you should proceed to examine on these and similar lines. But whether he has mentioned and defined its essence or no, should be examined as follows: First of all, see if he has failed to make the definition through terms that are prior and more intelligible. For the reason why the definition is rendered is to make known the term stated, and we make things known by taking not any random terms, but such as are prior and more intelligible, as is done in demonstrations (for so it is with all teaching and learning); accordingly, it is clear that a man who does not define through terms of this kind has not defined at all. Otherwise, there will be more than one definition of the same thing: for clearly he who defines through terms that are prior and more intelligible has also framed a definition, and a better one, so that both would then be definitions of the same object. This sort of view, however, does not generally find acceptance: for of each real object the essence is single: if, then, there are to be a number of definitions of the same thing, the essence of the object will be the same as it is represented to be in each of the definitions, and these representations are not the same, inasmuch as the definitions are different. Clearly, then, any one who has not defined a thing through terms that are prior and more intelligible has not defined it at all.

2. The statement that a definition has not been made through more intelligible terms may be understood in two senses, either supposing that its terms are absolutely less intelligible, or supposing that they are less intelligible to us: for either sense is possible. Thus absolutely the prior is more intelligible than the posterior, a point, for instance, than a line, a line than a plane, and a plane than a solid; just as also a unit is more intelligible than a number; for it is the prius and starting-point of all number. Likewise, also, a letter is more intelligible than a syllable. Whereas to us it sometimes happens that the converse is the case: for the solid falls under perception most of all - more than a plane - and a plane more than a line, and a line more than a point; for most people learn things like the former earlier than the latter; for any ordinary intelligence can grasp them, whereas the others require an exact and exceptional understanding.

3. Absolutely, then, it is better to try to make what is posterior known through what is prior, inasmuch as such a way of procedure is more scientific. Of course, in dealing with persons who cannot recognize things through terms of that kind, it may perhaps be necessary to frame the expression through terms that are intelligible to them. Among definitions of this kind are those of a point, a line, and a plane, all of which explain the prior by the posterior; for they say that a point is the limit of a line, a line of a plane, a plane of a solid. One must, however, not fail to observe that those who define in this way cannot show the essential nature of the term they define, unless it so happens that the same thing is more intelligible both to us and also absolutely, since a correct definition must define a thing through its genus and its differentiae, and these belong to the order of things which are absolutely more intelligible than, and prior to, the species. For annul the genus and differentia, and the species too is annulled, so that these are prior to the species. They are also more intelligible; for if the species be known, the genus and differentia must of necessity be known as well (for any one who knows what a man is knows also what 'animal' and 'walking' are), whereas if the genus or the differentia be known it does not follow of necessity that the species is known as well: thus the species is less intelligible. Moreover, those who say that such definitions, viz. those which proceed from what is intelligible to this, that, or the other man, are really and truly definitions, will have to say that there are several definitions of one and the same thing. For, as it happens, different things are more intelligible to different people, not the same things to all; and so a different definition would have to be rendered to each several person, if the definition is to be constructed from what is more intelligible to particular individuals. Moreover, to the same people different things are more intelligible at different times; first of all the objects of sense; then, as they become more sharpwitted, the converse; so that those who hold that a definition ought to be rendered through what is more intelligible to particular individuals would not have to render the same definition at all times even to the same person. It is clear, then, that the right way to define is not through terms of that kind, but through what is absolutely more intelligible: for only in this way could the definition come always to be one and the same. Perhaps, also, what is absolutely intelligible is what is intelligible, not to all, but to those who are in a sound state of understanding, just as what is absolutely healthy is what is healthy to those in a sound state of body. All such points as this ought to be made very precise, and made use of in the course of discussion as occasion requires. The demolition of a definition will most surely win a general approval if the definer happens to have framed his expression neither from what is absolutely more intelligible nor yet from what is so to us.

4. One form, then, of the failure to work through more intelligible terms is the exhibition of the prior through the posterior, as we remarked before. Another form occurs if we find that the definition has been rendered of what is at rest and definite through what is indefinite and in motion: for what is still and definite is prior to what is indefinite and in motion.

5. Of the failure to use terms that are prior there are three forms:

6. (1) The first is when an opposite has been defined through its opposite, e.g.i. good through evil: for opposites are always simultaneous by nature. Some people think, also, that both are objects of the same science, so that the one is not even more intelligible than the other. One must, however, observe that it is perhaps not possible to define some things in any other way, e.g. the double without the half, and all the terms that are essentially relative: for in all such cases the essential being is the same as a certain relation to something, so that it is impossible to understand the one term without the other, and accordingly in the definition of the one the other too must be embraced. One ought to learn up all such points as these, and use them as occasion may seem to require.

7. (2) Another is - if he has used the term defined itself. This passes unobserved when the actual name of the object is not used, e.g. supposing any one had defined the sun as a star that appears 'by day'. For in bringing in 'day' he brings in the sun. To detect errors of this sort, exchange the word for its definition, e.g. the definition of 'day' as the 'passage of the sun over the earth'. Clearly, whoever has said 'the passage of the sun over the earth' has said 'the sun', so that in bringing in the 'day' he has brought in the sun.

8. (3) Again, see if he has defined one coordinate member of a division by another, e.g. 'an odd number' as 'that which is greater by one than an even number'. For the co-ordinate members of a division that are derived from the same genus are simultaneous by nature and 'odd' and 'even' are such terms: for both are differentiae of number.

9. Likewise also, see if he has defined a superior through a subordinate term, e.g. 'An "even number" is "a number divisible into halves"', or '"the good" is a "state of virtue"'. For 'half' is derived from 'two', and 'two' is an even number: virtue also is a kind of good, so that the latter terms are subordinate to the former. Moreover, in using the subordinate term one is bound to use the other as well: for whoever employs the term 'virtue' employs the term 'good', seeing that virtue is a certain kind of good: likewise, also, whoever employs the term 'half' employs the term 'even', for to be 'divided in half' means to be divided into two, and two is even.

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