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Aristotle's 'So-Called Elements'

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Aristotle's use of the phrase τα καλουμενα στοιχεια is usually taken as evidence that he does not really think that the things to which this phrase refers, namely, fire, air, water, and earth, are genuine elements. In this paper I question the linguistic and textual grounds for taking the phrase τα καλουμενα στοιχεια in this way. I offer a detailed examination of the significance of the phrase, and in particular I compare Aristotle's general use of the Greek participle καλουμενοζiot (-η, -ον) in other contexts. I conclude that his use of the phrase τα καλουμενα στοιχεια does not carry ironical or sceptical connotations, and that it ought to be understood as a neutral report of a contemporary opinion that the elements of bodies are fire, air, water, and earth. I leave aside the question as to whether or not Aristotle himself endorses this opinion.

Affiliations: 1: University College, Oxford OX1 4BH, United Kingdom;, Email:


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