I have always understood the word Category, in "categorical imperative", as a synonym for absolute, universal. It's the usual way we understand the word nowadays. In some contexts, however, Kant uses the word in the original sense used by Aristotle. The verb κατηγορέω (categoréo) means to accuse or speak about some accusation or characteristic of a person in front of a judge, for example. Hence the completely different meaning of "predicate", "quality associated with someone or something". It is in this sense that Kant speaks of "categories" and adheres to the Leibnizian doctrine of categories, including the fact that the primordial category is "substance" and the other categories are derived from it. Categories, in this sense, are linked to "a priori" concepts. Does this diversity of meanings of "category" find any intertwining in Kant's work? Is there any connection between these meanings?

  • Categorical vs hypothetical imperative is linked to traditional logic distinction between categorical vs hypothetical syllogism. Commented Jul 5 at 19:13
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    categorical=unconditional. Commented Jul 5 at 19:17
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    For Kant your two meanings of categorical of unconditional universality and a priori could be said to be consistent and unified under his transcendental idealism, while Aristotle definitely didn't hold such transcendental view and thus his category is more in line with the everyday use of it which is just meant to characterize a unique shared predicate as structural model of a common class of contingent substances or entities up to isomorphism. However, this doesn't mean these two views are necessarily exclusive... Commented Jul 6 at 0:37
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    it's sort of like hegelian absolute, 'absolute imperative' could have been a better term perhaps Commented Jul 7 at 14:24

3 Answers 3


The second formulation of the categorical imperative is, in modern terms, the "dual" of the classical (Aristotelian/scholastic) notion of substance in terms of the categorical relation in logic. To wit:

  1. A physical substance is a subject that is not also a predicate only.
  2. A moral substance is an end that is not also a means only.

The sense in which a categorical representation is not conditional is just so far as categorical judgments are situated next to conditional ones. I.e. it's just the conditional/non-conditional distinction with fancier names attached. So there's no actual distinction in Kant's usage of the term "categorical"; he's always meaning both the classical-substance kind of thing by it, and the unconditional thing.


Kant uses the adjective “categorical” as a technical term. It means “without restrictions, not depending on precondition”. The best know example is the term “Categorical Imperative”. For an introduction see Categorical Imperative:

The categorical imperative, on the other hand, commands immediately the maxims one conceives which match its categorical requirements, denoting an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself, possessing intrinsic value beyond simply being desirable.


An easy way to approach this question is to see that the term 'categorical' in this usage effectively means 'necessarily applying to all members of a category'. For example, the category 'triangle' has certain characteristics — three linear sides, three angles, full closure, etc… — that are categorical: they must be present for the figure to be a member of the category 'triangle'. We would then (in the Aristotelian sense) look at a specific figure, list out ('speak') its observable characteristics, and 'judge' whether that figure has the categorical elements that place it in the category.

A categorical imperative, then, is a command (an imperative) that applies to all members of its category; in this case a moral category. The difficulty comes in determining the proper moral category for the imperative. For instance, the imperative "Thou shalt not kill" is variously taken to mean:

  • Don't kill any living creature: ahimsa or modern veganism
  • Don't kill human beings: strict pacifism ala Quakerism
  • Don't kill the blameless or innocent: a conventional understanding that allows for self-defense of various lethal sorts
  • Don't kill those who serve the social good: an expanded conventional view that permits warfare, public executions, etc, at need
  • Don't kill those in our group: a perspective typical of clans, tribes, hard-line religious or secular groups, etc, that allows (though doesn't necessarily promote or approve of) killing outsiders

Kant was a universalist and generally reached for the broadest feasible moral category, but it's worth noting that moral scope is often the most hotly debated portion of rule-making. Think about the framing of the US abortion debate, where the Left generally asserts that women are the proper moral category while the Right (currently) tends to focus on fetuses as the proper moral category (with patriarchal men as their advocates). There are often deeply non-trivial differences in perspective.

  • I see! It is "categorical-wise" ! Commented Jul 9 at 23:12
  • It's a category of it's own not determined by any other and thus unconditional.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jul 11 at 8:54
  • @haxor789: That definition doesn't quite track. I mean, is the category 'woman' a category of its own (unconditional) or a sub-category of 'human' (conditional)? If you take the latter approach, there are no unconditional categories, since all categories are defined in relation to neighboring categories. Commented Jul 11 at 14:56
  • @TedWrigley The former but in that case it would apply to a category, so categorical to all women but not categorical without reference point. Isn't that the point of Kant's categorical imperative that they are what you would want to be a universal law?
    – haxor789
    Commented Jul 12 at 9:14
  • @haxor789: I'm not sure I follow your "…without reference point" comment. What is a 'reference point' here? If we accept the category 'woman' as unconditional, then a categorical imperative for women would be a rule/law that should be applied to all women in all applicable contexts, not to some women or to women in some contexts. We establish the category, we establish the imperative, then we apply the imperative to each member of the category without conditions. Kant says we should choose our rules such that we can accept categorical application; it's meant to be a moral constraint. Commented Jul 12 at 15:00

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