Social categories

Aristotle’s categories are something like the possible constituent parts of propositions; for instance Substance is a thing, and a Quality is something attributed to it, as in “Socrates is mortal”. The Greek word “category” was later used to refer to the “parts of speech”, and that is an illuminating though limited analogy. Aristotle does not say how he derived his categories, or show that all and only those ten fit the bill; but the notion that there are such propositional atoms is seductive. Maybe the metaphysical temptation is diabolical. Kant offered a “transcendental deduction” of the categories in the first Critique, that is, he attempted to demonstrate their legitimacy and necessity of one list, supposing there were to be categories.

Could the idea be extended to social relations? For instance, instead of necessity, possibility, and whatever their negative triplet is — obligation, permission, prohibition? The individual, the collective, others (as seen in Unix file permissions)? Agency and structure? Thinking about it like that, it’s a fairly short step to the system of Talcott Parsons; but just as I have avoided simply transferring Aristotle’s list to the social dimension, the ideal would be to regard existing sociological theory as provisional and suspicious.

This is a separate venture from social psychology, just as Kant’s system is not meant to be a description of specifically human perceptual and conceptual apparatus (“… not how people actually think, but how they should think” KrV A ???). For instance, it seems plausible to regard the in-group and the out-group as basic, with the individual a late addition perhaps introjected from the individual other — larger-than-life characters such as Alcibiades, who would be oriental despots if they could. Yet the individual clearly has a place within the range of possibilities, even if he is as yet only envisaged as a god.

I’ll return to this post with links and the above reference, but most of the former will be from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


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