Aristotle - The Organon TOPICA Book 6 Part 14

Definitions as composites or contraries

1. Again, if he have described the whole compounded as the 'composition' of these things (e.g. 'a living creature' as a 'composition of soul and body'), first of all see whether he has omitted to state the kind of composition, as (e.g.) in a definition of 'flesh' or 'bone' as the 'composition of fire, earth, and air'. For it is not enough to say it is a composition, but you should also go on to define the kind of composition: for these things do not form flesh irrespective of the manner of their composition, but when compounded in one way they form flesh, when in another, bone. It appears, moreover, that neither of the aforesaid substances is the same as a 'composition' at all: for a composition always has a decomposition as its contrary, whereas neither of the aforesaid has any contrary. Moreover, if it is equally probable that every compound is a composition or else that none is, and every kind of living creature, though a compound, is never a composition, then no other compound could be a composition either.

2. Again, if in the nature of a thing two contraries are equally liable to occur, and the thing has been defined through the one, clearly it has not been defined; else there will be more than one definition of the same thing; for how is it any more a definition to define it through this one than through the other, seeing that both alike are naturally liable to occur in it? Such is the definition of the soul, if defined as a substance capable of receiving knowledge: for it has a like capacity for receiving ignorance.

3. Also, even when one cannot attack the definition as a whole for lack of acquaintance with the whole, one should attack some part of it, if one knows that part and sees it to be incorrectly rendered: for if the part be demolished, so too is the whole definition. Where, again, a definition is obscure, one should first of all correct and reshape it in order to make some part of it clear and get a handle for attack, and then proceed to examine it. For the answerer is bound either to accept the sense as taken by the questioner, or else himself to explain clearly whatever it is that his definition means. Moreover, just as in the assemblies the ordinary practice is to move an emendation of the existing law and, if the emendation is better, they repeal the existing law, so one ought to do in the case of definitions as well: one ought oneself to propose a second definition: for if it is seen to be better, and more indicative of the object defined, clearly the definition already laid down will have been demolished, on the principle that there cannot be more than one definition of the same thing.

4. In combating definitions it is always one of the chief elementary principles to take by oneself a happy shot at a definition of the object before one, or to adopt some correctly expressed definition. For one is bound, with the model (as it were) before one's eyes, to discern both any shortcoming in any features that the definition ought to have, and also any superfluous addition, so that one is better supplied with lines of attack.

5. As to definitions, then, let so much suffice.

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