Predication and Ontology: The Categories
A theory of ontology attempts to answer, in the most general possible terms,
the question what is there? A theory of predication attempts to
answer the question what is it to say something about something? This
is a book about ontology and predication.
Ontology: The Ten Categories
In the Categories, we get this list (1b25):
This is presumably a list of the ten fundamentally different kinds of
things that there are. The first categorysubstanceis the most
important in Aristotles ontology. Substances are, for Aristotle, the
fundamental entities. To see why this is so, we will have to understand
what Aristotle says about predication.
- A subject (hupokeimenon) is what a statement is about.
- A predicate (katêgoroumenon) is what a statement
says about its subject.
- This (particular animal) is a man.
- Man is an animal.
- This (particular color) is white.
- White is a color.
The same thing may be both a subject and a predicate, e.g., man
and white above. Some things are subjects but are never predicates,
e.g., this (particular) animal, or this (particular) color.
Two kinds of predication
Consider the following pair of simple (atomic) sentences:
- Socrates is a human being
- Socrates is wise
Do both of these atomic sentences have the same kind of ontological
underpinning? I.e., is the structure of the fact that Socrates is a
man the same as the structure of the fact that Socrates is wise? Platos
account suggests that it is.
- For Plato:x is F means that x partakes
of the Form, F-ness.
According to Plato, predication, in general, is explicated in terms of
the notion of participating in a Form. In response, Aristotle thinks
this oversimplifies. On Aristotles account:
- Socrates is a human being tells us something fundamental
about what kind of a thing Socrates is: it is an essential predication.
- Socrates is wise tells us something less fundamental, something
that merely happens to be the case: it is an accidental predication.
This idea emerges in the Categories distinction between what is
said of a subject and what is in a subject, introduced
as part of the four-fold distinction drawn at 1a20. Since Aristotle is using
the terms said of and in in a somewhat technical
way, we will write them, from now on, in SMALL CAPS in order
to indicate this technical use.
Two fundamental relations
Aristotle distinguishes two fundamental relations: being SAID OF
a subject and being PRESENT IN a subject. These correspond,
respectively, to the notions (that Aristotle later develops) of essential
and accidental predication, and they cut across all ten categories.
- SAID OF a subject
- This is a relation of fundamental ontological classification.
It is the relation between a kind and a thing that falls under
- It is a transitive relation (i.e., if x is SAID
OF y and y is SAID OF z,
it follows that x is SAID OF z).
- Its relata belong to the same category. A universal in a
given category is SAID OF the lower-level universals
and individuals that fall under it.
- What is SAID OF a subject is essential to
- Man is SAID OF Socrates.
- Animal is SAID OF man.
- (Hence) animal is SAID OF Socrates.
- White is SAID OF this (particular) color.
- Color is SAID OF white.
- PRESENT IN a subject
- This is a relation of fundamental ontological dependence.
What is PRESENT IN a subject, Aristotle says, belongs
to it not as a part, and cannot exist separately from what it
is in (1a24).
- This is a cross-categorial relation; things PRESENT
IN a subject are non-substances; the things they are PRESENT
IN are substances: non-substances are PRESENT
- What is PRESENT IN a subject is accidental
(non-essential) to that subject.
- This grammatical knowledge is PRESENT IN a soul.
- This white is PRESENT IN a body.
- Color is PRESENT IN body.
Universals and Particulars
Although Aristotle does not use these terms in the Categories,
it is clear that he intends to capture the notions of universal and particular
with his SAID OF locution:
- Each category can be thought of as having a tree structure.
The category itself can be divided into its fundamental kinds (e.g., substance
can be divided into plants and animals). Each of these kinds can in turn
be divided (e.g., animal can be divided into the various broad
genera of animals). Each of these can in turn be divided into the fundamental
species of the category in questions (e.g., into such basic kinds as tiger,
and horse, and human being). (All of these kindsanimal,
tiger, horseare what Aristotle calls secondary substances.)
Finally, we can divide these lowest-level kinds into the basic individuals
in the category (e.g., human being can be divided into Socrates,
Callias, Coriscus, etc.).
- Similarly, the category of quality can be divided into subcategories
such as color, which can in turn be divided into red, green,
etc. Aristotle thinks that these specific qualities can be further divided
into individuals (analogous to individual substances) such as this
individual bit of white.
- Thus, each category is ultimately divisible into the individual
members of that category.
- Heres a useful chart that
illustrates the tree structure of the categories.
The fourfold division
This can be found in Categories, Ch. 2.
The SAID OF relation divides entities into universals and
particulars; the PRESENT IN relation divides them into non-substances
and substances. Hence, the fourfold division at 1a20ff produces (in Aristotles
order of presentation):
- Universal substances (secondary substances)
- Particular non-substances
- Universal non-substances
- Particular substances (primary substances)
The chart below summarizes the fourfold division of Aristotles ontology:
The Ontology of Aristotles Categories
|(a) SAID OF a subject
not PRESENT IN a subject
man, horse, animal
| (c) SAID OF a subject
PRESENT IN a subject
|(d) not SAID OF a subject
not PRESENT IN a subject
|(b) not SAID OF a subject
PRESENT IN a subject
this knowledge of grammar,
Notice the following facts about these relations:
- x is SAID OF something ®
x is a universal.
- x is not SAID OF anything ®
x is a particular.
- x is PRESENT IN y ®
x is a non-substance and y is a substance.
- x is not PRESENT IN anything ®
x is a substance.
- x is neither PRESENT IN anything nor SAID
OF anything ® x is a particular
substance (primary substance).
- x is PRESENT IN y and x is SAID
OF z ® y ¹
(6) may require amplification. The reason is that if x is PRESENT
IN y, then y is a substance and x is a non-substance
(e.g., a quality). But if x is a quality and is SAID OF
z, then z is a (more specific) quality. So y is a substance
and z is a quality. And no quality is a substance. For example, knowledge
is PRESENT IN the soul (a substance), and SAID OF
grammar (a kind of knowledge). But knowledge is not SAID OF
the soul (for the soul is not a kind of knowledge), and knowledge is not
PRESENT IN grammar (for grammar is not a substance).
- Predication within a category (Socrates is a human, a
tiger is an animal, red is a color) involves classifying
something (whether a particular or a universal) under some higher
universal within the same category tree. Predication is a matter of classification.
- Cross-categorial predication (Socrates is wise, This
horse is white) is more complicated. Here we are predicating an
accident (something PRESENT IN a subject) of a substance
in which it inheres.
- Are such (accidental) predications still a matter of classification?
Yes. But we are classifying something PRESENT IN a substance,
rather than the substance itself.
- Example: This horse is white classifies a particular bit
of color, inhering in this horse, under the color-universal white.
- That is: White is SAID OF an individual bit of
color that is PRESENT IN this horse.
Primary Substances: the basic individuals
Things that are neither SAID OF nor PRESENT IN
any subject Aristotle calls primary substances (protai ousiai).
Primary substances are fundamental in that if they did not exist
it would be impossible for any of the other things to exist (2b5).
That is, on Aristotles account, primary substances have priority.
Aristotle gives this argument for the ontological priority of primary
- Every secondary (universal) substance is predicated of (i.e., SAID
OF) some primary substance or other.
- Every non-substance (whether universal or particular) is PRESENT
IN some primary substance or other.
- That is, everything other than primary substance is either SAID
OF or PRESENT IN primary substances.
- Therefore, if primary substances did not exist, neither would anything
Comparison with Plato
- The ontological priority is reversed. For Plato, particulars (participants
in Forms) are the dependent entities; the Forms in which they participate
are the independent entities. For Aristotle, it is individuals that are
ontologically primary or basic.
- Aristotle has two kinds of predication relation; Platos theory,
although less clearly articulated, seems to have only one.
- The difference can be seen most clearly if we read Aristotles
Categories as a response to the dilemma of participation
that Plato brings up in the Parmenides.
The dilemma of participation
- Here is Platos presentation of the problem (Parm. 131a-c):
Do you think, then, that the form as a whole -
one thing - is in each of the many ... so, being one and the
same, it will be at the same time, as a whole, in things that are many
and separate, and thus it would be separate from itself?
Socrates replies with the suggestion that a Form may be in
many things in the way that many people may all be covered with one
sail. To which Parmenides replies:
In that case, would the sail be, as a whole, over each
person, or would a part of it be over one person and another part over
another? [A part, Socrates replies.] So the forms
themselves are divisible, Socrates, and the things that partake of them
would partake of a part; no longer would a whole form, but only a part
of it be in each thing.
- As Plato has Parmenides present the dilemma, both horns are unattractive:
- If the whole Form is in each participant, then the Form will be
separate from itself, which seems impossible.
- If only a part of each Form is in each participant, then the Form
will be many, and not one, which also seems impossible. (An even more
important problem, that Plato does not mention: if two different participants
have two different things in them, what makes them have one
and the same thing in common? The theory will not explain what
it is supposed to.)
- Aristotles solution goes between the horns of this dilemma: it
is not precisely correct to say that the whole universal is in each particular
of which it is predicated, nor is it precisely correct to say that it
is only a part of the universal that is in a given particular.
- On Aristotles account: white (the genus or universal)
is SAID OF the particular color that is PRESENT
IN this horse. So, for one and the same thing, whiteness, to be
in both this horse and that horse (Platos problem case) is just
for the color of this horse and the color of that horse both to be classified
as white. (White is SAID OF both of these two individual
instances of color.) Whiteness is therefore in both horses without being
separate from itself for it is just the common classification
of the particular bits of color in them both.
- According to Aristotle, what is PRESENT IN individual
substances is, ultimately, individual. But just as individual substances
can be classified under universals (like horse and animal),
so too can the qualities, etc., of substances be classified under universals
(like white and color).
- For more detail on this interpretation of Aristotles Categories
as a response to Platos Dilemma of Participation, see Matthews and Cohen,
The One and the Many p. 644, on reserve.
Substances and Change
In Cat. 5, Aristotle points out the hallmarks of substance, one of
which is that substances are the subjects that undergo change [Most
characteristic of substance seems to be the fact that something one and the
same in number can receive contraries (4a10).]
Thus in the ontology of the Categories, substances are the continuants
- the individuals that persist through change remaining one and
the same in number. But, as we will see, Aristotles investigation
of the topic of change begins to exert pressure on this ontology. A claimant
(viz., matter) will emerge to challenge the place of individual plants
and animals as the basic subjects of predication and change.
Go to next lecture
on Aristotle on Change.
Go to previous
lecture on Criticism of Forms
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Copyright © 2004, S. Marc Cohen