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The man without properties


Contemporary philosophical logic rests on a distinction between things and properties. Properties are thought to differ from things in that their proper expression is incomplete or unsaturated. In this paper, I will argue that Aristotle did not distinguish between things and properties in this way. I will show, first, that Aristotle’s essences are not properties, and that certain passages in Aristotle make sense only if we do not take accidents to be properties either. The notion of a property is thus not fundamental in Aristotle’s theory of predication. Aristotle’s predicate terms do not stand for properties but for non-substantial things. Second, I will explain and explore the distinction between substances and non-substantial things. This will yield a viable alternative to our contemporary, Fregean account of predication.

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  1. 1.

    “Property” is sometimes more specifically used to translate Aristotle’s idion (proprium); I will not use it in this narrow sense.

  2. 2.

    Let me concede, however, that relational predicates are problematic for Aristotle (Geach 1972, p. 52). Some authors treat relational features as incomplete accidents (e.g. Woodger 1952, p. 6; Sommers 1982, p. 182). As such, relations will differ from things in exactly the way in which functions differ from their arguments. In my view, this means that Aristotle’s accidents should not be thought of as one-place relations. Relational predicates should be treated as Frege proposes, (other) accidents should not.

  3. 3.

    Cf. e.g. Mann (2000, 52 fn., p. 41), Wedin (2000, pp. 26 and 77) and De Rijk (2002, vol. I 80).

  4. 4.

    Hamlyn argues that since we do not say that a man is paleness, paleness is not said of a man but merely in a man (1961, p. 113). Dancy adds to this that since we do say that a man is pale (leukos, i.e. someone pale), pale is said of a man and not in him (cf. 1975, p. 364).

  5. 5.

    As does Mann (2000, p. 16), and many others. Mann refers to Schwyzer (1988, II 175), who refers to Klouček (1860). Klouček does begin by identifying the courageous (to andreion) with courage, but then gradually takes this back by arguing that when Thucydides speaks of the angry (to orgizomenon), he means something in between anger (orgē) in abstracto and its particular instances, namely the angry as such: the personification of anger (1860, p. 7).

  6. 6.

    Cf. also Metaphysics \(\Delta \) 6, 1015b16-36; \(\Delta \) 29, 1024b30-31.

  7. 7.

    There is not even an explicit “it” in the Greek: to de mousikon anthrōpos, hoti tō anthrōpō sumbebēken (1017b30).

  8. 8.

    In 2a27-34, Aristotle says that in most cases, the name of that which is in a subject is not predicable of the subject (Dancy 1975, pp. 358–359; cf. Jones 1972, p. 119). This might seem to contradict the claim that what is in the pale subject is something pale. For it seems that the name “something pale” can always be predicated of pale things. However, what Aristotle says remains true because accidents such as the pale are usually referred to in neuter form, whereas their bearer will often be feminine or masculine. For instance, there is a clear difference between to andreion and ho andreios: the first refers to an accident, the courageous in a man, the second refers to a courageous man.

  9. 9.

    Cf. Code (2010a), 86 fn. 22. Other passages point towards the same conclusion. In Topics V 4, 133b17-21, Aristotle says that the accidents of a thing are also accidents of its accidents. In Physics I 5, 188a31-b3, he suggests that the pale cannot come to be out of the educated, unless the educated is an accident of the not-pale; here, “the educated” must refer to something that is educated and happens to not be pale. In Physics V 2, 226a20-22, Aristotle says that when someone who comes to be healthy also learns, coming to be healthy may be said to learn (accidentally). This makes sense only when “coming to be healthy” refers to that which comes to be healthy.

  10. 10.

    In Greek, the “is” may be omitted under certain circumstances, leaving only a sequence of noun phrases (Smyth §944). Such nominal sentences are more prominent in Arabic (e.g. suqrāṭ šāḥib= “Socrates [is] pale”). As Weiss notes, one of the two nouns in a nominal sentence establishes a reference to an object, the other describes it (Weiss 1985, p. 621).

  11. 11.

    Sophistical Refutations 22, 179a8-10; Metaphysics Z 13, 1039a1-2. An exception is the case where substance is predicated of matter (e.g. Metaphysics Z 3, 1029a23-24). Here, the predicable is tode ti, but the subject is not (cf. e.g. Driscoll 1981, pp. 154–156). Nominal predication as described above does not cover this case.

  12. 12.

    Ancient Greek grammarians do not distinguish between adjectives and substantives, but rather between different uses of substantives (Steinthal 1891, pp. 251–256; Kahn 1973, pp. 102–104).

  13. 13.

    At least, he wants to keep abstract terms such as “paleness” and “education” around. They make for more convenient ways of expressing certain things; cf. footnote 30 below.

  14. 14.

    Aristotle does not take the converse to be true. As Dancy notes, Aristotle has no use for a word like “human-ness” (1975, p. 369); so it seems that one cannot replace “Socrates is human” with “Socrates has human-ness.”

  15. 15.

    More precisely: the educated Coriscus is only accidentally a “this.”

  16. 16.

    Cf. Topics V 4, 133b17-21: What belongs to a substance will also belong to the substance taken together with an accident.

  17. 17.

    Cf. also Pelletier (1979, p. 290), Peterson (1985), Lewis (1991, pp. 136–138) and Cohen (2008, p. 5).

  18. 18.

    Personal communication.

  19. 19.

    Therefore, one may read all basic predications as existence claims. Cf. Anscombe and Geach (1961, p. 23), Matthen (1983, p. 126), Bäck (2000) and De Rijk (2002 vol. I, ch. II).

  20. 20.

    The difference is that whereas Cohen’s simple kooky objects are always accidents and always simple, Spellman’s specimens of kinds may also be essences (specimens of natural kinds) and are not necessarily simple.

  21. 21.

    Code suggests that simple kooky objects (e.g. a walker) are more fundamental than properties (walking): “... if such entities as the walker, or the sitter, or the healthy thing exist at all when a man walks, etc., they exist more so than walking and its ilk, ...” (2010b).

  22. 22.

    That Plato and the pale are the same cannot mean that they the same in number. I will say more about this in the following section (“Countability”).

  23. 23.

    Code suggests taking the educated and the pale as “spatio-temporal continuants which coincide in one another” (1976, p. 174). I hesitate to follow him in this respect, for spatio-temporal continuants seem to be “thises,” but accidents such as the educated and the pale are not “thises.” Here I only take up Code’s suggestion that to be an accident of a thing is to coincide with it.

  24. 24.

    Cf. also Posterior Analytics I 19, 81b25-29; De Anima II 6, 418a20; III 1, 425a24-27.

  25. 25.

    Cf. Spellman (1995, p. 30). Do accidents have essences? Z 6 sounds like they can (as does Topics I 9, 103b29-33). Malink claims that accidental properties have essences but their paronyms don’t; but he also thinks that the sumbebēkota in Z 6 are properties (2006, p. 103; 2010). If accidents are kooky objects, it follows from Z 6 that the paronyms of accidental properties do have essences.

  26. 26.

    According to Z 6, primary substances and accidents are the same as their essences. Why does this not imply that when a man is educated, being educated = the educated = the man = being a man? Because the educated and the man are only accidentally the same; one should not put an identity sign between them. So, more precisely, one should say that being a man and being educated are never non-accidentally the same; cf. 1031a25-28.

  27. 27.

    Geach claims that for any two-name theory of predication, “the copula has to be a copula of identity” (1972, p. 53). This is need not impress us. Either Aristotle’s account of predication is not in fact a “two-name” account, or there are ways of developing such an account without a copula of identity.

  28. 28.

    Cf. (Peterson 1985, pp. 255–256); and (Spellman 1995, p. 25). Anscombe also writes that when a man is white, “‘white’ indicates one particular and ‘man’ another” (1961, pp. 41–42); this is wrong to the extent that it implies that the man and the white are two numerically distinct entities.

  29. 29.

    Cf. also Posterior Analytics I 4, 73b6-7; Categories 5, 2b4-6; Metaphysics Z 1, 1028a33-34.

  30. 30.

    This is a sentence for which it is useful to keep the abstract term “education” around.

    It might be tempting, by the way, to say that just as kooky objects have no number in themselves, substances have no being on their own. Aristotle, however, would deny this, and for good reasons. Substance are countable precisely because they are instances of certain natural kinds. There is more work to be done in this respect.

  31. 31.

    Cf. (Matthews 1992, p. 12), (Dancy 1975, p. 368).


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Hennig, B. The man without properties. Synthese 194, 1989–2006 (2017).

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  • Predication
  • Accidents
  • Kooky objects
  • Aristotle