Category of being

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In ontology, the different kinds or ways of being are called categories of being; or simply categories. To investigate the categories of being is to determine the most fundamental and the broadest classes of entities. [1] A distinction between such categories, in making the categories or applying them, is called an ontological distinction.

Ontology study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations

Ontology is the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies concepts that directly relate to being, in particular becoming, existence, reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

Being broad concept encompassing objective and subjective features of reality and existence

In philosophy, being means the existence of a thing. Anything that exists is being. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies being. Being is a concept encompassing objective and subjective features of reality and existence. Anything that partakes in being is also called a "being", though often this usage is limited to entities that have subjectivity. The notion of "being" has, inevitably, been elusive and controversial in the history of philosophy, beginning in Western philosophy with attempts among the pre-Socratics to deploy it intelligibly. The first effort to recognize and define the concept came from Parmenides, who famously said of it that "what is-is". Common words such as "is", "are", and "am" refer directly or indirectly to being.

In at least one source, a class is a set in which an individual member can be recognized in one or both of two ways: a) it is included in an extensional definition of the whole set b) it matches an Intensional definition of one set member. By contrast, a "type" is an intensional definition; it is a description that is sufficiently generalized to fit every member of a set.


Early development

The process of abstraction required to discover the number and names of the categories has been undertaken by many philosophers since Aristotle and involves the careful inspection of each concept to ensure that there is no higher category or categories under which that concept could be subsumed. The scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries developed Aristotle's ideas, firstly, for example by Gilbert of Poitiers, dividing Aristotle's ten categories into two sets, primary and secondary, according to whether they inhere in the subject or not:

Aristotle Classical Greek philosopher

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical period in Ancient Greece. He was the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

Scholasticism Predominant method of critical thought in academic pedagogy of medieval European universities, circa 1100–1700

Scholasticism was a medieval school of philosophy that employed a critical method of philosophical analysis presupposed upon a Latin Christian theistic paradigm which dominated teaching in the medieval universities in Europe from about 1100 to 1700. It originated within the Christian monastic schools that were the basis of the earliest European universities. The rise of scholasticism was closely associated with the rise of these 12th and 13th century schools that flourished in Italy, France, Spain and England.

Gilbert de la Porrée, also known as Gilbert of Poitiers, Gilbertus Porretanus or Pictaviensis, was a scholastic logician and theologian.

Secondly, following Porphyry’s likening of the classificatory hierarchy to a tree, they concluded that the major classes could be subdivided to form subclasses, for example, Substance could be divided into Genus and Species, and Quality could be subdivided into Property and Accident, depending on whether the property was necessary or contingent. [3] An alternative line of development was taken by Plotinus in the second century who by a process of abstraction reduced Aristotle’s list of ten categories to five: Substance, Relation, Quantity, Motion and Quality. [4] Plotinus further suggested that the latter three categories of his list, namely Quantity, Motion and Quality correspond to three different kinds of relation and that these three categories could therefore be subsumed under the category of Relation. [5] This was to lead to the supposition that there were only two categories at the top of the hierarchical tree, namely Substance and Relation, and if relations only exist in the mind as many supposed, to the two highest categories, Mind and Matter, reflected most clearly in the dualism of René Descartes. [6]

Porphyry (philosopher) Neoplatonist philosopher

Porphyry of Tyre was a Neoplatonic philosopher who was born in Tyre, in the Roman Empire. He edited and published The Enneads, the only collection of the work of his teacher Plotinus. His commentary on Euclid's Elements was used as a source by Pappus of Alexandria.

Porphyrian tree

The Tree of Porphyry is a classic device for illustrating what is also called a "scale of being". It was suggested—if not first, then most famously in the European philosophical tradition—by the 3rd century CE Greek neoplatonist philosopher and logician Porphyry. It is also known as scala praedicamentalis.

Substance theory, or substance–attribute theory, is an ontological theory about objecthood positing that a substance is distinct from its properties. A thing-in-itself is a property-bearer that must be distinguished from the properties it bears.

Modern development

An alternative conclusion however began to be formulated in the eighteenth century by Immanuel Kant who realised that we can say nothing about Substance except through the relation of the subject to other things. [7] In the sentence "This is a house" the substantive subject "house" only gains meaning in relation to human use patterns or to other similar houses. The category of Substance disappears from Kant's tables, and under the heading of Relation, Kant lists inter alia the three relationship types of Disjunction, Causality and Inherence. [8] The three older concepts of Quantity, Motion and Quality, as Peirce discovered, could be subsumed under these three broader headings in that Quantity relates to the subject through the relation of Disjunction; Motion relates to the subject through the relation of Causality; and Quality relates to the subject through the relation of Inherence. [9] Sets of three continued to play an important part in the nineteenth century development of the categories, most notably in G.W.F. Hegel's extensive tabulation of categories, [10] and in C.S. Peirce's categories set out in his work on the logic of relations. One of Peirce's contributions was to call the three primary categories Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness [11] which both emphasises their general nature, and avoids the confusion of having the same name for both the category itself and for a concept within that category.

Immanuel Kant Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant was an influential Prussian German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, he argued that space, time, and causation are mere sensibilities; "things-in-themselves" exist, but their nature is unknowable. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience, with all human experience sharing certain structural features. He drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposition that worldly objects can be intuited a priori ('beforehand'), and that intuition is therefore independent from objective reality. Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant's views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially the fields of epistemology, ethics, political theory, and post-modern aesthetics.

Category (Kant) concept in Kantian philosophy; pure concept of the understanding (Verstand); a characteristic of the appearance of any object in general, before it has been experienced

In Kant's philosophy, a category is a pure concept of the understanding (Verstand). A Kantian category is a characteristic of the appearance of any object in general, before it has been experienced. Kant wrote that "They are concepts of an object in general…." Kant also wrote that, "…pure cоncepts [Categories] of the undеrstanding which apply to objects of intuition in general…." Such a category is not a classificatory division, as the word is commonly used. It is, instead, the condition of the possibility of objects in general, that is, objects as such, any and all objects, not specific objects in particular.

Charles Sanders Peirce American philosopher, logician, mathematician, and scientist who founded pragmatism

Charles Sanders Peirce was an American philosopher, logician, mathematician, and scientist who is sometimes known as "the father of pragmatism". He was educated as a chemist and employed as a scientist for thirty years. Today he is appreciated largely for his contributions to logic, mathematics, philosophy, scientific methodology, semiotics, and for his founding of pragmatism.

In a separate development, and building on the notion of primary and secondary categories introduced by the Scholastics, Kant introduced the idea that secondary or "derivative" categories could be derived from the primary categories through the combination of one primary category with another. [12] This would result in the formation of three secondary categories: the first, "Community" was an example that Kant gave of such a derivative category; the second, "Modality", introduced by Kant, was a term which Hegel, in developing Kant's dialectical method, showed could also be seen as a derivative category; [13] and the third, "Spirit" or "Will" were terms that Hegel [14] and Schopenhauer [15] were developing separately for use in their own systems. Karl Jaspers in the twentieth century, in his development of existential categories, brought the three together, allowing for differences in terminology, as Substantiality, Communication and Will. [16] This pattern of three primary and three secondary categories was used most notably in the nineteenth century by Peter Mark Roget to form the six headings of his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. The headings used were the three objective categories of Abstract Relation, Space (including Motion) and Matter and the three subjective categories of Intellect, Feeling and Volition, and he found that under these six headings all the words of the English language, and hence any possible predicate, could be assembled. [17]

In linguistics, modality is a system of linguistic options that allows for expressing a speaker's general intentions as well as the speaker's belief as to whether the proposition expressed is true, obligatory, desirable, or actual. Modal options can be realized by word order (moods), modal auxiliaries and modal adjuncts.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel German philosopher who influenced German idealism

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher and an important figure of German idealism. He achieved wide recognition in his day and—while primarily influential within the continental tradition of philosophy—has become increasingly influential in the analytic tradition as well. Although Hegel remains a divisive figure, his canonical stature within Western philosophy is universally recognized.

Arthur Schopenhauer German philosopher

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher. He is best known for his 1818 work The World as Will and Representation, wherein he characterizes the phenomenal world as the product of a blind and insatiable metaphysical will. Proceeding from the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer developed an atheistic metaphysical and ethical system that has been described as an exemplary manifestation of philosophical pessimism, rejecting the contemporaneous post-Kantian philosophies of German idealism. Schopenhauer was among the first thinkers in Western philosophy to share and affirm significant tenets of Eastern philosophy, having initially arrived at similar conclusions as the result of his own philosophical work.

Twentieth-century development

In the twentieth century the primacy of the division between the subjective and the objective, or between mind and matter, was disputed by, among others, Bertrand Russell [18] and Gilbert Ryle. [19] Philosophy began to move away from the metaphysics of categorisation towards the linguistic problem of trying to differentiate between, and define, the words being used. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s conclusion was that there were no clear definitions which we can give to words and categories but only a "halo" or "corona" [20] of related meanings radiating around each term. Gilbert Ryle thought the problem could be seen in terms of dealing with "a galaxy of ideas" rather than a single idea, and suggested that category mistakes are made when a concept (e.g. "university"), understood as falling under one category (e.g. abstract idea), is used as though it falls under another (e.g. physical object). [21] With regard to the visual analogies being used, Peirce and Lewis, [22] just like Plotinus earlier, [23] likened the terms of propositions to points, and the relations between the terms to lines. Peirce, taking this further, talked of univalent, bivalent and trivalent relations linking predicates to their subject and it is just the number and types of relation linking subject and predicate that determine the category into which a predicate might fall. [24] Primary categories contain concepts where there is one dominant kind of relation to the subject. Secondary categories contain concepts where there are two dominant kinds of relation. Examples of the latter were given by Heidegger in his two propositions "the house is on the creek" where the two dominant relations are spatial location (Disjunction) and cultural association (Inherence), and "the house is eighteenth century" where the two relations are temporal location (Causality) and cultural quality (Inherence). [25] A third example may be inferred from Kant in the proposition "the house is impressive or sublime" where the two relations are spatial or mathematical disposition (Disjunction) and dynamic or motive power (Causality). [26] Both Peirce and Wittgenstein [27] introduced the analogy of colour theory in order to illustrate the shades of meanings of words. Primary categories, like primary colours, are analytical representing the furthest we can go in terms of analysis and abstraction and include Quantity, Motion and Quality. Secondary categories, like secondary colours, are synthetic and include concepts such as Substance, Community and Spirit.


One of Aristotle’s early interests lay in the classification of the natural world, how for example the genus "animal" could be first divided into "two-footed animal" and then into "wingless, two-footed animal". [28] He realised that the distinctions were being made according to the qualities the animal possesses, the quantity of its parts and the kind of motion that it exhibits. To fully complete the proposition "this animal is ..." Aristotle stated in his work on the Categories that there were ten kinds of predicate where ...

"... each signifies either substance or quantity or quality or relation or where or when or being-in-a-position or having or acting or being acted upon". [29]

He realised that predicates could be simple or complex. The simple kinds consist of a subject and a predicate linked together by the "categorical" or inherent type of relation. For Aristotle the more complex kinds were limited to propositions where the predicate is compounded of two of the above categories for example "this is a horse running". More complex kinds of proposition were only discovered after Aristotle by the Stoic, Chrysippus, [30] who developed the "hypothetical" and "disjunctive" types of syllogism and these were terms which were to be developed through the Middle Ages [31] and were to reappear in Kant's system of categories.

Category came into use with Aristotle's essay Categories , in which he discussed univocal and equivocal terms, predication, and ten categories: [32]


Plotinus in writing his Enneads around AD 250 recorded that "philosophy at a very early age investigated the number and character of the existents ... some found ten, others less .... to some the genera were the first principles, to others only a generic classification of existents". [33] He realised that some categories were reducible to others saying "why are not Beauty, Goodness and the virtues, Knowledge and Intelligence included among the primary genera?" [34] He concluded that such transcendental categories and even the categories of Aristotle were in some way posterior to the three Eleatic categories first recorded in Plato's dialogue Parmenides and which comprised the following three coupled terms:

Plotinus called these "the hearth of reality" [36] deriving from them not only the three categories of Quantity, Motion and Quality but also what came to be known as "the three moments of the Neoplatonic world process":

Plotinus likened the three to the centre, the radii and the circumference of a circle, and clearly thought that the principles underlying the categories were the first principles of creation. "From a single root all being multiplies". Similar ideas were to be introduced into Early Christian thought by, for example, Gregory of Nazianzus who summed it up saying "Therefore Unity, having from all eternity arrived by motion at duality, came to rest in trinity". [38]


In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Immanuel Kant argued that the categories are part of our own mental structure and consist of a set of a priori concepts through which we interpret the world around us. [39] These concepts correspond to twelve logical functions of the understanding which we use to make judgements and there are therefore two tables given in the Critique, one of the Judgements and a corresponding one for the Categories. [40] To give an example, the logical function behind our reasoning from ground to consequence (based on the Hypothetical relation) underlies our understanding of the world in terms of cause and effect (the Causal relation). In each table the number twelve arises from, firstly, an initial division into two: the Mathematical and the Dynamical; a second division of each of these headings into a further two: Quantity and Quality, and Relation and Modality respectively; and, thirdly, each of these then divides into a further three subheadings as follows.

Criticism of Kant's system followed, firstly, by Arthur Schopenhauer, who amongst other things was unhappy with the term "Community", and declared that the tables "do open violence to truth, treating it as nature was treated by old-fashioned gardeners", [41] and secondly, by W.T.Stace who in his book The Philosophy of Hegel suggested that in order to make Kant's structure completely symmetrical a third category would need to be added to the Mathematical and the Dynamical. [42] This, he said, Hegel was to do with his category of Notion.


G.W.F. Hegel in his Science of Logic (1812) attempted to provide a more comprehensive system of categories than Kant and developed a structure that was almost entirely triadic. [43] So important were the categories to Hegel that he claimed "the first principle of the world, the Absolute, is a system of categories ... the categories must be the reason of which the world is a consequent". [44]

Using his own logical method of combination, later to be called the Hegelian dialectic, of arguing from thesis through antithesis to synthesis, he arrived, as shown in W.T.Stace's work cited, at a hierarchy of some 270 categories. The three very highest categories were Logic, Nature and Spirit. The three highest categories of Logic, however, he called Being, Essence and Notion which he explained as follows:

Schopenhauer's category that corresponded with Notion was that of Idea, which in his "Four-Fold Root of Sufficient Reason" he complemented with the category of the Will. [46] The title of his major work was "The World as Will and Idea". The two other complementary categories, reflecting one of Hegel's initial divisions, were those of Being and Becoming. At around the same time, Goethe was developing his colour theories in the Farbenlehre of 1810, and introduced similar principles of combination and complementation, symbolising, for Goethe, "the primordial relations which belong both to nature and vision". [47] Hegel in his Science of Logic accordingly asks us to see his system not as a tree but as a circle.


Charles Sanders Peirce, who had read Kant and Hegel closely, and who also had some knowledge of Aristotle, proposed a system of merely three phenomenological categories: Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, which he repeatedly invoked in his subsequent writings. Like Hegel, C.S.Peirce attempted to develop a system of categories from a single indisputable principle, in Peirce's case the notion that in the first instance he could only be aware of his own ideas. "It seems that the true categories of consciousness are first, feeling ... second, a sense of resistance ... and third, synthetic consciousness, or thought". [48] Elsewhere he called the three primary categories: Quality, Reaction and Meaning, and even Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness, saying, "perhaps it is not right to call these categories conceptions, they are so intangible that they are rather tones or tints upon conceptions": [49]

Although Peirce's three categories correspond to the three concepts of relation given in Kant's tables, the sequence is now reversed and follows that given by Hegel, and indeed before Hegel of the three moments of the world-process given by Plotinus. Later, Peirce gave a mathematical reason for there being three categories in that although monadic, dyadic and triadic nodes are irreducible, every node of a higher valency is reducible to a "compound of triadic relations". [51] Ferdinand de Saussure, who was developing "semiology" in France just as Peirce was developing "semiotics" in the US, likened each term of a proposition to "the centre of a constellation, the point where other coordinate terms, the sum of which is indefinite, converge". [52]


Edmund Husserl (1962, 2000) wrote extensively about categorial systems as part of his phenomenology.

For Gilbert Ryle (1949), a category (in particular a "category mistake") is an important semantic concept, but one having only loose affinities to an ontological category.

Contemporary systems of categories have been proposed by John G. Bennett (The Dramatic Universe, 4 vols., 1956–65), Wilfrid Sellars (1974), Reinhardt Grossmann (1983, 1992), Johansson (1989), Hoffman and Rosenkrantz (1994), Roderick Chisholm (1996), Barry Smith (ontologist) (2003), and Jonathan Lowe (2006).

See also

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  1. PhilPapers-A Return to the Analogy of Being.
  2. Reese W.L. Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion (Harvester Press, 1980)
  3. Ibid. cf Evangelou C. Aristotle’s Categories and Porphyry (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1988)
  4. Plotinus Enneads (tr. Mackenna S. & Page B.S., The Medici Society, London, 1930) VI.3.3
  5. Ibid. VI.3.21
  6. Descartes R. The Philosophical Works of Descartes (tr. Haldane E. & Ross G., Dover, New York, 1911) Vol.1
  7. Op.cit.3 p.87
  8. Ibid. pp.107,113
  9. Op.cit.5 pp.148-179
  10. Stace W.T. The Philosophy of Hegel (Macmillan & Co, London, 1924)
  11. Op.cit.5 pp.148-179
  12. Op.cit.3 p.116
  13. Hegel G.W.F. Logic (tr. Wallace W., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1975) pp.124ff
  14. Op.cit.15
  15. Schopenhauer A. On the Four-Fold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason 1813 (tr. Payne E., La Salle, Illinois, 1974)
  16. Jaspers K. Philosophy 1932 (tr. Ashton E.B., University of Chicago Press, 1970) pp.117ff
  17. Roget P.M. Roget’s Thesaurus: The Everyman Edition 1952 (Pan Books, London, 1972)
  18. Russell B. The Analysis of Mind (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1921) pp.10,23
  19. Ryle G. The Concept of Mind (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1949) pp.17ff
  20. Wittgenstein L. Philosophical Investigations 1953 (tr. Anscombe G., Blackwell, Oxford, 1978) pp.1x X 4,181
  21. Ryle G. Collected Papers (Hutchinson, London, 1971) Vol.II: Philosophical Arguments 1945, pp.201,202
  22. Op.cit.1 pp.52,82,106
  23. Op.cit.9 VI.5.5
  24. Op.cit.5 Vol I pp.159,176
  25. Op.cit.4 pp.62,187
  26. Kant I. Critique of Judgement 1790 (tr. Meredith J.C., Clarendon Press, Oxford 1952) p.94ff
  27. Op.cit.25 pp.36,152
  28. Aristotle Metaphysics 1075a
  29. Op.cit.2
  30. Long A. & Sedley D. The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge University Press, 1987) p.206
  31. Peter of Spain (alias John XXI) Summulae Logicales
  32. Categories , translated by E. M. Edghill. For the Greek terms, see The Complete Works of Aristotle in Greek Archived 2010-04-01 at the Wayback Machine (requires DjVu), Book 1 (Organon), Categories Section 4 (DjVu file's page 6). "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-11-02. Retrieved 2010-02-21.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  33. Op.cit.9 VI.1.1
  34. Ibid. VI.2.17
  35. Plato Parmenides (tr. Jowett B., The Dialogues of Plato, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1875) p.162
  36. Op.cit.9 Op.cit.1.4
  37. Ibid. III.8.5
  38. Rawlinson A.E. (ed.) Essays on the Trinity and the Incarnation (Longmans, London, 1928) pp.241-244
  39. Op.cit.3 p.87
  40. Ibid. pp.107,113
  41. Schopenhauer A. The World as Will and Representation (tr. Payne A., Dover Publications, London, New York, 1966) p.430
  42. Op.cit.15 p.222
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid. pp.63,65
  45. Op.cit.18 pp.124ff
  46. Op.cit.20
  47. Goethe J.W. von, The Theory of Colours (tr. Eastlake C.L., MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1970) p.350
  48. Op.cit.5 p.200, cf Locke
  49. Ibid. p.179
  50. Ibid. pp.148-179
  51. Ibid. p.176
  52. Saussure F. de,Course in General Linguistics 1916 (tr. Harris R., Duckworth, London, 1983) p.124

Selected bibliography