Intellectual history for meanies who like to indulge in the genetic fallacy (MWLIGF)

Fascinating intellectual history fact of the day: yesterday, Stanford’s local Plato scholar revealed that the ancient Greek verb “to be” (“einai”) blurs together the predicative and the existential senses — that is, in ancient Greek, if one says “x is F” that suggests the claim “x is,” and vice versa. Apparently, this helps us understand of a lot of the metaphysics in Plato (forms, anyone?), and even more so in Aristotle.

The MWLIGF in me immediately started wondering: is this how Anselm went so wrong in the ontological argument? Because the medievals were so obsessed with Aristotle, they got confused about the difference between existence and predication?

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2 Responses to “Intellectual history for meanies who like to indulge in the genetic fallacy (MWLIGF)”

  1. Kenny Says:

    There is a book entitled The ‘To Be’ Verb in Ancient Greek by Charles Kahn (with whom I studied Plato at Penn). It is quite long, and at first one thinks that this is rather a waste of time and space. However, you then come across all sorts of issues like this one, and realize that rather a lot may hang on how that word is used in Greek! I haven’t read the book, but I understand that Kahn argues that there is no such thing as ‘being’ simpliciter for the Greeks, but only ‘being something‘. When they say just ‘to be’ it is an incomplete predicate. So really (according to my understanding of Kahn’s understanding of einai), it’s the other way around from what you are saying: you can’t really say ‘x is’ without saying ‘x is F’ for some F. When you say ‘x is’ you are saying ‘I don’t know what F applies to x, but surely some F does,’ or something like this.

    I find that this type of perspective at least helps make sense of Plato’s discussion of not-being in Sophist. I don’t know that it helps make sense of Anselm. For one thing, Aristotle had not yet been reintroduced to the West at the time of Anselm. For another, even Aquinas and friends mostly only had access to Aristotle via Latin translations of the Arabic translations they acquired over the course of the Crusades. They mostly couldn’t read Greek.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    My understanding was that it was both ways around (existence suggests predication and vice versa), but it’s entirely possible that I misunderstood. Your account was definitely in there.

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