On reading ‘Categories’

I’ve attempted several times to read Aristotle’s Categories. I’ve always put it off, as one of those books I’d read at some point in my life but never end up getting to read. My old Aikido teacher used to say something about difficult techniques which went something like: if you don’t do it now you’ll never do it. Without pondering that too much, sensei seems largely right.

I’m halfway through categories, and I thought of a few remarks of what I did actually understand of it.

1. The success of Aristotle’s ‘Categories’ is exactly in how ontology light this text is. One can easily read this text in terms of the linguistic components of understanding reality; that is to say, the fundamental categories of quality, relation, etc. are semantic properties which are useful heuristics to understand the world.

It takes a larger (and more contraversial step) to be say, realists about substance, relation, or quality. It’s an even bigger step (one not merited by reading Aristotle, but by reading Kant) to say that these categories are mental conditions of reality. To say that they are there, is simply enough for Aristotle

2. There’s a lot which seems so uncontraversial it is basically a word game. A double and a half are terms which are inherently defined to have relations (presuming its double-of or half-of the same unit). This kind of simplicity is important for philosophical treatise so as our data on the world comprises at least initially of the obvious.

3. Aristotle’s Categories can be read as a work of philosophical analysis, to assess the world in the typology of the categories is to say that these categories are distinctions worth making. Largely, they are.

4. Aristotle is claimed to be the spark of inspiration for later theses about categorial understandings of reality. Stephan Korner (another person I need to read properly in my life at some point) speaks of the strength of the notion of conceptual scheme in Aristotle, Kant and Frege’s thinking. I’d perhaps even add Carnap to that list.

5. Perhaps the most mysterious claim to me is the concept of ‘substance’ (Gk. Ousia). Aristotle says that no substance can be predicated of itself, this kind of talk seems dangerously platonic. In a sense I can understand that a substance concept of a universal cannot be instanciated as a predicate form. So “Socrates (man)” follows the “Predicate (Substance) form”. It makes sense to say for instance that one walked into a green wall but not a ‘green’. Perhaps this one important category brings up the fundamental problem that comes up with all categories; namely, we are invariably led to the old problem of universals.

My initial reading of Aristotle was of an understanding of typified reality that wasn’t heavy on the ontology side of metaphysics, and more on the analysis aspect of metaphysics; but with substance, we perhaps see the true face of Aristotelian metaphysics. Being drawn into the problem of universals is not in and of itself a resort to unfashionable metaphysics (for one may take a stance of say nominalism or conceptualism), but to not raise the issue at all is to avoid it. I’d prefer the latter route, it’s parsimonious.


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