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A Realistic Theory of Categories

September 20th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

A Realistic Theory of Categories

A Realistic Theory of Categories: An Essay on Ontology, by Roderick M. Chisholm (Cambridge University Press 1996).

Perhaps the philosopher Roderick Chisholm will be best know for such locutions as “being appeared to redly.” This would be unfortunate since he was backed into the phrase, abandoned the epistemological stance that spawned it, there was so much more that he did in his long career, and because many of his thought experiments continue to be used by philosophers (libertarians still have to deal with the Adam/Noah problem Chisholm brought up in the mid nineteen-sixties, and if you think you know what the center of your consciousness is, you may reconsider after meeting Smith and Jones and the split-brain transplants). It was a pleasure then to come across something of Chisholm’s that dealt with neither epistemology nor mereology but metaphysics.

Chisholm’s theory of categories is contained in a brief but tightly packed work. So what are categories? The started with Aristotle and was an attempt to describe any given thing. Aristotle’s drew up ten categories that included items such as place, state, time, quantity, etc. Over the centuries philosophers would make changes to the list, but generally agreed that the categories applied to the thing described. That is to say a thing was a certain size or shape or position and so on. That came to a screeching halt with Kant who not only drew up a completely different list but argued that categories did not apply to the object described but to mind describing the object insofar as that mind is experiencing the object. After Kant it has been fashionable to dispose of categories altogether. Chisholm not only presents a categorical ontology for the things themselves rather the mind, but this is a decidedly Platonic ontology. In the chart below one can see that unlike Aristotle, the categories do not exit as descriptions of common-sense physical objects but have an independent existence.

A Schema of Chisholm's Categories

What is also notable about Chisholm’s scheme is its hierarchical nature. Most schemes before Kant would put all categories on par with each other, simply being different aspects of a given subject. Kant has a semi-hierarchical scheme of twelve categories arranged under the headings quantity, quality, relation, and modality. Even today among those who treat categories as real there is a split between those who take a more linear approach and those of a more hierarchical frame of mind.

Chisholm does not actually argue for his realistic conception of categories, let alone its structure, in his Realistic Theory of Categories. That was done in his previous book On Metaphysics. What Chisholm does do is to argue for the contents of his scheme and why certain items (such as times and places) don’t appear. For instance, times are subsumed under events, which does provide for a more economical ontology. That he has presented an economical almost elegant ontology is not to be denied, but is it too parred back? The reader may wish to direct her attention to some of recent schemes as found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and see whether some of the more extensive schemes can be subsumed in Chisholm’s without inciting any Procrustean damage.

The last two sections of Chisholm’s book look at objects that seem to exist only in the mind (appearances, intentions, and fictions) which always have been a subject of philosophical debate and for the past few centuries have been outright contentious and Chisholm’s attempt to make sense of the notion of a necessary substance–or more plainly, God. Look again at the chart above. God makes an appearance in the lower right-hand corner. In six pages, Chisholm reviews atemporality (he doesn’t care for it) and the argument from design (he seems happy with at least some version of the argument). The speed of delivery is breath-taking, but this very last section has the feel of an outline of a work the author wanted to time to explore more thoroughly.

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