Seminar Series in Analytic Philosophy 2021-22, Session 21

Modals and Copulas in Aristotle
Simona Aimar (UCL)

25 March 2022, 16:00 (Lisbon Time – GMT) | Sala Mattos Romão (Departamento de Filosofia)


Abstract: The following sentences

(1) The Queen is necessarily British.

(2) The Queen is possibly Italian.

are modal claims. They contain modals, words that make a sentence express modalities like possibilities and necessities. Claim (1) contains the modal adverb ‘necessarily’ – a necessity modal. Claim (2) contains the modal ‘possibly’ – a possibility modal. This talk asks: How does Aristotle account for modals?
So far, scholars assume that my question is a non-starter. In their view, Aristotle does not account for modals: no such account is present within his reconstruction of modal logic (in the Prior Analytics), or in his account of language (in De Interpretatione). Even the claim that Aristotle has a systematic semantics for natural language is regarded as suspicious.
My talk debunks the suspicion that Aristotle was no semanticist. I reconstruct his theory of modals and show that it stems from a systematic account of language. Just like many contemporary linguists, Aristotle assumes that language is compositional and assertive claims have truth-conditions. Unlike contemporary authors, however, he analyses predications of the form ‘a is F’ as have a tripartite structure: a copula (‘is’) takes scope over two terms (‘a’ and ‘F’). Given this picture, he argues that modals are copula-modifiers, where his modifiers can be modelled as expressing a function that takes an item of a given linguistic type and issues a different item of the same linguistic type. Specifically, modals take a (non-modal) copula as an input and yield a modal copula as their output. I reconstruct his argument for the claim that modals are non-copula modifiers and how it relies on semantic intuitions about negations (a technique also used in contemporary linguistics). Finally, I show how Aristotle’s account guarantees the insight that modals and quantifiers work in a parallel way and accounts for differences in scope. I conclude by raising the question of why (for all we know) Aristotle did not think about higher-order modal claims. Is there room for these in his semantics at all?.


The room has a limited number of seats. Pre-registration is required at <> until a day before the event. Note that this is an in-person event and everyone should wear a mask.