Dangerous Equivocations

Here’s one for The Guinness Book of World Records. A Baltimore man recently broke a longtime mental record when a forty-year-long thought he was having came to an end. When asked what he had been thinking of he said he couldn’t remember but that it would probably come back to him. He added that possibly it had something to do with his hat.

George Carlin, Napalm and Silly Putty (22)

One reason why Aristotle might have begun Categories with a list of simple relationships between things is to avoid fallacies of equivocation. The major problem is that Aristotle’s explanation suffers from dangerous equivocations. Though he claims to be discussing the relations between things Aristotle uses the relationship between things and words to demonstrate his categories. This has been giving me fits, but I think I have figured it out in a reasonably plausible way. Why does this matter? Because so much of the critical writing on photography and language seems to equate the two, ultimately impoverishing both. The basic fallacies I see are:

  • Things and words share equivalent modes of relationship.

  • Things and images share equivalent modes of relationship.

  • Words and images share equivalent modes of relationship.

  • Words and propositions share equivalent modes of relationship.

  • Propositions and texts share equivalent modes of relationship.


This logic is quite convenient. In order to sort out the problem of representation, then, what is required is a general theory of semiosis to reveal how all these levels of meaning creation work. Hence, most of the emphasis is focused on either the Saussurian model of the sign (signifier/signified) or the Peircian triad (icon/index/symbol) to explicate how we make meaning from images or words. But what if this isn’t the way we make meaning? These models require a great deal of slippage between their categories—with Saussure, there is always an aporia, and with Peirce, there is always an overlap in modes of signification. These do not present clear-cut categories at all, especially when applied at the complex level of texts.

How can language be formed that speaks to the discontinuities between these levels (word/image/proposition/text) of phenomena? The basic analogies seem faulty. This is the reason why I ended up in Aristotle, to see where meaningful categories might be found.

To begin with, there are relations between things. Elemental relations seems to be an appropriate term. In fact, Aristotle’s primary categories for relationships fit perfectly with modern chemistry:

Elements can be synonymous in the sense that they share certain qualities. For example, in photographic chemistry potassium bromide and sodium bromide are nearly interchangeable—the adjacency of sodium and potassium on the periodic table shows that they share some characteristics, though they are clearly not the same element. Homonymy exists in elements as well—isotopes share most of the same characteristics as the parent element, with only a difference in density. They share a common quality—their proton count. Paronymy could be extrapolated as a derivation from an element, in the form of a compound.

These categories work well because they assume a fixed point of departure, the “black hole” in the center of my diagram—the element. The element is not a relationship, but a fixed point of departure to define the categories of relation drawn from it. Modern theories of language (excepting Chomsky and universal grammar) do not propose anything equivalent to an “element” in order to form a schema. The presence of linguistic primitives has never been conclusively shown. Aristotle’s categories would be perfectly functional for language, if it were not impossible to fill that black hole in the center—an origin, or set of primitive origins, for our ability to form relationships between signs.

Primitives, if they existed, might be uncomplicated by intent. But this does not seem to be the case. Drawing a similar model of relationships for word-level signs (lexemes) must account for new levels of relationship. And, perhaps, it must slip and slide around the black hole in the center created by the absence of lexical primitives.



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