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Robert Ziegler

Ancient and Medieval Philosophy

Professor Squires

Considering an Epistemological Reading of Aristotle’s Categories

It ought to first be established that Aristotle intended for his Categories to be read

ontologically—that is, describing facts of being. However, problems follow from an ontological

reading of his Categories. An epistemological reading retains the utility while voiding the critical

problems with the Categories.1

To grant an ontological reading of the Categories in the context of the rest of Aristotle’s

philosophy, several other positions must be granted. The first of these is a sense of naïve

realism—that is, granting that our senses accurately perceive a complete and mind-independent

world and that if we build theories from our perceptions, they will correspond to reality.

Additionally, one must grant Aristotle’s thoughts on the role of deduction and induction:

Aristotle argues that true first premises are found by induction, and, as with his realism, thus

forces our theories “not to conflict with appearances.”2

Why must these positions be granted? Consider the actual mechanisms by which an

observer might grow to understand the categories of a thing. The most obvious example of this is

how one might grow to understand a primary substance such as Socrates. Socrates is clearly nota

meaningful term a priori but, rather, a particular that can only be understood through perception.

1 This paper as such is written with a modern understanding. Aristotle’s problems are not to be considered a flaw of
character, but, rather an issue with his continued relevance. This paper then, is not an attack on Aristotle per se, but rather
an attempt to place his method, if not his facts, in modern terms. It is not about what Aristotle said, but, rather, a
reimagining of his Categories.
2 Terence Irwin, Aristotle’s First Principles 33
Similarly, attempting to understand something such as Socrates’s place or quantity independent

of experience is absurd. Thus, to say Aristotle’s categories speak ontologically is to demand an

objective, real perception of things that can be used to make such conclusions; if our perception

is to get at the real nature of things, it must give a complete picture. A strict Aristotelian ontology

demands naïve realism.

Does Aristotle agree? He certainly assents to a kind of naïve realism. In the De Anima,

Aristotle writes that the “perception of special-objects is always true.” 3 By special-objects,

Aristotle means those objects which can be sensed only by one perceptual faculty. The fairest

reading of this is to say that, at least when only one sense is involved, the perception of

phenomena is infallible. Thus, Aristotle has committed himself to a particular brand of naïve


However, there are serious problems for the naïve realist. The most famous of these is the

problem of secondary qualities.4 Consider color, which could best be considered a relational

property. Color, as a special object, applies: it is only visible by sight. Things are not blue in

themselves; things reflect blue light such that a particular perceiver sees it as blue. The blueness,

as such, cannot be considered mind-independent as color is a relation between both the object

and a mind.

Illusions too present an issue for the naïve realist. Consider an oasis, which one may see

in a desert. Granted some distance, only the sight is brought in, thus making it a special object.

Yet, depending on one’s distance, the oasis appears and disappears. It seems a confused,

problematic position to take that oases truly exist and stop existing: instead, it must be granted

Aristotle, De Anima, 427b8-9
4 This should not be confused with any potential Aristotelian term of “secondary substance.”
that, sometimes, the senses report back false information. A naïve realist could attempt to

dispense with this problem by arguing that this is an error of judgement, not of sensation, but

such a stance seems problematic; there is no imaging of sensation independent of the phenomena

we notice, and, as such, cannot meaningfully take sensation independent of this “judgement.”

The senses, it seems, cannot always be trusted, and must be adjudicated by reason.

The third and perhaps most difficult challenge to the naïve realist comes from biology—

namely, the generalized umwelt principle. The notion of “umwelt” was developed by German

biologist Jakob von Uexküll and refers to, in a rough translation, to the notion of a being’s “view

of the world.”5 Von Uexküll argued that there were as many “worlds” perceived as there were

beings, and there is meaningful evidence to support this. Consider, for instance, the bee, which

can sense magnetic fields6, or coral fish, which sense color far beyond the spectrum of humans.7

While humans can sense these phenomena indirectly and can, in some sense, be aware of their

presence, our umwelt does not include them.8 With this in mind, it is difficult to claim that

human perception is the absolute arbiter of the world, and, thus, is, at best, an incomplete picture

of reality. The naïve realist holds that a sensation is accurate, while the generalized umwelt

principle forces us to hold that a sensation is only accurate given our perceptual faculties.

A strictly naïve realism is thus problematic, and, in turn, Aristotle’s categories lose much

of their previous attractiveness. Can his categories be redeemed?

5 See his work “Theoretische Biologie” for a deeper analysis of the biological evidence for the umwelt principle.
6 See CH Lang, “Magnetic Sensing through the Abdomen of the Honey bee.” Scientific Reports (23 March 2016)
7 See CM Cham, M. Vorobyev, and N.J. Marshall, “Colour thresholds in a coral reef fish.” Royal Society Open Science, 3

8 While an argument could be made that the noetic (human) umwelt is expanding—consider how radio telescopes allow

the viewing of RF radiation while our eyes do not—the noetic umwelt is not complete and it is excessively optimistic to
assume it ever will be.
Consider Aristotle’s method of genius-differentia definition wherein he establishes a

thing’s secondary substance—the universal it can be classified as. Aristotle wishes to argue that

this is reflective of an essence in a particular, contra Plato, who argues that essence is outside of

a particular and merely something a particular participates in. This conception of ontological

essence allows Aristotle to hold both that primary substances are not secondary to some spooky

essence out there, but also allows him to privilege human sensation in acquiring a thing’s

essence. Aristotle holds that this metaphysical conception of essence is “self-evident.”9 The

desire to grasp metaphysical essence is why he is forced to commit to naïve realism.

Perhaps, however, it is better to consider essence as epistemological. What would it mean

to regard essences as such? If essences are epistemological, they cease to claim knowledge of a

thing-in-itself and, instead, describe the human knowledge and categorization of it. Predicating

something like “that is a cow,” then, is not identifying an essence, but, rather, identifying the

characteristics which we have defined as a “cow.” This kind of couched talk avoids the problems

of the naïve realist—who is forced to defend a particular sense of authoritativeness of his

identifications—but still allows the predication of the same things the Aristotelian would.

Some of Aristotle’s distinctions get lost in the process. For instance, a bed, which

Aristotle wants to claim is nothing more than the “wood which shows that arrangement”10 would

have a kind of essence—a bed is something we speak about and think of as an object with

essence, and, thus, is not merely spoken about as such by metaphor, but, rather, in fact. Anything

could be considered to have essence. Knowledge of universals—in a stipulative sense—is


Aristotle, Physics, 193A6
Aristotle, Physics, 193A14
What, then, are the uses for Aristotle’s categories? While they may not help approach an

understanding of the one, absolute world the metaphysician11 desires, the categories are

nevertheless useful tools for describing phenomena. For instance, defining the nature of

something is a useful scientific endeavor and one with much practical effect: definitions allow

for meaningful and productive communication. Understanding an object’s quantity, relation, or

time, for instance, also allows for a meaningful understanding of events—if not an objective one.

It seems, then, that the core of the Aristotelian project is saved. We needn’t admit that the

notion of epistemological essences forces our speech to be purely arbitrary: there are ways of

describing things that better account for the phenomena that appear to us. This kind of speech

resolves the conflict between the phenomenologist and the naïve realist: the noetic umwelt

allows for classification of phenomena only as they appear while nevertheless granting preferred

ways of speaking—that is, the way of speaking that accounts for the speech that appears to us.

Considering essences as epistemological thus is not anti-realist, though it does demystify

Aristotelian metaphysics. What authoritativeness is lost is made up for by a more consistent, less

problematic system.

See Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity for more on the metaphysician’s tactics.