On a Persistent Error in Translations of Aristotle`s Peri hermeneias

Seweryn Blandzi

The new Polish translation of Aristotle’s Peri hermeneias (De Interpretatione), performed by Tomasz Tiuryn was recently published (2018), following Kazimierz Leśniak’s translation (1975). The new publication inspired me to show a stereotypical error, already manifest in the previous translation as well as those into other European languages. Let us focus on the most significant reiterated misinterpretation. Characteristic of both translation is the non-predicative understanding of the noun „man”: „man is” instead of „is a man”. This shift can be found not only in translations into European languages as well as in Tiuryn’s formulation. As it turns out, translators such as H.P. Cooke (1938) and J.L. Ackrill (1963), whom Leśniak follows, and subsequently Tiuryn as well, fail to notice that the literal Greek constructions ‘estin anthropos – ouk estin anthropos’, ‘estin ouk anthropos – ouk estin ouk anthropos’, ‘esti pas anthropos – ouk esti pas anthropos’, ‘esti pas ouk anthropos – ouk esti pas ouk anthropos’ make such translations impossible. Why? Because all such examples are predicative phrases (rhemata) and cannot be transformed into subject-predicate statements, and tend (how absurd!) to classify them as existential statements. I believe that the proper (understanding) translation of fragment X 14-18 should read: „Thus ‘is a man – is not a man’ and again: ‘is every (sc. man) a man – not every (man) is a man’ […]. „When we treat addi­tionally ‘esti’ in predicating (prostkategorethei), the opposites would be predicated twofold. I predicate, e.g. (lego hoion), ‘[he] is a just man’, I mention (phemi) ‘esti’ as a third term, because it is a merger – synkeisthai [NB this predication translators fail to see] this name or expression [that is, it binds the name or expression] in the statement”. The above are predica­tive phrases with an implied specific (individual) subject. For example, the truth that „John is a just man” is contained in it as subject-substance. Esti in the apophantic, i.e. revealing, function reveals the truth that it is an articulation of this content concerning the subject. In this sense esti, is the third term, and not that it is in the third place, because, literally, is in the first place, since such a word order, as at the beginning, allows us to presume a specific subject X, which precedes esti. Such a word order with esti at the beginning, without the implied subject, even enables one to translate „man is just”, which in Greek has a different construction. The concrete order of the elements is as follows: (1) someone (John), (2) is (3) a just man. The entire expression, that is „is a just man” is rhema with a predicate, but not „man (ostensible subject!) is just”. In this perspective, we should see another passage when Aristotle goes on to present general statements with the general subject (X, 19b 32-35): homoios de echei kan katholou tou onomatos e he kataphasis, hoion pas estin anthropos dikaios – ou pas estin anthropos dikaios […]. Tiuryn’s translation: „This is also the case when a statement is made generally about a given name, for example: „Every man is just” – „not every man is just”. It should be: „We deal with an analogous situation when a claim [is made] using a general name (or when the [entire] claim has a general form of [sc. predicative-nominal] phrase), e.g. „Every (sc. man) is a just man – not everyone (a man) is a just man”. In this case, the sense is the same, but the one proposed is more precise. When we translate: „Every man is just”, the Greek word order would have to be: pas anthropos dikaios estin. Why does Aristotle express his idea in the following word order: pas estin anthropos dikaios, but not: pas anthropos dikaios estin, which translators ignore? What we have here is a different con­struction, in which the stress falls on anthropos (general subject) and not on dikaios, as in the example of an individual subject, e.g. ‘John’. This is how Tiuryn explains an earlier passage in Peri hermeneias III 16b 19-25: „When a verb is uttered alone, it is actually a name and means something […]”. This first part of the first sentence, in the new translation, turns out to be a misinterpretation: „When a verb is spoken alone, it is in fact a name and means something” (in the original: auta men oun kath’auta legomena ta rhemata onomata esti kai semainei ti). What arises now is the question whether auta kath’auta/hapla refer to the status of things (ta tode ti) or do they only refer to language terms (have a semantic character)? If we choose the first suggestion, the correct translation would be: „Predicates predicating things per se are names, i.e. (kai explicativum) they indicate something/object”, and in this sense they designate. In Greek, unlike, for example, the positional structures inherent in languages such as English, the predicate comes to the fore. In categorical sentences about the scheme ‘A is B’ we are inclined to consider A as the subject, B as the predicate, while in Greek the opposite is true: such a sentence expresses the idea that the property A belongs to the object B. Aristotle uses two equivalent predicative formulas: 1. ‘A is predicated on B’ (to A kata tou B legetai/kategoreitai); 2. ‘A belongs to B’ (to A hyparchei toi B). These are notations of predicative-subject sentences, i.e. predicative sentences, which in the later tradition are called categorical sentences and written in the formula ‘B is A’, which, however, Aristotle did not use, because in his logic he put the predicate first and the subject second.

DOI: 10.37240/AHFiMS.2022.66.67.3


Keywords: Aristotle · Peri hermeneias · On Interpretation · logos apophantikos

Seweryn Blandzi – editor-in-chief of the  “Archive”. Head of a Research Group for Ancient Philosophy and History of Ontology at IFiS PAN. Chairman of the Polish Society of Systematical  Philosophy, editor of the book series: “Hermeneutics of the problems of philosophy” and “Studies in Systematical Philosophy”. Research interests: history of philosophy (mainly ancient philosophy), history of metaphysics and its transformation into ontology, German philosophy and hermeneutics. He published (inter alia): Platonic Search for Ontology of Ideas. Platonic Project of First Philosophy (Warsaw 2002) (Warsaw 1992), Between Parmenides' aletejology, and Filon's ontotheology (Warsaw 2013).

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