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METAPHYSICS BOOK Z, CH. 1 (1028a31-35): Comparing translations - Part 5

      This is the next part of Metaphysics Z chapter 1. In this section Aristotle discusses how ousia is first in every way. The footnote of this translation is longer than the translation itself, and discusses the translation of λόγος. This word has been the subject of great debate, and is a notoriously difficult word to translate. I consider the contributions of Joseph Owens and Martin Heidegger to this discussion and make some observations about their thoughts. See the previous posts in my work on the Metaphysics at the following links: part 1, part 2 - a look at the translation of ousia, part 3, part 4.


(1028a31-35) πολλαχῶς μὲν οὖν λέγεται τὸ πρῶτον: ὅμως δὲ πάντως οὐσία πρῶτον, καὶ λόγῳ[1] καὶ γνώσει καὶ χρόνῳ. τῶν μὲν γὰρ ἄλλων κατηγορημάτων οὐθὲν χωριστόν, αὕτη δὲ μόνη.

My Translation – But, then ‘the first’ is said in many ways. But, nevertheless, the οὐσία is althogether first, to λόγῳ and to knowledge and to time. For of the other qualities that are attributed not one abides apart from this.

Ross – “Not there are several senses in which a thing is said to be first; yet substance is first in every sense – (1) in definition, (2) in order of knowledge, (3) in time. For (3) of the other categories none can exist independently, but only substance.”

Tredennick – “Now ‘primary’ has several meanings; but nevertheless Substance is primary in all senses, both in definition and in knowledge and in time. For none of the other categories can exist separately, but substance alone.”

Apostle – “Now the term ‘primary’ [or ‘first’, or ‘prior to all others’] is used in many senses, yet a substance is primary in every sense: in formula, in knowledge, and in time. For of the other categories no one is separable, but only substance.”

Tricot – « Nous savons qu’il y a plusieurs acceptions du terme premier. Toutefois, c’est la Substance qui est absolument première, à la fois logiquement, dans l’ordre de la connaissance et selon le temps. En effet, d’une part, aucune des autres catégories n’existe à l’état séparé, mais seulement la Substance. »



[1]λόγῳ is the dative of the Greek word λόγος. The appropriate translation for this word is often thought to be, indisputably, “word”. The fact of the matter is that this word can be translated in many different ways depending on the context and what is being expressed. Joseph Owens, in The Doctrine of Being, says that “In the earliest Greek writers, logos means only ‘word’ in the singular and ‘speech’ in the plural. Its various meanings in Aristotle are listed by Bonitz (Ind. Arist., 433a1-437b32) under the following heads: 1) Word, language, or speech. 2) Notion or thought. 3) The faculty of thinking or reasoning. 4) Mathematical proportion, relation. (Owens, The Doctrine of Being, 116fn35)” We could add to this “a conceived plan” (cf. J. L. Stocks, “On the Aristotelian Use of λόγος: A Reply,” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 1 (Jan., 1914), 11, 12.).

Later, discussing the proper translation of logos in Metaphysics Z, chapter 5, 1031a12, Owens notes that, “The Greek word λόγος in the general sense employed in the present discussion is difficult to translate. It is wider than ‘definition’. The word ‘account’ is sometimes used to render its meaning. This word is clumsy, but it has a range of meaning to cover the extent of the Greek term in the present context. The Oxford translation uses ‘formula.’ The term is attractive, in spite of some distracting modern connotations. It is related verbally to ‘form,’ to which logos is often the equivalent in Aristotelian usage…But ‘formula’ expresses the formal character of the logos much better than the word ‘account.’ So for practical purposes it will make the best translation whenever a contrast with ‘definition’ is implied. Where no contrast is meant, and logos as a matter of fact signifies definition, the interests of clarity suggest that the English term ‘definition’ be used.” The difficulty that presents itself to the translator is that they must understand Aristotle well enough, in each context, as well as the many possible meanings of the Greek word  in order to be able to λόγος, to be able to propose appropriate translations. Sometimes the context doesn’t help for determining the meaning of the term, and any number of possible words could be used, each giving a different meaning to the argument.

Owens was not the only great philosopher to discuss how to properly translate the Greek word λόγος. Martin Heidegger, who was well versed in Greek philosophy, also discusses the meaning of this word. In his Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger relates λόγος to discourse (Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 61 [44].), and then says, “But Aristotle is the first to give the clearer metaphysical interpretation of the logos in the sense of the propositional statement…This elucidation of the essence of the logos became the model and measure for the later development of logic and grammar. (Ibid., 61 [44-45].)” Interestingly enough we see one of the translators, Tricot, who in translating 1028a31-35, translates λόγῳ as “logiquement” (‘logically’ in English). Heidegger’s analysis of λόγος does not, however, stop with this observation. He continues his analysis of λόγος by claiming that λόγος is “the gathering (Ibid., 65 [47].)” and that it is the same as “Polemos (Ibid.)” Later he notes that “we just have to free ourselves from the opinion that logos and legein originally and authentically mean thinking, understanding and reason. As long as we hold to this opinion, and even interpret logos using the later conception of logos as logic as our criterion, our new disclosure of the inception of Greek philosophy will lead only to absurdities. (Ibid., 130-31 [94].)” He goes on to say that “Logos means the word, discourse, and legein means to discourse, to talk. Dia-logue is reciprocal discourse, mono-logue is solitary discourse. But logos does not originally mean discourse, saying. What the word means has no immediate relation to language. Lego, legein, Latin legere, is the same word as our lesen (to collect): gleaning, collecting wood, harvesting grapes, making a selection; ‘reading (lesen) a book’ is just a variant of ‘gathering’ in the authentic sense. This means laying one thing next to another, bringing them together as one – in short, gathering. (Ibid., 131 [95].)”

Heidegger continues by emphasising the relational aspect of gathering (Ibid., 131 [95].), which must be part of the meaning of λόγος, as gathering is a bringing together and a putting into relation. He says that, “we simply recall that the word logos retained its originary meaning, ‘the relation of one thing to another,’ long after it had come to mean discourse and assertion. (Ibid., 132 [95].)” His analysis of λόγος starts to get complicated after his consideration of Heraclitus’s use of this term. He claims that λόγος, in the context of Heraclitus, means “the originally gathering gatheredness that constantly holds sway in itself. (Ibid., 135 [98].)” As such, λόγος is “the gatheredness of beings themselves. (Ibid., 137 [99].)” Two more quotes from Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics will help us to better understand Heidegger’s views on λόγος, and how he relates it to Being. First of all he says “Logos is constant gathering, the gatheredness of beings that stands in itself, that is, Being…Phusis and logos are the same. Logos characterizes Being in a new and yet old respect: that which is in being, which stands straight and prominently in itself, is gathered in itself and from itself, and holds itself in such gathering. (Ibid., 138-39 [100].)” Secondly, “The essence of logos as gathering yields an essential consequence for the character of legein. Legein as gathering, determined in this way, is related to the originary gatheredness of Being, and Being means coming-into-unconcealment; this gathering therefore has the basic character of opening up, revealing. Legein is thus contrasted clearly and sharply with covering up and concealing…In accordance with this relation, legein means: to pro-duce the unconcealed as such, beings in their unconcealment. Thus logos has the character of deloun, of revealing, not only in Heraclitus but still in Plato. Aristotle characterizes the legein of logos as apophainesthai, bringing-to-self-showing (see Being and Time § 7 and §44). (Ibid., 181-82 [130]).”

What can we ‘gather’, from these two great philosophers, about the meaning of λόγος, and how it should be properly translated? First of all, we need to remember, with Owens, that in translating any term we need to pay attention to how it is used by the author that we are translating, and we also need to be aware of the many possible meanings of λόγος, - that is, how it is used by different authors in different circumstances. Secondly, we need to remember, with Heidegger, that the primary meaning behind the word λόγος is a bringing together (gathering), bringing into relations and presenc-ing (displaying) of beings in their Be-ing – in other words, a letting beings be-together as they are in their own particular Be-ing and in relation to the Be-ing of other be-ings. This means that even when we are translating λόγος and giving it the sense of dialogue, discourse, word, saying, or some other speech related meaning, there is a sense in which an authentic λόγος displays the Be-ing of beings in themselves or in relation to the Be-ing of other beings in such a way that they are not distorted or changed but presented as they are. It is a letting-beings-Be as they are. This is, in a sense, what it means to speak truly of that of which one speaks. In this sense, then λόγος can be translated by many different word, insomuch as the words used I translation bring forth the sense that the author in question is attempting to display.

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