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The Opening of On Interpretation: Toward a More Literal Reading

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Aristotle begins On Interpretation with an analysis of the existence of linguistic entities as both physical and meaningful. Two things have been lacking for a full appreciation of this analysis: a more literal translation of the passage and an ample understanding of the distinction between symbols and signs. In this article, therefore, I first offer a translation of this opening passage (16a1-9) that allows the import of Aristotle's thinking to strike the reader. Then I articulate the distinction between symbol and sign so crucial to understanding this passage. Aristotle employs this distinction, I argue, in order to show how the linguistic entities he defines later in On Interpretation (that is, name, verb, denial, affirmation, declaration, and articulation) are both conventional and natural, owing to their being both symbols and signs, respectively. Finally, I suggest why Aristotle's analysis of how linguistic entities exist as both physical and meaningful is fitting, since man himself, "the animal that has speech," lives at the boundary between nature and intelligence.

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