DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N005-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2019
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

5. Their nature

As became clear in the brief historical remarks we made in the Summary there are two fundamentally different views of the nature of ontological categories. One sees them as constituting fundamental kinds of things, the other as fundamental kinds of thinking about things. According to the first, the structure of categories demarcates the structure of the world at the most fundamental level; according to the second it picks out very general features of our conceptualization of the world (see Realism and antirealism).

In many ways the first conceptualization is the most natural one. If ontology is the most general theory of what there is, and if (as most philosophers assume) there are some nonmental things, at least some ontological categories should contain these things, and for this reason they should be categories of things, not categories of concepts of things. It appears then, that the onus of proof is on those that want to defend the second view. They need to come up with an argument why ontological categories should not be considered as categories of things.

Support for the second view has come from at least two different sources.

The first is a set of largely Kantian considerations concerning the essential role conceptualizations play in our perception of the world. If we have some argument for why we cannot make sense of a pure, unalloyed perception of the things out there, of the way they are before having been bent and twisted into shape by the requirements of our perceiving mind, then the best we can hope for when constructing a system of ontological categories is to arrive at a theory that describes these requirements in an intersubjective way, i.e. in a way that does not differ from person to person, but in a way that holds for all perceivers who are just like us. If all people were born with glasses that distort what we see in various ways, and we are not able to give an account of what the world looks like without wearing these glasses, we might confine ourselves to study of these glasses, their optical properties, the reasons why these properties are shared by all the glasses worn by people, and so forth.

If we operate with an underlying epistemology that holds that there is very little we can say about the world as it is, the same also holds for any inquiry into its structure. We can find out about very general features of our mind’s access to the world (the structure of the glasses, to remain with our example), but not about the features of the world so accessed.

The second source is based on various forms of linguistic relativism, often linked to the Sapir-Whorf thesis claiming that what language we speak crucially shapes our conceptual system at the most fundamental level (see Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). If it really is the case that American Indian languages, or Chinese, incorporate a conceptualization of the world that is essentially different from that resulting from conceptualizations embedded in Indo-European languages, and if the generality of these conceptualizations includes those of the ontological categories then it appears as if the American Indians or the Chinese live in worlds with different structures. This, of course, is impossible, since the speakers of alien languages are no aliens, but our worldmates. It must therefore be the case that the systems of ontological categories that differ are systems of concepts, not systems of things (see Wardy 2000).

Citing this article:
Westerhoff, Jan. 5. Their nature. Categories, 2019, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N005-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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