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Empty Negations and Existential Import in Aristotle

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From the journal Apeiron


Aristotle draws what are, by our lights, two unusual relationships between predication and existence. First, true universal affirmations carry existential import. If ‘All humans are mortal’ is true, for example, then at least one human exists. And secondly, although affirmations with empty terms in subject position are all false, empty negations are all true: if ‘Socrates’ lacks a referent, then both ‘Socrates is well’ and ‘Socrates is ill’ are false but both ‘Socrates is not well’ and ‘Socrates is not ill’ are true. In this paper, I conjecture that for Aristotle predications have mereological truth conditions: for example, ‘Socrates is pale’ is true just in case Socrates is a part of the mereological sum of pale things. The existential import of universal affirmations and the semantic profile of empty negations follow from this mereological semantics.


Ancestral papers were delivered to the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division Meeting and the Annual Workshop in Ancient Philosophy, Washington University in St. Louis. Thanks to the participants, including Rachel Barney, Sean Coughlin, Matt Evans, Jessica Gelber, Devin Henry, and especially my commentators, Tim Clarke and Robin Smith. Thanks also to an anonymous referee for this journal for helpful suggestions. I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Standard Research Grant # 410-2008-0431.


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Published Online: 2018-3-30
Published in Print: 2018-3-26

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter Inc., Boston/Berlin

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