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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.

Like Aristotle and the Vaiśeṣikas, modern materialists have a set of categories for understanding the world: they are just the categories whose applicability to the material world has been tested by natural science. To the extent that we think about the categories of premodern thinkers, we understand them most easily by thinking of them as primitive science: attempts at understanding the world that have been wholly superseded by the experimentally tested categories available to us now.

For materialists, categories of knowledge can be divided into levels corresponding to the scientific disciplines. We place all living things into the categories of Linnaean taxonomy. Both living things and nonliving things are made up entirely of the elements of the periodic table, which form their own set of categories. And those elements, in turn, are made up of things we classify into the categories of subatomic physics, like electrons and quarks.

I believe this classification of categories to be correct as far as it goes. By and large I take it on faith in scientific authority rather than on any direct experience/experiment of my own, but there’s nothing wrong with that in principle; in a world where the accumulated wealth of scientific experience is so large, we must all necessarily take a great deal of our scientific knowledge on faith. These categories tell us accurately what matter, including living matter, is made of. (By “matter” I am referring to those things which make up the physical world, so I include energy. I’m not trying to debate physics in here, something I would be quite incompetent to do; substitute “matter and/or energy” everywhere I have said “matter” and the point would be the same.)

But when these categories tell us what matter is made of, do they tell us what reality is made of? There is a certain circular sense in which reality is indeed made of matter; that is, material reality is made of matter. But not all reality is material. The testable phenomena of experimental psychology – behaviours and neurons – are material, but it’s more questionable whether subjective psychological phenomena, like emotions, are material. Even if one did wish to reduce those to matter, there are other things that cannot be so reduced.

First among these is value, the subject matter of ethics, aesthetics and more. I have previously argued: The fact that particular organisms happen to view particular things as good and bad can be explained causally in terms of matter, by means of evolution. What science cannot explain is the fact that some things really are good and bad. Whatever goodness and badness are, they are not material – at least not entirely.

It goes further. The very idea of truth is itself a normative concept, a value; the rules of logic are themselves normative values, claims about good and bad forms of reasoning. And the very plausibility of science fundamentally depends on the rules of logic and the concept of truth. If the rules of logic are not correct, scientific experience make no sense. And those logical rules cannot be found by means of scientific experience; even to attempt to find them that way would involve circular reasoning, since they are the conditions that make that scientific experience possible.

If my argument to this point is correct, then it makes no sense to describe reality as something material. Claims of value, including the concept of truth and the rules of logic, are not material, but the very idea of the material world depends on them. And so, when we attempt to think about what the world is made of, we cannot limit that thought to what the material world is made of. To understand what the world is, we need more than the categories of natural science, because we need to understand more than just matter and the things that are made of matter. And so the classical schemes of categories turn out to be much more helpful than we thought they were. We cannot accept them wholesale; the evidence of natural science, on the whole, is too persuasive for us to accept classifications that contradict it, which most such premodern schemes of categories will do to at least some extent. (With this in mind I see more clearly the usefulness of Ken Wilber’s AQAL model, which works to incorporate scientific concepts into a map of all reality.) But it’s still worth thinking with the premodern schemes to figure out those vitally important pieces of reality that cannot be reduced to matter and its movements. Science does not supersede them.

With that in mind, I want to return to the importance of categories for Aristotle and Rāmānuja. These two thinkers had a great deal in common. They each followed a thinker – Plato and Śaṅkara respectively – who saw the everyday world of particulars as something of a problem, something to ideally be transcended in favour of a greater universal. Their own work tried to make room for that material world, but in a way that remained close to their predecessors. They were familiar with materialist worldviews – the Cārvākas, Democritus, Epicurus – but they understood the need for an understanding of reality that went beyond he material, as Plato’s and Śaṅkara’s had done. A comprehensive scheme of categories allowed them to think the world – the whole world, not only matter.