The term “category-mistake” was introduced by Gilbert Ryle in his book The Concept of Mind (1949) to remove what he argued to be a confusion over the nature of mind born from Cartesian metaphysics. Ryle alleged that it was a mistake to treat the mind as an object made of an immaterial substance because predications of substance are not meaningful for a collection of dispositions and capacities.
The phrase is introduced in the first chapter. The first example is of a visitor to Oxford. The visitor, upon viewing the colleges and library, reportedly inquired “But where is the University?” The visitor’s mistake is presuming that a University is part of the category “units of physical infrastructure” or some such thing, rather than the category “institutions”, say, which are far more abstract and complex conglomerations of buildings, people, procedures, and so on.
Ryle’s second example is of a child witnessing the march-past of a division of soldiers. After having had battalions, batteries, squadrons, etc. pointed out, the child asks when is the division going to appear. ‘The march-past was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division.’ (Ryle’s italics)
His third example is of a foreigner being shown a cricket match. After being pointed out batsmen, bowlers and fielders, the foreigner asks: ‘who is left to contribute the famous element of team-spirit?’
He goes on to argue that the Cartesian dualism of mind and body rests on a category-mistake.
The United States Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that corporations are persons!
In its 5-4 ruling two years ago, the court declared that restrictions on independent expenditures violated the First Amendment’s free-speech protections. Free speech has always been thought of as something that persons engage in, but the ruling meant corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts on ads designed to help or hurt a candidate; the ruling, however, did not change the rules governing contributions made directly to candidates.
That ruling, along with related campaign-finance decisions, has enabled political operatives to raise and spend record sums. Groups such as American Crossroads have been pumping big bucks into Republican efforts, while Democrats have formed groups with names such as Priorities USA.
It has also been argued that human life begins at the moment of conception (although strictly speaking there is no unique moment – it is a process) and so the zygote is a person. And hence an entity with rights; including the right to life.
I submit that both of these notions are category mistakes.