Weekly Question – What is a Category Error/Mistake?

The term “category error” or “category mistake” is a philosophical term which was popularized by Gilbert Ryle in his rhetorical assault on Cartesian Dualism. Ryle’s famous example is that of a man who has never seen the game of cricket. After it is explained to him that certain teammates have the position of bowler, batter, and/or catcher the man then says, “Who on the team plays the position of team spirit.” Of course there is no special position for performing team spirit. It is a team effort and thus a collective action. Unlike bowler who performs the act by himself. This counts a category error.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy there are several ways to commit a category error. The first is like that above.

“the placing of an entity in the wrong category.”

Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Term: category mistake.

Now it is important for both parties in the discussion to explain why they believe X belongs or does not belong in the proposed category. In the cricket example there is a difference in categories when comparing collective actions of the team (i.e., team spirit) and individual actions of the team (i.e., bowling or catching). Still, while there is a category error in this respect there is not in others. Both [bowling and team spirit] are team activities aimed at success. One done on the team level and one done on the individual level but both contribute to the success of the team. Both are done by people. Both are done by people on a given team. Both are done at the same time. Both can be done by the same person. Person A can bowl and present team spirit at the same time. So as you can see, placing a entity in the wrong category is hardly done by the wave of the hand. It is important to explain why said entity is in the wrong category and to confirm with your interlocutor that he/she is attempting to place said entity into that discrete category.

Let me use another more familiar example. It would be a category error to say that an apple and an orange are the same. But it would not be a category error to say they are both fruits, or they both have skin, or they both have seeds, or they both are sweet, or they both are relatively round, or they both grow on trees or they both are sources of juice. So while apples and oranges are not the same they are nevertheless in the same category of relatively round, sweet, juicy fruits having skin and seeds. So when someone says, “Well you’re comparing apples and oranges on this point.” Your answer should be something like, “Well there is a lot to compare.”

On the point of Scripture and God, it is important to note that Scripture is not God. To state otherwise would be a category error. But to say that Scripture and God are principium [i.e., first principles] is not a category error. The former is the first principle of theological knowledge and the latter is the first principle of being. So to relate the two in terms of principium is to consider them properly in the same discrete category of first principles.

“The second use of ‘category mistake’ is to refer to the attribution to an entity of a property which the entity cannot have.”

Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Term: category mistake.

The example given to illustrate this kind of category error is to say, “Caesar is a prime number.” It is important to note here that the “property which the entity cannot have” is very different from the “property which the entity does not have.” The latter statement allows for a “could-have” relationship while the former does not. Thusly construed, to claim a category error on this second account, the burden of proof rests with the accuser to prove that it is impossible that some entity X have some property Y; that entity X lacks a “could-have” relationship with property Y. The Dictionary goes on to explain.

“It is thought that they [i.e., category mistakes] go beyond simple error or ordinary mistakes, as when one attributes a property to a thing which that thing could have but does not have, since category mistakes involve attributions of properties…to things…that those things cannot have.”

Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Term: category mistake. [Italics: Mine]

In short, if someone accuses you of a category mistake the burden of proof rest on them to demonstrate why the property Y you are attributing to X cannot be attributed to X like in “That apple tastes blue.” If Y could be attributed to X then the attribution can, at worse, simply be an average garden variety mistake. So next time someone claims you have committed a category error/mistake help them to understand that they have a lot of explaining to do before such a claim can be admitted into the conversation.

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