Four Categories of Being

I still have no idea what a substance is, and only a rough one of what a universal is.
But, at least, I do know what an accident is.

My last post on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” didn’t amount to much, I know. But now it will get worse. Because I need a long digression in order to prepare the terrain for that elusive thing which is understanding. Aristotle first defines substance in the “Categories“, a work usually considered to be prior in time to the “Metaphysics”, and one which should be read first too. There he explains the foundations of many terms he uses afterwards in all of the corpus. There is also where he introduces his famous ten categories of being. All I want here is to get to the first category, but allow me to walk the whole way there.


Chapter 1: Homonyms, synonyms and derivatives

This is a preliminary section where Aristotle talks about how things are named. There are equivocally named things — homonyms — meaning they have the same name but they mean different things, like when you say there is a man in a picture and then you point to your friend and say there is also a man there. One is actually a piece of paper, but both are called “man”.

Univocally named things — synonyms — are things called by the same name, meaning the same thing. So when you say an ox and a man are “animal”, these are being univocally (and correctly) named.

Finally, there are derivative names, when you use, for instance, the same word radical “grammar”or “courage” to form derivative words by changing the termination, such as “grammarian” and “courageous”.

Chapter 2: Four-fold classification of being

This chapter begins by making a quick remark on simple and composite forms of speech. “Man” or “runs” or “wins” are simple expressions; “the man runs” and “the man wins” are composite. He will use these concepts already in Chapter 4.

Then Aristotle gets to the core of the problem. Here, he introduces two terms, one of which I wrote briefly about in the previous post. Things themselves can be “predicated of” or “present in” a subject. These terms are controversial, but there is agreement enough as to their meaning. To be predicated of (or “said of”) is a property of universals; to be present in, of accidents. The combination of both concepts yields thus four possible categories of being, which I’ll name here following the nomenclature present in this excellent article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP):

Essential Universals

“Of things themselves some are predicable of a subject, and are never present in a subject.”

Whatever is said of something else must be an universal, but the kind of universal that cannot be an accident is that which subsumes other entities. “Man” therefore subsumes all individuals of mankind, being not a accident pertaining to them, but their common essence.

Accidental Particulars

“Some things, again, are present in a subject, but are never predicable of a subject.”

Here, Aristotle seems to be having fun by torturing us, because his second example is not only the opposite of the first he gave, but he also changes the order of exposition. Moreover, it is a weird concept.

He talks of a specific point of grammatical knowledge or a certain whiteness. These are supposed to be accidental in the sense that they do not subsist on their own. And they are also particular in the sense that they can be pointed at as this or that whiteness, such as the whiteness of my teeth as opposed to yours (I have difficulty to see whiteness itself — even if it’s this whiteness — as a particular; I can only see white things).

Accidental Universals

“Other things, again, are both predicable of a subject and present in a subject.”

Now, he talks of knowledge being predicable of grammar. So, you can “say of” grammar that it is a sort of knowledge. But, following the SEP article, I think that “whiteness” is again a better example. The universal “whiteness” can never subsist on its own, but can only be an accident of an underlying entity, thus an accidental universal.

Non-accidental Particulars or “Primary Substances”

“There is, lastly, a class of things which are neither present in a subject nor predicable of a subject.”

Although Aristotle presents this kind last, it is probably the most fundamental one (thus justifying the order of exposition in the SEP article, the one which I stubbornly avoided here). The term “primary substance” is only used in Chapter 5, where he presents his explanation of substance per se, but he defines it here.

Well, not really.

What a primary substance is is a very controversial subject, I (thankfully) learned through the SEP. Aristotle is not close to exhaustive in enumerating what would qualify as a primary substance, but he is quite clear in showing that concrete particulars that are members of natural kinds are, such as an individual man or an individual horse. As such, they can not be said of anything else (We can’t say that anyone else but me can be, well, me!) and they can not be present as an accident in any other subject (You can’t be a little “me-ish” today).

Now, Aristotle seems to give huge importance to these primary substances, as if they were indeed the purest kind of substance. But I’ll let the full explanation about that to the next post of this series.

Chapter 3: Coordination and subordination of genera

Here, Aristotle makes a brief common-sense remark on subordinate and coordinate genera. Whatever is said of a given predicate or genus is automatically said of the subject. So “animal” is said of “man”, which is said of an individual man; therefore, by subordination, “animal” is said of the same individual man. Moreover, whatever differentiates “animal” from all other coordinate genera will, by necessity, be present in “man”. But a genus such as “knowledge” will have other differentiae that will be different in kind to those of “animal”. Like I said: common-sense.

Chapter 4: Ten-fold classification of being

Aristotle makes use here of the concept of simple and composite terms, expounded in Chapter 2, in order to explain that all categories of being are simple terms, and, thus are neither true or false — they just are. I show the list here just as a sort of cliffhanger.

Aristotle’s ten categories are: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, or affection.

Do they make sense? I have no idea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s