Famous Passages is an ongoing series explaining notable or influential passages in ancient philosophy.
Aristotle’s Categories is often the first of his works that one should study. It lays the groundwork for all the philosophizing to follow, and it begins with analysis at its most basic: things and the words we attach to things.
Aristotle introduces three important terms in Categories 1a.
1. The first is what is often more helpfully translated equivocal, but literally in the Greek is homonymous. This term designates those things which share only a name in common, yet the definition or essence of each thing differs. The example which Aristotle uses for equivocal terms is a little confusing, since, as can be expected when dealing with ambiguities in language, the Greek does not translate nicely into English. In Greek the word zoon (ζῷον) can mean either “animal” (it usually means this and this word is where we get English zoo, zoology, etc) or it can also mean “painting.” Perhaps the meaning “painting” derived from the original meaning of “animal” because animals (including humans) were predominately the subject of paintings. His example then, is that both a man and the Mona Lisa are both zoon, where in the first instance an animal is intended and in the latter a painting.
2. The second is often termed, in consistency of use with the first term, univocal, though in Greek it is synonomous. When talking of two things which are univocal, in the Aristotelian sense, we are saying that they share the same name and same definition. This is not saying something very obvious and simplistic however, such as “table” is the same as “table.” What Aristotle is driving at here is that a man and an ox are both “animal.” What does this mean? That man and an ox are both “animal” in that a) they both can be called “animal” b) they both share the same definition. This latter part might seem surprising; after all, man and ox are two different types of animals. But what Aristotle intends here is that the definition of animal, viz. a living creature with metabolism, etc. equally and properly applies to both man and ox.
3. The last term is not of a same piece with the first two. In Greek the word used is paronymous, although the term derivative is much clearer. These are those things which can gain their name from something else yet can differ in their endings. Aristotle gives as his examples “grammarian” as deriving from “grammar” and “bravery” deriving from “brave.” But this is no mere linguistic point nor Aristotle wishing to point out the dependence of some words on others. As J.A. Ackrill brings up in his translation, we should be aware that grammar and grammarian both deal with the domain or genus of grammar, but we express this linguistically by saying grammar and grammarian, while understanding that a grammarian is one who deals in grammar. As he puts it, “If we wish to ascribe generosity to Callias we do not say that he is generosity, but that he is generous” (Ackrill, Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione, 1963, p. 72).