Category errors and ontological confusion

Our series on “good scholarship” has so far considered the logical and lingual aspects of reality.  Here I want to explore a particular kind of offence against principles of both logical distinction and lingual clarification.

Category errors arise when things are referred to in ways that imply they belong to a category of things to which they do not.  They were proposed by Gilbert Ryle in “The Concept of Mind” (1949).  He was concerned about the juxtaposition of “mind” and “body” as two comparable entities.  But the notion proved broadly applicable – and indeed is approached by other philosophers too.

What do category errors look like, and why worry about them?  First consider a harmless metaphor. “This book shines new light on our question”, if taken literally, would be absurd (unless it refers to a genuinely luminescent book) but unlikely to mislead anyone.  Metaphors can liven up our language and also help create terminology: think of electromagnetic “waves”, biodiversity “hotspots” or mental “breakdowns”.  It shouldn’t be difficult to agree that light waves don’t go up and down, biodiversity can’t have a temperature, and minds are not machines – so we needn’t see category errors here.  Next, what about statements?  If someone analysed this blog post, I hope they would allow my opening sentence, “Our series… has so far considered…” to pass as a harmless case. But sometimes category errors are revealing.

In reviewing a paper I once queried a phrase along the lines of, “The threat of extinctions may reduce biodiversity in this region,” because threats are mental perceptions: clearly it was the extinctions that could reduce biodiversity, not the threats.  The authors’ meaning was clear enough – but this kind of subtle category error is commonplace (not least in some student work I read).  In most cases it suggests slightly careless writing: linguistic short-cuts.  Or is it confused thinking?  Either way, I believe it’s a carelessness that can breed problems.  See what you think about the following:

  1. “The brain recognises a threat and responds accordingly”
  2. “A gene for homosexuality”
  3. “Our data reveal…”
  4. “Society expresses its disapproval”

My contention here is that our ways of phrasing ideas can reveal a lot about our worldview: especially what kinds of thing we consider able to affect each other.

So phrase (1) reminds us of the concerns of Ryle, on the grounds that minds are the locus of thought, whereas brains are body organs.  (2) stands for the widespread general denigration among biologists of hypothesising “a gene for X” – partly because  most traits aren’t simply determined by genes (or even alleles).  (3) is one that greatly interests me and needs working out elsewhere: suffice to say for now that no data have ever placed a conclusion in front of me, or spoken to me!  (4) raises the question of what we mean by “society”.

The intriguing question behind all this is, what categories ought we to distinguish?  Why are some ontologies better than others?  While Ryle was concerned with the mind/body dualism, his examples imply many other categories besides.  I’m particularly interested in the Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd's approach to causality. Dooyeweerd proposed that scientific causal accounts (those based on abstractions) should restrict themselves to a single aspect of created reality.  His “aspects” are a set of fifteen categories for types of abstraction and of laws.  More needs to be said about this – but let me end by pointing out that our series on “What is good scholarship?” is based on these aspects, from the analytical aspect onwards.

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