What was Aristotle's reasoning behind choosing the types of categories(substance, quantity, etc.)? They seem reasonable, however was the decision based on prior teachings from Plato? The grammatical structure of Greek?

  • 2
    This is answered in Wikipedia's Categories (Aristotle), he derived them from grammatic forms of predication.
    – Conifold
    Jun 13, 2017 at 0:12
  • Did Aristotle discover/develop the different forms himself, or was a linguistic system already developed that he took the grammatic forms of predication from?
    – nobody
    Jun 13, 2017 at 0:23
  • 2
    He reflected on the existing grammar of Greek but enunciation and philosophical framing are of course due to him.
    – Conifold
    Jun 13, 2017 at 0:26
  • Ah ok, any chance you might know if there is a written document of Greek grammar from before Aristotles Categories that I could look at that shows the relationship?
    – nobody
    Jun 13, 2017 at 0:30
  • 1
    I doubt it, but you can look at Baumer's Chasing Aristotle’s Categories Down the Tree of Grammar. See also alternative speculations on SEP.
    – Conifold
    Jun 13, 2017 at 0:47

2 Answers 2



The late Oxford philosopher, HA Prichard, referred to Aristotle's categories as 'an unrelated chaos in which it is impossible to acquiesce'. The categories and their apparent lack of an organisational principle also irked Bertrand Russell. The list of categories looks and might actually be unrefined and arbitrary. We can add that, except at 'Topics', I.9,103b22, Aristotle does not repeat the full list, nor does he make significant use of it elsewhere. But nor does he reject or revise it.


Some background-setting is needed; and I'll try to do this briefly.

In Aristotle's view reality is ultimately made up of individual things, individual physical entities, defined by their form. Each basic individual is an essence or substance (ousia)*. There are indefinitely many substances. But a substance cannot exist without properties or from a different angle things that are saying or predicabke if it.

If I am a substance, I cannot exist without properties : I must be tall or short, bulky or slim, I must be somewhere and be there at a time, I must be older than X and younger than Y. As Aristotle summarises in 'Metaphysics', XIV.2.1089 b23, I must have states (pathe) and relations to other things (ta pros ti). This is the key to the categories.


The theory of categories is an attempt to list all the possible kinds of properties a substance can have. He lists ten, probably familiar but I'll repeat them just in case : substance (ousia), quantity (poson), quality (poion), relation (pros ti), where (pou), when (pote), position (keisthei), possession (echein), action (poiein), and undergoing or being acted on (paschein). Examples : substance (a human being), quantity (three miles), quality (blue), relation (half), place (Times Square), time (today), position (standing), possession (having an aptitude, knack, habit...), action (eating), being acted on (being fed).

Aristotle takes these to be the mega-classes, if the phrase can be allowed, the highest or most general classes (genera) to which properties - all properties - belong and to which predicables pertain.


There is nothing on the surface wrong with what Aristotle is trying to do here. The problem is that the list appears to, and probably does, lack an organising principle. Why these ten categories and not five or fifteen ?

It is almost certain that grammatical considerations, features of language, played a major part in Aristotle's enumeration of categories. The German scholar, Friedrich Trendelenburg (1802-72), took the view that four of the categories (substance, quantity, quality, relation) derived from names and adjectives; another four (position, possession, action and being acted on) from verbs; and time and place from adverbs. (Friedrich Trendelenburg, Geschichte der Kategorienlehre, in Historische Beitrage zur Philosophie, v. I (Leipzig: Bethge, 1846. The 'a' in 'Beitrage' needs an umlaut which I can't type here.) In short, Aristotle appears to have worked inductively from these grammatical groups - names, adjectives, verbs and adverbs - to produce his kategoria or categories.


J. Owens, 'Aristotle on Categories', The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Sep., 1960), pp. 73-90.

A. C. Lloyd, 'Aristotle's Categories Today', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 16, No. 64, History of Philosophy Number (Jul., 1966), pp. 258-267.

  • In 'Categories' ch. 5 Aristotle draws a distinction between primary substance, an individual physical entity, and secondary substance. A secondary substance might be a species or genus. For instance, a human being such as Socrates would be a primary substance; humankind, the class of humans, would be a secondary substance.
  • If there is so much dispute about the rationale behind Aristotle's categories, can we still say that we understand his metaphysics? How important is this lack of clarity to understand the rest of his works? May 13, 2018 at 17:37
  • @César D. Vázquez. Hello again. You raise an interesting point. My inclination is to say that the categories belong to Aristotle's logic and are an attempt to analyse the kinds of thing that can be said of a substance : it can have quantity, quality, &c. But it is also metaphysical since it tells us (supposedly) how everything that exists can be classified as falling under one or more of the categories. Substance is the common central concept in both logic and metaphysics. But in metaphysics he wants to talk about change, form & matter, process & end state, necessity & contingency ...
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 13, 2018 at 20:48
  • @@César D. Vázquez. ... and the the haphazard way in which the list of categories is drawn up doesn't impede his discussion of change, form & matter, process & end state, necessity & contingency. That at least is what I think. Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    May 13, 2018 at 20:53
  • Hello Geoffrey, thanks for your response. Do you think that it is worth it for me to go into the discussion about the categories? It is my first serious encounter with Aristotle and I am not sure if it is better to read on the other works and then come back to the controversial topics or to take the time to read the controversial topics as I encounter them. May 14, 2018 at 11:35

I'm not sure if it is right to put the categories somewhere in a discrete cubby, as though Aristotle's thought were not whole. Some say that is justified by the fact that Aristotle's writings are received in a disconnected and scattered fashion and can not be considered as a "system".

Aristotle studied all the thinkers who came before him in the Greek world. And considered Plato as a "epigone" of all of them, and one must think as a kind of great synthesizer.

His chief influence was, however, common opinion, which he though a very reliable measure. But he went beyond this in a peculiar manner, unlike those who tried to ascend from ordinary opinion through diological discussion (e.g., Socrates), he attempted to do so by vision, the eyes of the soul, which he distinguished from observation of Nature. Later, nearer to our own time, a sort of so-called phenomenology was read back into Aristotle, or was it already there?

Predication in Aristotle simply means "I say something about something", so one must not think so-called grammar, as it were, played any great role. He looked at words, such as "phusis", nature, and asked, what is the essential meaning of this word, the most important meaning. He tried to locate place things, through definition, in the world, in such a way as to know the world order, how they stood in the cosmos. For instance by understanding the genus of man as animal, and within the animal, the particular difference or essence of man as reason. Likewise the categories are orienting devices, as it were.

The connection with Aristotle to linguistic analysis is more due to the 17th century discovery of Evolution (or drift) in languages. Which escalated up until the time of Heidegger who made an uncommonly influential and profound (which is not to say necessarily true) study of Aristotle, with respect to a claim concerning the "primordial" or "orgniary" meaning of Greek, if you like, "grammar". Heidegger would never have called it that. Instead speaking of Greek Language. There's an overlay, of Aristotle's etymological analysis, and modern claims to "understand Aristotle better than he understood himself", in the current scholarship on Aristotle. In the last analysis, so to say, the two blend imperceptibly and inseparably.

It's hard to tell "our" Aristotle from the Aristotle.

  • That's an interesting perspective. How did Aristotle choose his categories if this is the case? It seems to me that it would be difficult to narrow all types of being down to 10 types, a number which seems suspicious to me, since it is quite small and simple. So then... Why did he choose just these particular types? I think the root of my question is " What is Aristotles 'method' for choosing the categories?"
    – nobody
    Jun 14, 2017 at 7:28
  • I suppose one must say: read the Categories.I agree the neatness of ten suggests something behind that neatness.But, on the other hand, the list seems rather complete as though those and only those really make sense.Predication means, in a way, what predicament is the thing in? I.e., what circumstance, or conditions can things be in: the circumstance of being, of having, of doing, etc., these are all the basic things one can speak of. Speech,logos, in a way, demands these categories. Different number of categories in systems that don't accord to ordinary talk,but conform to some other measure.
    – user26700
    Jun 14, 2017 at 20:41

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