The Categories of Aristotle

Categories: AristotlePhilosophy

Aristotle (384-322BC) is one of the most influential philosophers of the western tradition and had many philosophical works credited to him. In his treatise on logic collectively known as “Organon”, Aristotle gave two preliminary treatises; “The Categories and De Interpretatione (on interpretation) dealing with terms and with propositions respectively. This paper is an attempt to look at the categories from Aristotle’s perspective. Hence it is necessary to define the term category (ies) from a general point of view first, so as to create enabling environment to delve into the categories of Aristotle.

THE TERM CATEGORY (IES) In singular form, category according to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is a class or group of people or things regarded as having certain features in common. Etymologically, the word itself is derived from the Greek word “Kategorein” which has the meaning of “predicate”. Thus, the categories signify different ways of predicating something or better still, different modes of existence. The exact same meaning is also found in the Latin interpretation “praedicamenta” from the verb “praedicare” meaning to assert.


Aristotle’s categories is a singularly important work of philosophy, which not only presents the backbone of Aristotle’s own philosophical theorizing, but has exerted an unparalleled influence on the systems of many of the greatest philosophers in the western tradition. The set of doctrines in the categories provides the frame work of inquiry for a wide variety of Aristotle’s philosophical investigations, ranging from his discussions of time and change in the physics, to the science of Being qua being in the metaphysics, and even extending to his rejection of Platonic ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics.

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In his treatise, the categories deal with terms in isolation and he used it to show the different classification of things, which for him, can be in ten different classifications namely; substance, quantity, relation, quality, place, time, position, possession, action and passion. He considers these categories to have actually been in existence outside the mind and in things and not as artificial creations of the mind. Things for him fell into various classifications by their very nature and we think of them as members of a species or genus because they are.

Thus, thinking was connected with the ways things are, and this underlies the close relation between logic and metaphysics. Furthermore, the ten categories are divided first into substantial and accidental things. The substantial which is the substance states whatness or essence/substance, that is a thing which cannot exist in its own right, rather does exist in another thing as in a subject. THE TEN-FOLD DIVISION OF THE CATEGORIES 1 SUBSTANCE: this is a thing which can exist in its own right, not just as a modification of something else. Substance is the one, like human being, animals, and plants.

It is identified from question like; “what is the thing? ” 2 QUANTITY: in relation to the substance, the quantity talks about the amount or number of something that can be measured or that is fixed. For example; the man is six feet tall. It is fixed. It is elucidated in questions like; how many or much of it is there? In other words, quantity is an accident of material things whereby they are extended into space, measureable by some mathematical standard, and capable of being divided into separate parts. It is either diescrete quantities or continuous.

Discrete quantities are number abd speech; that of continuous are lines, surfaces, solids etc. 3 Quality: this is a term that is used in many senses. However, in this context, it is that in virtue of which people (substances) are said to be such and such. It is an accident by which a thing is of a certain sort or kind; its sense qualities and shape, how a thing acts; its abilities and habits. Thus, one may ask for instance, what sort of thing is it? Is it green, sweet, happy, brave etc? 4 RELATION: this is an accident that answers the question; what is the connection?

Example; are they same, similar, equal, father, president, slave? It is an accident in a thing which is the bearing or reference of the thing towards another thing. 5 PLACE: this is an extrinsic accident said of a thing which makes a reference to where or location. Example, here, there, near, up, down. 6 TIME: this deals with or makes a reference to when; when is it operating: yesterday, now, then, before etc. 7 POSITION: this talk of a thing with reference to the order of a thing’s part in a given place. That is, what is its position? Is it bent, standing, reversed, prone, first?

8 POSSESSION: it is an accident peculiar to the human being which includes all external equipments added to his natural body such as clothing, ornaments etc. it describes human beings as having special possessions. 9 ACTION: this entails doing or carrying out an activity. It is an accident which is the doing of something to something else. Like heating, moving a table, cutting grass etc. 10 PASSION: while the action is of doing, passion is the receiver. In other words, passion is an accident which is the receiving of something from something else such as being cut, being moved etc.

RULES FOR THE CATEGORIES Before one can place a given thing in any one of the categories, one must observe the following rules: 1 Only simple realities can be placed in a given category. That is to say that composite concept like “healthy child” must be reduced to its elements before attempting to utilize the categories. Thus, we have child as substance and healthy as quality. 2 The simple reality must be a whole. The part of something is placed in the same category as the whole to which it belongs. Example, the human hand as part of the human being, is placed in the category of substance.

3 The simple reality must be natural; nevertheless, an artificial thing may be placed in the same category as the thing which it imitates. 4 The simple reality must be a univocal word, for if the word is equivocal, two different concepts are implied, as well as the possibility of two different categories. For instance, “Bark” as the covering of a tree is placed in the category of substance, but as the sound of a dog, it is in quality. 5 Only the universal nature can be placed in the categories and not the unique singular.

Example, dog representing the whole family dog is acceptable not Regis or Alsatian representing a particular family of dog. EVALUATION AND CONCLUSION From the foregoing, it could be said, from one’s point of view, that Aristotle classified terms upon the basics of grammatical distinction as to their use. From another angle, it may be that he is not classifying linguistic symbols but what they symbolize, that is, things. An ontological interpretation to this second view, will present Aristotle as attempting to classify the main aspects of reality.

However, the answer to what Aristotle is actually doing encompasses the three view as articulated in the words of Porphyry’s commentary on the categories; “… as things are, so are the expressions which primarily indicate them. ” Conclusively, these categories are ways of expressing how things relate to each other or ways in which we speak about realities. Words uncombined can be said to mean and fall into one or other of the above ten categories. What Aristotle wants to emphasis is that there is a series of related things or events that leads to “science”.

This order is, in the first place the existence of things and their processes; secondly, our thinking about things and their behaviour; and finally, the transformation of our thought. Hence, logic is the analysis of language, the process of reasoning, and the way language and reasoning are related to reality. BIBLIOGRAPHY BRUGGER, W. & BAKER, K. : “Categories” in Philosophical Dictionary. New York: Drams associates Inc. , 1966, 51-55. EDWARD, P. (ed): “Aristotle” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1 & 2. New York: Macmillan Publishing Inc. & the Free Press, 1967, 155-157. FLEW, A. : “Aristotle,” in The Dictionary of Philosophy. London: Pan Book, 1984, 160-163.

HALVERSON, W. A. : Concise Introduction to Philosophy; 2nd Edition. New York: Random House, 1967. LEVY, I. M. : “Categories,” in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus. Chicago 2009. CDR. LEVY, I. M. : “Aristotle’s Categories,” in Encyclopedia Britannica Student & Home Edition. Chicago 2009. CDR. OZUMBA, G. O. : A Concise Introduction to Epistemology. Calabar: Ebenezer Printing Press & Computer Service, 2001. SPANGLER M. : Logic; an Aristotelian Approach, rev. ed. Maryland: University Press of America Inc. , 1993. STUMPF, S. E. : Philosophy; History & Problem. North America: McGraw-Hill Inc. 1994.

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