Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 C - Category mistake


Category mistake: Fallacy that turns around treating things of one kind as if they are things of another kind.

There are many kinds of category mistakes. One very common and popular one, especially in political contexts and discussions, is to treat classes of people as if they are individuals and have the properties individuals have but classes lack.

Thus, kind X - liberals, proletarians, women, the government, the state etc. - is supposed to 'feel', 'want', 'desire', 'believe' all manner of things that, at most, only some of the individuals of those kinds in these groups can and may do.

It should be noted this  particular category mistake is in fact the standard way in which political problems are discussed by many serious people in many serious media.

One reason for the popularity of (and blindness to) this particular fallacy is that it also allows its perpetrators to be awfully vague while sounding quite definite when using quantifying terms. For one who believes it makes sense or is unproblematical to speak (and write and think) in terms of kind X 'feels', 'wants', 'desires', 'believes' etc. is that it therewith becomes natural and unproblematical to speak of 'the X' or 'X' doing all these things only individuals can do in fact: "The French want ...', 'Women desire ...', 'Capitalism exploits ...', 'The masses want ...', 'Our government believes ...'.

Here it helps especially to reason fallaciously while sounding sensibly and conclusively if one omits quantifying terms like 'all', 'most', 'some' or 'a few': It is so much easier to think and talk in terms of 'Women believe ...', 'Men desire ...' etc. and thus attribute feelings and beliefs to millions incoherently and vaguely that are in fact at most true of a fraction of the individuals of the groups mentioned at some times, but are formulated as if they hold for all of the individuals of those groups for all times and circumstances.

This fallacious practice also makes it easy and natural to attribute good and bad qualities of individual humans to millions of them in one verbal move: 'The French are sensual', 'Women are hysterical', 'The masses fight for their rights', 'The government thinks'. At the same time, it makes the attribution of individual responsibility to individual men and women much more difficult.


See also: Category, Fallacy, Kinds, Quantifier



 Original: Dec 6, 2004                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top