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Category errors and ontological confusion

Richard Gunton

Category errors arise when things are referred to in ways that imply they belong to a category of things to which they do not. They were proposed by Gilbert Ryle in "The Concept of Mind" (1949). He was concerned about the juxtaposition of "mind" and "body" as two comparable entities. But the notion proved broadly applicable - and indeed is approached by other philosophers too.

What do category errors look like, and why worry about them? First consider a harmless metaphor. "This book shines new light on our question", if taken literally, would be absurd (unless it refers to a genuinely luminescent book) but unlikely to mislead anyone. Metaphors can liven up our language and also help create terminology: think of electromagnetic 'waves', biodiversity 'hotspots' or mental 'breakdowns'. It shouldn't be difficult to agree that light waves don't go up and down, biodiversity can't have a temperature, and minds are not machines - so we needn't see category errors here. Next, what about statements? If someone analysed this blog post, I hope they would allow my opening sentence, "Our series... has so far considered..." to pass as a harmless case. But sometimes category errors are revealing.

In reviewing a paper I once queried a phrase along the lines of, "The threat of extinctions may reduce biodiversity in this region," because threats are mental perceptions: clearly it was the extinctions that could reduce biodiversity, not the threats. The authors' meaning was clear enough - but this kind of subtle category error is commonplace (not least in some student work I read). In most cases it suggests slightly careless writing: linguistic short-cuts. Or is it confused thinking? Either way, I believe it's a carelessness that can breed problems. See what you think about the following:

My contention here is that our ways of phrasing ideas can reveal a lot about our worldview: especially what kinds of thing we consider able to affect each other.

So phrase (1) reminds us of the concerns of Ryle, on the grounds that minds are the locus of thought, whereas brains are body organs. (2) stands for the widespread general denigration among biologists of hypothesising "a gene for X" - partly because most traits aren't simply determined by genes (or even alleles). (3) is one that greatly interests me and needs working out elsewhere: suffice to say for now that no data have ever placed a conclusion in front of me, or spoken to me! (4) raises the question of what we mean by "society".

The intriguing question behind all this is, what categories ought we to distinguish? Why are some ontologies better than others? While Ryle was concerned with the mind/body dualism, his examples imply many other categories besides.

I'm particularly interested in the Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd's approach to causality. Dooyeweerd proposed that scientific causal accounts (those based on abstractions) should restrict themselves to a single aspect of created reality. His aspects are a set of fifteen categories for types of abstraction and of laws. More needs to be said about this - but let me end by pointing out that our series on "What is good scholarship?" is based on these aspects, from the analytical aspect onwards.

Richard Gunton, November 16, 2015.


Dooyeweerd's aspects can help us detect and resolve category errors. A category error occurs when we put together two things or properties or functions that are meaningful in different aspects. Strictly, there can be no rational link between different aspects, and to make a link something must be assumed. Take the examples Richard gave above:

Example Category Errors Analysed by Aspect
Statement Subject
or Thing
Predicate Notes
"The brain recognises a threat and responds accordingly." As a body organ, brain is a concept meaningful in the biotic aspect. Responding is a concept meaningful in the sensitive aspect. However, since most of our responding involves signals processed by neurones and neurones are nerve cells described from the point of view of the sensitive aspect, most people will know what is meant by the above.
"A gene for homosexuality" Genes are meaningful in the biotic aspect. Homosexuality is largely of the sensitive aspect (feeling, desire) though it is also a cultural phenomenon involving the social, pistic and other aspects.
"Our data reveal...". Data are meaningful in the analytical aspect. Revealing, in the sense of telling us something, is meaningful in the lingual aspect.
"Society expresses its disapproval". Society is a multi-aspectual Umwelt. Disapproval is a judgement, a concept that is meaningful in the juridical aspect. (An Umwelt cannot really be a subject, but it is a 'thing'.)

So a category error may be seen as a clash of meanings.

See also the earlier piece on Using Dooyeweerd's aspects as categories.


This page is part of a collection that discusses application of Herman Dooyeweerd's ideas, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments are welcome.

The piece on category errors is copyright (C) Richard Gunton, November 16, 2015. The original can be found on his discussion of What is good scholarship?, where you can find discussions of other issues related to Scholarship.

The remainder is Compiled by Andrew Basden, and he takes responsibility for it.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Created: 21 January 2016 and November 16, 2015 Last updated: 22 January 2016 small amendments from Richard G.