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What are Aristotle’s “Ten Categories”?

Aristotle is history's master of the art of Logic
Aristotle (384-322 BC) taught the ten Categories in his Organon.

One of the most important achievements in the pursuit wisdom of by the ancients was Aristotle’s discovery of the “Ten Categories”. These are taught for the first time in human history in chapter 4 of Aristotle’s work titled “The Categories”. They are:

  1. Substance (or Essence)
  2. Quantity
  3. Quality
  4. Relation
  5. Location
  6. Time When
  7. Position
  8. Possession
  9. Action
  10. Passion

We have to understand, first, that the categories are introduced by Aristotle in his work on the art of Reasoning, that is, the Organon. In this work, he is not studying the physical world that exists outside the soul, but that which exists within the soul, in the intellect. Some criticize Aristotle’s ten Categories as if he was attempting to create a system for organizing created things in the natural world (plants, animals, etc.), but that only reveals that they don’t understand what they’re talking about. Aristotle is writing about ideas within the soul.

Aristotle’s “Ten Categories” are the ten classes of things, existing in the soul, that may be predicated of a subject.

Through the senses, we learn of individual things that exist outside the soul, in the physical world. Our senses make impressions on the mind, as light makes an impression on film, or as a seal makes an impression in clay. The impression that is made in the soul is called a “notion” or “idea”.

The faculty of Reason, which operates in the soul, compares these impressions and identifies similarities and differences that exist between them. These similarities and differences can be many, and they can be of different kinds. The intellect joins or separates these ideas by the operation of “judgment”, which produces propositions that are true or false.

For example, if we see the man “Socrates”, our mind could form the following judgments:

  1. Socrates is a man.
  2. Socrates is one.
  3. Socrates is white.
  4. Socrates is a teacher.
  5. Socrates is in Athens.
  6. Socrates is in 360 BC.
  7. Socrates is lying down.
  8. Socrates is clothed.
  9. Socrates is speaking.
  10. Socrates is being questioned.

The mind is able to make these judgments concerning the subject Socrates and these judgments are called “predicates”, and they may be true or false. Many, many more judgments may be made like this, but all of these will be similar to the ten predicates seen above. Only ten classes of predicates may be made of any subject, and these classes of predicates are the “categories” of Aristotle. It is worth noting that a fundamental difference between the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle is that Plato taught that these things exist outside the soul, which Aristotle proved to be impossible.

  1. In the first proposition above, “man” is predicated of Socrates, and this is substance.
  2. In the first proposition above, “one” is predicated of Socrates, and this is quantity.
  3. In the first proposition above, “white” is predicated of Socrates, and this is quality.
  4. In the first proposition above, “teacher” is predicated of Socrates, and this is relation, for it assumes the existence of a student.
  5. In the first proposition above, “in Athens” is predicated of Socrates, and this is location.
  6. In the first proposition above, “in 360 BC” is predicated of Socrates, and this is time when.
  7. In the first proposition above, “lying down” is predicated of Socrates, and this is position.
  8. In the first proposition above, “clothed” is predicated of Socrates, and this is possession, for Socrates has clothes.
  9. In the first proposition above, “speaking” is predicated of Socrates, and this is action.
  10. In the tenth proposition above, “being questioned” is predicated of Socrates, and this is passion, for Socrates is suffering the action of another.

The ten categories, then, are the ten classes of things, existing in the soul, which may be predicated of a subject. Substance alone may serve as a subject or a predicate, but the other nine are “attributes”, which must exist in a subject and, therefore, can never be subjects.

These are the ten Categories of Aristotle.

To study the art of Reasoning in further detail, please consider our Classical Reasoning courses.

God bless your studies,
William C. MIchael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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