Category Mistake

Category mistakeThe 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.

10 thoughts on “Category Mistake

  1. Good point, Bob. I think so, too.

    I’ve always wondered about the strange implications that follow from corporate personhood. For instance, if corporations are persons with all the rights of persons under US law, then isn’t it possible, and illegal, to murder or dismember a corporation (as when one dissolves one corporation or eliminates a key division of another)?

    Also, suppose I hold that both a corporation and a zygote should have all the same legal rights and protections as a person. In that case, mustn’t I also hold that it should be illegal to abort a corporation at the zygote stage, whatever that is?


  2. Corporations as persons? I agree with both of you. Zygotes. I don’t know. When does ensoulment (is that a word?) occur?


    • According to Augustine, who seems to be your source of morality, the human soul enters the body 40 days after conception.


      • “According to Augustine, who seems to be your source of morality, the human soul enters the body 40 days after conception.” Aristotle suggested the same unless the “body” is female, in which case it is several weeks later! I have always been puzzled as to how Aristotle could know that.


        • I agree, Bob. The longer I’ve studied and thought about philosophy, the more I’ve come to feel that metaphysical pronouncements, however objectively and rationally we think they are founded, are mostly a matter of personal bias.

          So I think that, like it or not, we can only sort out the moral status of a zygote by comparison with other points in our morality. _Could_ a zygote be conscious, in the sense of bare logical possibility? Sure, just as the hinge on my door could be. Is that possibility something we should worry about, morally? Well, it seems that we have moral obligations to treat other self-conscious adults morally, and that we have no moral obligations to door hinges. That much, it seems, is agreed on by more or less everyone. The rest needs to be sorted out in a consistent and maximally plausible way from those sorts of starting points. But doing so is tricky.


        • I argued once in a debate at UBC with Richard Dunstan that just as we use cessation of brain waves as the definition of death, we should use genesis of brain waves as the definition of life. That apparently occurs at about 84 days which is when, according to Aristotle, a female fetus gets a soul!


  3. The Supreme Court’s (Republican) decision on SuperPACs will go down as one of the worst decisions of any Supreme Court in American history. Retired Justice John Paul Stevens (one of the four dissenting justices who opposed Citizens United) said that in his view a revision of the law is now inevitable. I hope!


  4. The New Yorker has an excellent review of the Citizens United case in the May 21, 2012 issue. (read it here)
    Justice Stevens, in a 90 page dissent, writes: ” The Framers took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated … Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind. . . . The Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people…”.

    Stevens, of course, was writing for the minority in the 5 to 4 overturning of years of precedent.


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