There’s a recurring theme in Indo-European thought that has often perplexed me: categories. The Indian Vaiśeṣika school of thought is known primarily for enumerating a set of categories (padārthas) with which to understand reality. I always had a hard time getting why they spent so much time doing that. The thing is, they’re hardly alone in doing it. In an introductory class I took on reading philosophical Sanskrit, we read an 18th-century Sanskrit introduction to the thought of Rāmānuja, a thinker quite far removed from Vaiśeṣika – and that too was all about dividing the world into categories. I have not yet delved much into Aristotle’s difficult theoretical philosophy, especially his Metaphysics – but most introductions to that work will tell you that it too is all about categories. What’s going on here? Why would so many major thinkers do this sort of thing?
I think a key reasons the categories have puzzled me is that, like the majority of my readers, I have been brought up in a worldview heavily infused by scientism. In the English-speaking world, at least, we usually take it for granted that reality is made of matter; we are materialists. And we are wrong. Continue reading