Is Being a Category for Aristotle?

© by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised: April 24, 2007

Aristotle implicitly addresses the question whether Being is a category that includes the beings in all the categories (listed in the Categories).

(1) Metaphysics V.7.1017a24-28 (Irwin and Fine. Aristotle Selections, pp. 270-271);

The things that are said to be in their own right are all those that are signified by the types of predication; for they are said to be in as many ways as there are ways of signifying being. Among things predicated, some signify what-it-is, some quality, some quantity, some relative, some acting, some being acted upon, some where, some when; and so being signifies the same as each of these . . .
"Types of predications" here refers to categories. Aristotle says that things are said to be in many ways. That is his way of saying that being has multiple meanings, not a single meaning.

(2) VII.1.1028a13-20 and a29-32 (Irwin and Fine, pp. 272-73);

While being is spoken of in many ways, it is evident that among these the primary being is the what-it-is, which signifies substance. For whenever we say what quality this has, we call it good or bad, not six feet long or a man, whereas whenever we say what it is, we call it a man or a god, not pale or hot or six feet long; and the other things are called beings by belonging to this type of being--some as quantities, some as qualities, some as affections, some in some other way . . . Clearly, then, it is because of substance that each of those other things is also a being; so that what is in the primary way--what is not something [else] but is without qualification a being--is substance.
(3) Book IX 1045b27-33 (Irwin and Fine, p. 324)
We have now discussed what is in the primary way, the being to which all the other predications of being are referred, namely substance. For it is the account of substance that determines that the other things-quantity, quality, and the other things spoke of in this way-are called beings; for, as we said . . . they all have the account of substance.
Aristotle seems to have modified his conception of science between the Posterior Analytics (where different categories of subject-matter require different sciences) and the central books of Metaphysics. What now unifies the study of being qua being is that "it is because of substance that each of those other things [in non-substance categories] is also a being, so that what is in the primary way--what is . . . without qualification a being--is substance."

Here Aristotle seems to have stumbled upon the modern cognitive linguistic notion of a radial category (without calling it that), at least in the case of being. (And this may not be the only case in which he did so; he treats "good" in this way in Nicomachean Ethics Book I, chapter 6.

J. Garrett
April 24, 2007