A category mistake (or category error, categorical mistake, or mistake of category), is a semantic or ontological error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category,[1] or, alternatively, a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. An example is a person learning that the game of cricket involves team spirit, and after being given a demonstration of each player's role, asking which player performs the "team spirit".[2]

The term "category-mistake" was introduced by Gilbert Ryle in his book The Concept of Mind (1949) to remove what he argued to be a confusion over the nature of mind born from Cartesian metaphysics.[3] Ryle argued that it was a mistake to treat the mind as an object made of an immaterial substance because predications of substance are not meaningful for a collection of dispositions and capacities.[4]

The phrase is introduced in the first chapter.[5] The first example is of a visitor to Oxford. The visitor, upon viewing the colleges and library, reportedly inquired "But where is the University?"[6] The visitor's mistake is presuming that a University is part of the category "units of physical infrastructure" rather than that of an "institution". Ryle's second example is of a child witnessing the march-past of a division of soldiers. After having had battalions, batteries, squadrons, etc. pointed out, the child asks when is the division going to appear. "The march-past was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division." (Ryle's italics) His third example is of a foreigner being shown a cricket match. After being pointed out batsmen, bowlers and fielders, the foreigner asks: "who is left to contribute the famous element of team-spirit?"[5] He goes on to argue that the Cartesian dualism of mind and body rests on a category mistake.

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  1. ^ Blackburn, Simon (1994). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press. p. 58.
  2. ^ Lacewing, Michael (14 July 2017). Philosophy for A Level: Metaphysics of God and Metaphysics of Mind. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-351-67460-7.
  3. ^ Philosopher Ofra Magidor writes, "As far as I can tell, this is the first time the concept of a category mistake is referred to using this label." (Category Mistakes, Oxford University Press, 2013, page 10, footnote 21)
  4. ^ "Gilbert Ryle". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2022.
  5. ^ a b Ryle, Gilbert (1949). The Concept of Mind. p. 16. ISBN 9780226732961.
  6. ^ MacFadden, T. G. (Summer 2001). "Understanding the Internet: Model, Metaphor, and Analogy" (PDF). Library Trends. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 50 (1): 96. Retrieved December 9, 2014.