Category of being  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In metaphysics (in particular, ontology), the different kinds or ways of being are called categories of being or simply categories. According to the Aristotelian tradition, a being is anything that can be said to be in the various senses of this word. Hence, to investigate the categories of being is to determine the most fundamental senses in which things can be said to be. A category, more precisely, is any of the broadest classes of things - 'thing' here meaning anything whatever that can be discussed and cannot be reduced to any other class.

An exhaustive account of the categories that humans need be concerned with continues to be hoped for. Some have desired ontological category schemes that were more than exhaustive, by virtue of admitting nonexistent or even logically impossible objects. The category schemes of Alexius Meinong are a case in point. A distinction between such categories, in making the categories or applying them, is called an ontological distinction. An exhaustive scheme makes many distinctions.


Categorical distinctions

The common or dominant ways to view categories as of the end of the 20th century.

  • via bundle theory as bundles of properties - categories reflect differences in these
  • via peer-to-peer comparisons or dialectics - categories are formed by conflict/debate
  • via value theory as leading to specific ends - categories are formed by choosing ends
  • via conceptual metaphors as arising from characteristics of human cognition itself - categories are found via cognitive science and other study of that biological system

Any of these ways can be criticized for either seeking to make distinctions that aren't as universal as claimed (greedy reductionism), for serious bias in point of view (subject-object problem or God's eye view), for relying on theological or spiritual claims a priori, for relying too much on surface conflict or current investigative priorities to point out differences, for ignoring action, for ignoring the perceived or biospheric context, or the cognitive mechanisms that perceive and invent categories or for relying on a complex empirical process of investigation that is poorly understood and only recently embarked upon. In process philosophy, this last is the only possibility, but historically philosophers have been loath to conclude that nothing exists but process.

Intuition as evasion

A seemingly simpler way to view categories is as arising only from intuition. Philosophers argue this evades the issue. What it means to take the category physical object seriously as a category of being is to assert that the concept of physical objecthood cannot be reduced to or explicated in any other terms - not, for example, in terms of bundles of properties but only in terms of other items in that category.

In this way, many ontological controversies can be understood as controversies about exactly which categories should be seen as fundamental, irreducible, or primitive. To refer to intuition as the source of distinctions and thus categories doesn't resolve this.

Ideology, dogma, theory

Modern theories give weight to intuition, perceptually observed properties, comparisons of categories among persons, and the direction of investigation towards known specified ends, to determine what humanity in its present state of being needs to consider irreducible. They seek to explain why certain beliefs about categories would appear in political science as ideology, in religion as dogma, or in science as theory.

Categories as metaphors

A set of ontological distinctions related by a single conceptual metaphor was called an ontological metaphor by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who claimed that such metaphors arising from experience were more basic than any properties or symbol-based comparisons. Their cognitive science of mathematics was a study of the embodiment of basic symbols and properties including those studied in the philosophy of mathematics, via embodied philosophy, using cognitive science. This theory comes after several thousand years of inquiry into patterns and cognitive bias of humanity.

Aristotle's Categories

Aristotle's categories

Category came into use with Aristotle's essay Categories, in which he named 10 categories:

  • substance
  • quantity
  • quality
  • relation
  • place
  • time
  • posture
  • possession/habit
  • action
  • passion (receiving)

Nowadays, these categories are commonly seen as having a value that is merely historical, in part because Aristotle's notion of substance is commonly rejected. This rejection often stems from a misunderstanding of his real meaning, which was that substance is that which exists of itself and not in another.

In special relativity, the term; 'invariant mass' means the same as if we would say; (Aristotle's)substance of mass. The difference being that, 'substance' may be used to describe properties of several other concepts than mass.

Given this understanding, to deny that substance exists amounts to saying that everything exists in another, which in turn implies that nothing exists. But if we assume that things do in fact exist, then at least one substance must be admitted, unless we allow things to nest in other things in either an infinite or a circular fashion. The latter option seems rather implausible, but the former option is conceivable if matter is assumed infinitely divisible, i.e., if atoms are denied.

Other systems of categories

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant proposed the following system:

Charles Peirce, who had read Kant 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. Edmund Husserl (1962, 2000) wrote extensively about categorial systems as part of his phenomenology.

Contemporary systems of categories have been proposed by Wilfrid Sellars (1974), Grossman (1983), Johansson (1989), Hoffman and Rosenkrantz (1994), Roderick Chisholm (1996), and Barry Smith (ontologist) (2003).

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.

Categories of being

Philosophers have many differing views on what the fundamental categories of being are. In no particular order, here are at least some items that have been regarded as categories of being by someone or other:

Physical objects

Physical objects are beings; certainly they are said to be in the simple sense that they exist all around us. So a house is a being, a person's body is a being, a tree is a being, a cloud is a being, and so on. They are beings because, and in the sense that, they are physical objects. One might also call them bodies, or physical particulars, or concrete things, or matter, or maybe substances (but bear in mind the word 'substance' has some special philosophical meanings).


Minds -- those "parts" of us that think and perceive -- are considered beings by some philosophers. Each of us, according to common sense anyway, "has" a mind. Of course, philosophers rarely just assume that minds occupy a different category of beings from physical objects. Some, like RenĂ© Descartes, have thought that this is so (this view is known as dualism, and functionalism also considers the mind as distinct from the body), while others have thought that concepts of the mental can be reduced to physical concepts (this is the view of physicalism or materialism). Still others maintain though "mind" is a noun, it is not necessarily the "name of a thing" distinct within the whole person. In this view the relationship between mental properties and physical properties is one of supervenience – similar to how "banks" supervene upon certain buildings. See Philosophy of mind.


We can talk about all human beings, and the planets, and all engines as belonging to classes. Within the class of human beings are all of the human beings, or the extension of the term 'human being'. In the class of planets would be Mercury, Venus, the Earth, and all the other planets that there might be in the universe. Classes, in addition to each of their members, are often taken to be beings. Surely we can say that in some sense, the class of planets is, or has being. Classes are usually taken to be abstract objects, like sets; 'class' is often regarded as equivalent, or nearly equivalent, in meaning to 'set'. Denying that classes and sets exist is the contemporary meaning of nominalism.


The redness of a red apple, or more to the point, the redness all red things share, is a property. One could also call it an attribute of the apple. Very roughly put, a property is just a quality that describes an object. This will not do as a definition of the word 'property' because, like 'attribute', 'quality' is a near-synonym of 'property'. But these synonyms can at least help us to get a fix on the concept we are talking about. Whenever one talks about the size, color, weight, composition, and so forth, of an object, one is talking about the properties of that object. Some -- though this is a point of severe contention in the problem of universals -- believe that properties are beings; the redness of all apples is something that is. To deny that universals exist is the scholastic variant of nominalism.


An apple sitting on a table is in a relation to the table it sits on. So we can say that there is a relation between the apple and the table: namely, the relation of sitting-on. So, some say, we can say that that relation has being. For another example, the Washington Monument is taller than the White House. Being-taller-than is a relation between the two buildings. We can say that that relation has being as well. This, too, is a point of contention in the problem of universals.

Space and Time

Space and time are what physical objects are extended into. There is debate as to whether time exists only in the present or whether far away times are just as real as far away spaces, and there is debate as to whether space is curved. Many contemporary thinkers actually suggest that time is the fourth dimension, thus reducing space and time to one distinct ontological entity, the space-time continuum.


Propositions are units of meaning. They should not be confused with declarative sentences, which are just sets of words in languages that refer to propositions. Declarative sentences, ontologically speaking, are thus ideas, a property of substances (minds), rather than a distinct ontological category. For instance, the English declarative sentence "snow is white" refers to the same proposition as the equivalent French declarative sentence "neige est blanc"; two sentences, one proposition. Similarly, one declarative sentence can refer to many propositions; for instance, "I am hungry" changes meaning (i.e. refers to different propositions) depending on the person uttering it.


Events are that which can be said to occur. To illustrate, consider the claim "John went to a ballgame"; if true, then we must ontologically account for every entity in the sentence. "John" refers to a substance. But what does "went to a ballgame" refer to? It seems wrong to say that "went to a ballgame" is a property that instantiates John, because "went to a ballgame" does not seem to be the same ontological kind of thing as, for instance, redness. Thus, events arguably deserve their own ontological category.

Properties, relations, and classes are supposed to be abstract, rather than concrete. Many philosophers say that properties and relations have an abstract existence, and that physical objects have a concrete existence. That, perhaps, is the paradigm case of a difference in ways in which items can be said to be, or to have being.

Many philosophers have attempted to reduce the number of distinct ontological categories. For instance, David Hume famously regarded Space and Time as nothing more than psychological facts about human beings, which would effectively reduce Space and Time to ideas, which are properties of humans (substances). Nominalists and realists argue over the existence of properties and relations. Finally, events and propositions have been argued to be reducible to sets (classes) of substances and other such categories.

See also



  • Aristotle, 1953. Metaphysics. Ross, W. D., trans. Oxford Uni. Press.
  • --------, 2004. Categories, Edghill, E. M., trans. Uni. of Adelaide library.
  • Roderick Chisholm, 1996. A Realistic Theory of Categories. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • Grossman, Rheinhardt, 1983. The Categorial Structure of the World. Indiana Uni. Press.
  • Hoffman, J., and Rosenkrantz, G. S.,1994. Substance among other Categories. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • Edmund Husserl, 1962. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Boyce Gibson, W. R., trans. Collier.
  • ------, 2000. Logical Investigations, 2nd ed. Findlay, J. N., trans. Routledge.
  • Johansson, Ingvar, 1989. Ontological Investigations. Routledge, 2nd ed. Ontos Verlag 2004.
  • Immanuel Kant, 1998. Critique of Pure Reason. Guyer, Paul, and Wood, A. W., trans. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • Charles Peirce, 1992, 1998. The Essential Peirce, vols. 1,2. Houser, Nathan et al, eds. Indiana Uni. Press.
  • Gilbert Ryle, 1949. The Concept of Mind. Uni. of Chicago Press.
  • Wilfrid Sellars, 1974, "Toward a Theory of the Categories" in Essays in Philosophy and Its History. Reidel.
  • Barry Smith, 2003. "Ontology" in Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information. Blackwell.

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