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Aristotle - The Organon TOPICA Book 7 Part 3

Reasoning to a thing's definition

1. This then is the way, and these the arguments, whereby the attempt to demolish a definition should always be made. If, on the other hand, we desire to establish one, the first thing to observe is that few if any who engage in discussion arrive at a definition by reasoning: they always assume something of the kind as their starting points - both in geometry and in arithmetic and the other studies of that kind. In the second place, to say accurately what a definition is, and how it should be given, belongs to another inquiry. At present it concerns us only so far as is required for our present purpose, and accordingly we need only make the bare statement that to reason to a thing's definition and essence is quite possible. For if a definition is an expression signifying the essence of the thing and the predicates contained therein ought also to be the only ones which are predicated of the thing in the category of essence; and genera and differentiae are so predicated in that category: it is obvious that if one were to get an admission that so and so are the only attributes predicated in that category, the expression containing so and so would of necessity be a definition; for it is impossible that anything else should be a definition, seeing that there is not anything else predicated of the thing in the category of essence.

2. That a definition may thus be reached by a process of reasoning is obvious. The means whereby it should be established have been more precisely defined elsewhere, but for the purposes of the inquiry now before us the same commonplace rules serve. For we have to examine into the contraries and other opposites of the thing, surveying the expressions used both as wholes and in detail: for if the opposite definition defines that opposite term, the definition given must of necessity be that of the term before us. Seeing, however, that contraries may be conjoined in more than one way, we have to select from those contraries the one whose contrary definition seems most obvious. The expressions, then, have to be examined each as a whole in the way we have said, and also in detail as follows. First of all, see that the genus rendered is correctly rendered; for if the contrary thing be found in the contrary genus to that stated in the definition, and the thing before you is not in that same genus, then it would clearly be in the contrary genus: for contraries must of necessity be either in the same genus or in contrary genera. The differentiae, too, that are predicated of contraries we expect to be contrary, e.g. those of white and black, for the one tends to pierce the vision, while the other tends to compress it. So that if contrary differentiae to those in the definition are predicated of the contrary term, then those rendered in the definition would be predicated of the term before us. Seeing, then, that both the genus and the differentiae have been rightly rendered, clearly the expression given must be the right definition. It might be replied that there is no necessity why contrary differentiae should be predicated of contraries, unless the contraries be found within the same genus: of things whose genera are themselves contraries it may very well be that the same differentia is used of both, e.g. of justice and injustice; for the one is a virtue and the other a vice of the soul: 'of the soul', therefore, is the differentia in both cases, seeing that the body as well has its virtue and vice. But this much at least is true, that the differentiae of contraries are either contrary or else the same. If, then, the contrary differentia to that given be predicated of the contrary term and not of the one in hand, clearly the differentia stated must be predicated of the latter. Speaking generally, seeing that the definition consists of genus and differentiae, if the definition of the contrary term be apparent, the definition of the term before you will be apparent also: for since its contrary is found either in the same genus or in the contrary genus, and likewise also the differentiae predicated of opposites are either contrary to, or the same as, each other, clearly of the term before you there will be predicated either the same genus as of its contrary, while, of its differentiae, either all are contrary to those of its contrary, or at least some of them are so while the rest remain the same; or, vice versa, the differentiae will be the same and the genera contrary; or both genera and differentiae will be contrary. And that is all; for that both should be the same is not possible; else contraries will have the same definition.

3. Moreover, look at it from the point of view of its inflexions and coordinates. For genera and definitions are bound to correspond in either case. Thus if forgetfulness be the loss of knowledge, to forget is to lose knowledge, and to have forgotten is to have lost knowledge. If, then, any one whatever of these is agreed to, the others must of necessity be agreed to as well. Likewise, also, if destruction is the decomposition of the thing's essence, then to be destroyed is to have its essence decomposed, and 'destructively' means 'in such a way as to decompose its essence'; if again 'destructive' means 'apt to decompose something's essence', then also 'destruction' means 'the decomposition of its essence'. Likewise also with the rest: an admission of any one of them whatever, and all the rest are admitted too.

4. Moreover, look at it from the point of view of things that stand in relations that are like each other. For if 'healthy' means 'productive of health', 'vigorous' too will mean 'productive of vigour', and 'useful' will mean 'productive of good.' For each of these things is related in like manner to its own peculiar end, so that if one of them is defined as 'productive of' that end, this will also be the definition of each of the rest as well.

5. Moreover, look at it from the point of and like degrees, in all the ways in which it is possible to establish a result by comparing two and two together. Thus if A defines a better than B defines and B is a definition of so too is A of a. Further, if A's claim to define a is like B's to define B, and B defines B, then A too defines a. This examination from the point of view of greater degrees is of no use when a single definition is compared with two things, or two definitions with one thing; for there cannot possibly be one definition of two things or two of the same thing.


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