Aristotle’s Doctrine of Signs and Principles of Mendeleev’s Periodic System

 Anna Makolkin

Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, Researcher, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

Address: 100 St. Joseph Street, Toronto, ON M5S 1J4, Canada.

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Abstract: The purpose of this paper[1] is twofold ― to gloss over Aristotle’s Doctrine of Signs, his pathway of cognition and demonstrate its relevance to Mendleev’s Periodic Table (just a single example of relevance to modern science). The role of Aristotle in the history of human culture, philosophy and future scientific discoveries has been largely underestimated by modernity. Our recourse to Mendeleev’s Periodic table reinforces the role of Aristotelism, Aristotle’s natural philosophy and his Doctrine of Signs upon scientific discoveries, revealing again universal applicability of his method of analysis. Aristotle’s Universals, universal signs pave the way to the understanding of the fundamentals of the scientific search and acquisition of knowledge.

Key words: Aristotle, Aristotelism, signs, natural, cultural, universal signs and three-sign, cognition, universals, universal signs, natural/cultural semiosphere, Mendeleev. 

Received at April 03, 2019.

How to cite: Makolkin, Anna (2019). Aristotle’s Doctrine of Signs and Principles of Mendeleev’s Periodic System. Researcher. European Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences. 2 (2), 75–85.


Copyright © 2019 Authors retain the copyright of this article. This article is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Despite Aristotle’s place in the history of European and world culture, his reputation as a polymath, a man of encyclopedic knowledge, his contribution to many areas of knowledge has been largely either bypassed or underestimated by modern scholarship. Paradoxically, the more removed we are from Aristotle’s time, the more we discover relevance of his legacy for the evolution of science and humanities. His fundamental cognitive pathways, overlooked by modernity, play an invaluable role in the understanding the modalities of cognition, and his doctrine of signs in particular. And yet, most leading modern semioticians of the 20th century, such as Thomas Sebeok, Umberto Eco, John Dewey, Marcel Danesi et al. tend to miss Aristotle’s Doctrine of signs, despite the fact that his entire could be read semiotically (Makolkin 2018, pp. 9–14).

Aristotle (384–322 BC) was not only, in the words of Christopher Watkins, “the first thinker to have systematically formalized the rules of logic”, but he was also the pioneer in the area of human cognition which Aristotle formulated with the help of his rarely elaborated upon Doctrine of Signs. In fact, Aristotle could be named the first serious accomplished semiotician after the pre-Socratics and before the proto-semioticians of modernity for whom he developed the definition, the classification of signs and outlined even the methods of their interpretation and discovery of meaning.

Definition of a Sign

In his little studied and seldom quoted even by Aristotle scholars Rhetoric to Alexander, Aristotle provides the clearest classic definition of a sign: “One thing is sign of another thing” (1984, II, p. 2287 [1430, 30]).

This definition is complemented by a relevant statement in his Prior Analytics: “A sign is meant to be a demonstrative proposition” (1984, I, p. 112 [70, 27]). Aristotle also writes that “a sign is meant to be taken in three different ways” ― a clear proto concept for the 19th-century mathematician and semiotician Charles Peirce and his famed triadic modality of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness, derived from the Aristotelian Three sign-paradigm. His sign Three becomes the governing sign in designing the universal pathway of cognition which, deriving from logic, would eventually spread into natural philosophy, biology, medicine, history, rhetoric, literary criticism, and politics. It contains the formula of cognitive operation which could be widely applied to all the spheres of knowledge because it, in Aristotle’s view, is the best testimony of the universals. It reveals, in Giovanni Mannetti’s words, the innate “human notion of consequentiality” (1993). The Triad or this recurrent sign used throughout the entire Corpus Aristotelicum, conveniently frames and organizes the overall cognitive process applied by humans in their entire process of cultural construction.

The Three-Sign

In his essay On the Heavens, Aristotle defines the role of the sign Three, stating that “three is the first number to which the term” all “is applied” (1984, I, p. 447 [268, 16]). It re-appears in his Metaphysics, as “the three elements”, as the “three substances” in his Nicomachean Ethics, as “three types of life” and “three powers” in his essay On Plants. In the same work, Aristotle discovers the causes and principles, stating that “there are three elements and four causes” (1984, II, p. 1691 [1070, 25]). He also proves in the same work that there are “three kinds of substances” (1984, II, p. 1690 [1070, 10]). Aristotle even extends his triadic principle to social life while discussing politics and ethics. He defines three types of life defined by “enjoyment, participation in politics and contemplative life” (1984, II, p. 1731 [1095, 20]). Aristotle claimed that “a plant has three powers, the first derived from the element of earth, the second from that of water, the third from that of fire” (1984, II, p. 1260 [822, 10]).

The Aristotelian triadic principle is based on the stable and recurrent biological triad ― Beginning, Middle and End. His triadic paradigm is also amply demonstrated in his pronouncements related to various fields of sciences and humanities ― biology, cosmology, human communication, rhetoric, governance, history, and also serves as a base for the general scientific reasoning and the classification of chemical elements designed by Dmitri Mendeleev.

The Semiotic Multitude

Aristotle has a message to modernity, regarding the production, classification and application of signs. He alludes to the semiotics multitude, expressing human cognitive activity in various spheres and on different levels. In his Prior Analytics, Aristotle introduces two types of signs ― extreme and single signs, which cryptically point out to the varying intensity of meaning. Aristotle also alluded to the emotive power of signs by adding that sign is not merely a cognitive category, but a signifier of the emotional state of a person. The emotive function of signs covers the affinity between all natural species ― between animals and humans who share the emotional expression and response to reality. Yet Aristotle’s “abundance of signs” sums up the existing complicated human semiosphere which is a complex multilayered universe, far reaching beyond the ordinary emotional reaction to reality and covering uniquely human cultural signs.

Natural and Cultural Signs

In Aristotle’s view, cultural signs embrace the entire complicated semiotic multitude produced by man, above and over all the existing natural signs, and constitute the unique prerequisite man ― his art, science, societal organization, music, drama, theatre, ethics, philosophy, something which only humans are capable of creating. Unlike the intellectuals of modernity, Aristotle focuses on Man, his Reason, his ability to think, to interpret the thoughts of others, as well as produce and interpret new signs, either inspired by one’s own imagination, or the reality around. And he stresses that this is not a simple reaction or act of proactive movement seen in animals, but rather the most complicated process, the result of human unique imagination, phantasia, which no other species possess, or the manifestation of NOUS. This argument is at the centre of Aristotle’s cognitive and semiotic interests. Man, his brain and its cognitive capacity and mechanism of thinking were at the root of Aristotle’s Doctrine and “Empire” of his Signs.

The purpose of his natural philosophy lies in asserting the privileged status of Man in Cosmos amidst the multitude of natural signs and other species, slowly moving towards the production of one’s own signs and construction of culture. Man, the sign-producer and decoder of signs, is the ultimate subject of his study. In his essay On Mechanics, Aristotle wrote that “Nature often operates contrary to human interest” (1984, II, p. 1299 [847, 15]). But man could improve his habitat, making it to serve to one’s goals. Aristotle’s mentor in this regard was the poet Antiphon whom he quotes in the very first lines of this essay, “Mastered by Nature, we overcome by act” (1984, II, p. 1299 [847, 15]).

According to Aristotle, Nature is the primary semiosphere, the universe of natural signs and the teacher of harmony which humans ultimately learn to reproduce and re-invent with their cultural signs, the secondary most complicated universe, next to and above the natural one. The governing paradigms of sign production and cognition, in Aristotle’s view, are: the uniqueness of Man, his higher status on the evolutionary scale and the ability to uncover the mysteries of Cosmos and the mechanism of the natural processes via Culture. Aristotle emphasizes the special route of human cognition, his passage from Nature to Culture, his ability to build the secondary semiosphere thanks to memory.

The Role of Human Memory

According to Aristotle, memory enables humans to make connections between the Past and Present, between the events, contacts of species, as well as plan actions for the Future. In this respect, Aristotle underscores the uniqueness of human brain, able to seek and establish new knowledge. He writes in his History of Animals the following to this respect: “Many animals have memory and are capable of instruction, but no other creature except Man can recall the past at will” (1984, I, p. 778 [488, 25]).

Human memory leads man on the pathway of organizing the activity of Reason or one’s NOUSING, using John Randall’s term, the process of knowing and forces one to focus on the most visible, recurrent and characteristic to all, i.e. the Universal Signs. His Metaphysics introduces this type of signs next to the description of the unique human ability to connect the disconnected ― facts, events, fictional and real, personal and collective, the memories of others from the past while detecting the universal features.

Universal Signs

Humans form universal judgements and produce universal signs while seeking particular knowledge, creating art and building science, the largest repository of the Universal. In Aristotle’s judgement, the Universal or the universal signs should be “cognized first”, since they are “the common nature of things, natural processes and laws of operation”. And every formula and every science is of Universals and not of particulars, “passionately argues Aristotle in Book XI of his famed classical Metaphysics” (1984, II, p. 1674 [1089, 25]).

According to Aristotle, the trajectory of human reasoning is guided by the principle of “finding some common nature” or discovering a universal sign, without naming it directly. “Inquiry is universal”, argues Aristotle, stressing its recurrent universal features. In Book XIII of the same Metaphysics, Aristotle outlines the universal pathway and law of cognition: “Without the universal it is not possible to get knowledge” (1984, II, p. 1717 [1086, 5]). He argues there convincingly enough:

If the principles are universal, either the substances composed of them are universal too, or non-substance will be prior to substance; for the universal is not a substance, and the element or principle is prior to the things of which it is the principal element (1984, II, p. 1717 [1087, 4]).

The key to the “WHY” phenomena lies in the discovery of the Universal Human Cognition pattern, and, ultimately, in the universal signs, forming the central part of Aristotle’s Doctrine of Signs and revolving around their detection and decoding. The postulates from Aristotle’s Metaphysics would become the cornerstone of the scientific reasoning over the next two millennia. We shall partly demonstrate this phenomenon through the display of a single universal in chemistry and its application in Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of Elements, formulated in 1869 and becoming since then one of the numerous recognized universal laws.If the principles are universal, either the substances composed of them are universal too, or non-substance will be prior to substance; for the universal is not a substance, and the element or principle is prior to the things of which it is the principal element (1984, II, p. 1717 [1087, 4]).

Mendeleev’s Table and the Aristotelian Doctrine of Signs

Dmitri Mendeleev (1834–1907) completely transformed chemistry as a discipline, having established his Periodic Table. Prior to his discovery, chemistry was a collection of disjointed compartments, divided into various disjointed compartments and based upon different unverifiable hypotheses (Makolkin 2018, p. 41). Essentially guided by the Aristotelian metaphysics and his theory of universals and universal signs, Mendeleev designed his classification of elements. “The atomic weight”, he used to repeat, “defines the nature of the element” (Ionidi 1958, p. 11). Mendeleev also noticed some recurrent regularity in the properties of elements and their chemical behavior which brought him to a conclusion that “something material presents the property of all compositions, making any given element” (1934, II, p. 8). Mendeleev became convinced that behind the changes in elements and their transition into new compositional bonds, there should be some stable and permanent “root property” or semiotically speaking, “a permanent recurrent sign” and its influential activity. Unlike his Western colleagues who were fixated purely on the energy of substances, refusing to study them in groups, Mendeleev chose to analyze the elements according to the recurrent features and on a larger scale. He believed that the main goal was to study the basic properties of elements in comparison and in succession, ending by the analysis of the different relational bonds. He relied on Aristotle without mentioning his name directly.

Mendeleev suspected that there was some basic correlation between the atomic weight and the chemical expression of the elements, their properties. He divided all observable elements into eight groups which enabled him to notice some recurrent properties and connections, characteristic for each group (Ionidi 1958, p. 7). Prior to his research, all chemical elements had been studied in isolation from each other. Mendeleev, taking the groups of elements and keeping in mind the Aristotelian concept of universals, assumed the atomic weight to be such a guiding universal. He saw that the role of the atomic weight which affected the chemical behavior of elements. In his analysis, the atomic weight would become the universal sign, recurrently signifying the chemical expression.


Pic. 1. Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of Elements (1869–1905)

On March 1st, 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev presented to the Russian Society of Chemists his historic paper, entitled “The Concordance of Properties and Atomic Weight” in which he reported his first results of the experiments and the facts of behavior of observed elements, organized in accordance with their atomic weights. His application of the Aristotelian doctrine of universals to the classification of elements brought Mendeleev to the discovery of the most significant phenomenon in chemistry ― the interdependence between the properties of elements and their atomic weight. Later, Mendeleev (1934, II) would describe it in his Fundamentals of Chemistry:

The properties of simple substances, as well as forms and properties of compositional elements display periodic dependence, or, in algebraic terms, form a functioning of the amount of the atomic weight (pp. 381–820).

His analytical point of departure was the evaluation of mass, leading him later to the analysis of chemical properties of elements which he summarized in the following manner:

According to the available physical and chemical information, the substances mass is precisely the property which defines all the rest of the matters dependent upon it. This is why it is prudent or more natural to look for the interdependence between the properties and the resemblances between elements and their atomic weight. This main idea alludes to the principle of distribution of all elements in accordance to their atomic weight (p. 25).

According to the available physical and chemical information, the substances mass is precisely the property which defines all the rest of the matters dependent upon it. This is why it is prudent or more natural to look for the interdependence between the properties and the resemblances between elements and their atomic weight. This main idea alludes to the principle of distribution of all elements in accordance to their atomic weight (p. 25).

The changeability of the atomic weight had been observed to follow the single precise and general pattern ― “the differences in atomic weight in the adjacent elements represent a consistent changeability, which, in turn, enable to follow its periodicity” (Mendeleev 1934, II, p. 145). The philosophical underpinning of Mendeleev’s approach could be traced back to Aristotle, to his concepts of Change, Basic Universal Signs that reoccur with regularity and without which there is no scientific discovery, no new knowledge (Makolkin 2018, p. 42).

Mendeleev not only revolutionized chemistry with his discovery of periodicity and interdependence between the atomic weights and properties of elements, but he also enriched the discipline from the philosophical perspective, having essentially rehabilitated the Aristotelian scientific methodology, rooted in the discovery of the Universal and the anticipated behavior of signs, as well as his cognitive theory. Mendeleev’s Table not only grouped the existing known elements, but also served for the production of the undiscovered elements with the increased atomic weight, such as future Scandium (45), Gallium (68), Germanium (70) and Graphium (180) (Kedrov 1973; Makolkin 2018). He described his findings: “In my view, the main quality of my proposed system unlike those by my predecessors, lies precisely in the juxtaposition of the dissimilar elements” (Makolkin 2018).

In his Table, different elements were placed either because of their similar properties, adjacent to each other, or according to their contrasting qualities: RECURRENT REGULARITY ― UNIVERSAL SIGN SIMILARITY ― ATOMIC WEIGHT.

Pic. 2. Modern Form of Mendeleev’s Periodic Table of Elements (2011)

In Aristotle’s view, sign indicates not only the Present and the Past, but also the Future. The recurrent sign in Mendeleev’s Table ― the atomic weight ― enabled the scientists to classify and describe the properties of new elements. So, several years after the Mendelev’s discovery, Lecoq de Baudron would discover Gallium, a new element, based on the Eka-Aluminum in Mendeleev’s Table. Observing the changes in the chemical properties of various elements, Mendeleev concluded that the changes could be either gradual or spasmodic in character which constituted a universal regularity in itself ― another universal sign (Makolkin 2018, pp. 43–44).

In 1889, addressing the VIII Congress of Russian Natural Scientists, Mendeleev (1934, II) stated: “there was an inner relational bond between the number and essence, between the measure and its essence” (p. 37). This detected relational bond and regulated chemical expression was the outcome of the observation and calculation of weight, established in accordance with the Aristotelian triadic formula of cognition. Winkler, the German scientist who had discovered Germanium, made a glowing report about Mendeleev’s Law which, in his view, “marked the widening field of chemical observation and was, indeed, a gigantic step in cognition” (Ionidi 1958, p. 40). It moved Russian chemistry ahead of the West, having influenced not only the knowledge about the structure of the matter, its inner zigzag or leap like processes, but also impacted all future discoveries in physics and chemistry.


The philosophical underpinning of Mendeleev’s discovery became possible because it followed the Aristotelian materialistic natural philosophy, his concepts about substance, change and universal mechanisms and patterns. It would affect not only chemistry but also the future studies of the nucleus, the atomic structure of isotopes, valence, the notions about the position of planetary atoms, and the overall exploration of atomic energy. The current atomic theory of the nucleus would be impossible without Mendeleev’s Law that has essentially proved “the interconnectedness of all atoms in the universe” (Iodini 1958, p. 47). Famous physicist Niels Bohr, referring to the model of the atomic structure, reiterated that Mendeleev’s Periodic Table was indeed “the guiding compass without which all the theories of atomic structure and energy would be impossible (Iodini 1958, p. 45). But this “guiding compass” would have been impossible without the Aristotelian universals, his sign and cognition theory. The analytical point of departure in Mendeleev’s research was strictly Aristotelian. It was Aristotle who had provided the cognitive pathway for modern science from the long forgotten and dismissed Antiquity.


[1] The paper was presented at the July 2018 Conference of the Society of Cognitive Semiotics at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.



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