Precursors Of Category Theory • 2

Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists …

☙ Marcel Proust

Precursors Of Category Theory

When it comes to looking for the continuities of the category concept across different systems and systematizers, we don’t expect to find their kinship in the names or numbers of categories, since those are legion and their divisions deployed on widely different planes of abstraction, but in their common function.


Things are equivocally named, when they have the name only in common, the definition (or statement of essence) corresponding with the name being different.  For instance, while a man and a portrait can properly both be called animals (ζωον), these are equivocally named.  For they have the name only in common, the definitions (or statements of essence) corresponding with the name being different.  For if you are asked to define what the being an animal means in the case of the man and the portrait, you give in either case a definition appropriate to that case alone.

Things are univocally named, when not only they bear the same name but the name means the same in each case — has the same definition corresponding.  Thus a man and an ox are called animals.  The name is the same in both cases;  so also the statement of essence.  For if you are asked what is meant by their both of them being called animals, you give that particular name in both cases the same definition.

— Aristotle, Categories, 1.1a1–12.

Translator’s Note.  “Ζωον in Greek had two meanings, that is to say, living creature, and, secondly, a figure or image in painting, embroidery, sculpture.  We have no ambiguous noun.  However, we use the word ‘living’ of portraits to mean ‘true to life’.”

In the logic of Aristotle categories are adjuncts to reasoning designed to resolve ambiguities and thus to prepare equivocal signs, otherwise recalcitrant to being ruled by logic, for the application of logical laws.  The example of ζωον illustrates the fact that we don’t need categories to make generalizations so much as we need them to control generalizations, to reign in abstractions and analogies that are stretched too far.


  • Aristotle, “The Categories”, Harold P. Cooke (trans.), pp. 1–109 in Aristotle, Volume 1, Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann, London, UK, 1938.
  • Karpeles, Eric (2008), Paintings in Proust, Thames and Hudson, London, UK.
This entry was posted in Abstraction, Ackermann, Aristotle, C.S. Peirce, Carnap, Category Theory, Hilbert, Kant, Logic, Logic of Relatives, Mathematics, Peirce, Peirce's Categories, Relation Theory, Saunders Mac Lane, Sign Relations, Type Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Precursors Of Category Theory • 2

  1. Pingback: Survey of Precursors Of Category Theory • 1 | Inquiry Into Inquiry

  2. Pingback: Precursors of Category Theory • Discussion 1 | Inquiry Into Inquiry

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