This Post is concerned with the relation between Kant’s Categories as transcendental forms of thought and function words as relating to innate pre-linguistic patterns of brain organisation. The Tables above are from Max Müller’s176 translation; Kemp Smith’s178 translation is the same except for minor points such as ‘reciprocity between agent and patient’ in place of ‘reciprocity between the active and the passive’. Kant’s procedure was to derive the Table of Categories from the preceding table of Judgements. The contents of both are a priori, that is they are constituents of the functioning of the human mind before any application of them to externally derived aspects of the world. As Sir William Hamilton pointed out (below), Kant’s categories are totally different from Aristotle’s Categories (predicaments) which were concerned with a quasi-zoological categorisation of the real objects of the world. Kant is classifying the functions of the human mind as applied to thoughts, perceptions, internal mental activity of all kinds. The Categories are effectively innate constituents of the human mind [though Kant does not use the word ‘innate’] in the same way as Time and Space are a priori conditions under which all human perception takes place.
Sir William Hamilton commented: “It is a serious error to imagine that, in his Categories, Aristotle proposed, like Kant, ‘an analysis of the elements of human reason’. The ends proposed by the two philosophers were different, even opposed. In their several Categories, Aristotle attempted a synthesis of things in their multiplicity – a classification of objects real, but in relation to thought; Kant, an analysis of mind in its unity – a dissection of thought, pure but in relation to its objects. In reality, the whole Kantian categories must be excluded from the Aristotelic list, as determinations of thought, and not genera of real things [Sir W.J.Hamilton Essays and Discussions in Meiklejohn177 p. 80]. The confusion and misunderstanding, resulting from Kant’s borrowing the term Categories from Aristotle, is analysed by other commentators, for example, George MacDonald Ross.
In investigating how language is possible, how a thought can be transduced into an utterance, a spoken sentence, Kant’s classification of the processes of the brain/mind is relevant. Sellars179has pointed out that one way of considering the Kantian categories is to think of them as essentially grammatically-derived: “We are construing mental judgements as analogous to sentences. Kant’s categories are grammatical classifications. The category of causality, for example, is the form ‘X implies Y’; there is no image of causality as there is an image of a house. The categories with which Kant is concerned in the Critique are the pure categories, specialized in their turn to thought about spatio-temporal objects; we cannot abstract the categories from sensations or images. Kant’s categories are forms and functions of judgment. They are grammatical summa genera. Aristotle’s list of categories is haphazard [confusing] them with generic concepts of entities in the world. A theory of such concepts must be carefully distinguished from the grammar of thought.”[emphasis added]
 If Kant’s Categories, as Sellars suggests, are to be thought of as aspects of a necessary grammar, then this establishes a link with theorising about the biological bases of language (Chomskyan UG etc.) To say, as Sellars does, that the pure categories are specialised to thought about spatio-temporal objects is too narrow, unless ‘objects’ is taken in a very wide sense as the potential content of all thoughts, all operations of the mind. How did Kant arrive at these quasi-grammatical categories, or more generally these pre-linguistic modes of functioning of the mind? The transition Kant proposed was from forms of judgment (with no origin outside the mind) to forms of thought generally (the Categories). However, the transition, as Kant formulated it, was, as has often been pointed out, in many ways unsatisfactory. Explanation and justification later in the Critique is confusing, even confused. Kant, rather unhelpfully, says: “I purposely omit the definitions of the categories in this treatise. In a system of pure reason, definitions of them would be with justice demanded of me, but to give them here would only hide from our view the main aim or our investigation, at the same time raising doubts and objections, the consideration of which, without injustice to our main purpose, may be very well postponed till another opportunity.” One looks, without much success, in the latter part of the Critique for the promised clarification.
In the absence of Kant’s clarification, what exactly are the contents of the Categories as pure forms of thought and where do they come from? To construct a plausible account of what each category means, or refers to, one has to make use of function words from which, by hypostatisation or abstraction, terms such as ‘hypothetical’, ‘necessity’, ‘contingency’, ‘possibility’, ‘disjunctive’, ‘plurality’, ‘reality’, ‘existence’, are derived. The categories, seem to derive from the set of function words which each language contains: ‘if’-then’, ‘must-may’, ‘can-cannot’, ‘either-or’, ‘more-less’, ‘is-is not’, ‘why-because’, ‘some-all’. Rather than Kant’s formulaic presentation of the Categories, it is the array of functions, labelled by function words,which constitutes the ‘pure’ basis of all thought and thoughts, the means by which different concepts, different elements in the mind are linked together, put in relationship with one another. Function words cannot be derived empirically from any external perception or experience and constitute the innate a priori pre-linguistic structure from which all grammars are derived, a manifestation of universal brain-processes, human neurophysiology, to which names have become attached in world languages. There remains the question, touched on in the section on the acquisition of function words by children, how these brain functions came to be labelled with specific word-forms. To say that we find the words in the ambient language which children acquire is no sufficient answer. Children acquire the words because the functions precede the words and the words are judged appropriate for the functions which children already have. But how in the original development of any language, in a given community, did the function word come to be attached to the function? How did a member of the community come to name a function with the word ‘if’ or ‘or’? The answer must be the same as that for the labelling of any internal, subjective, experience, that the neural structure or process, the patterning of the experience, was transduced in the form of a motor patterning externalised as an articulatory gesture, so producing a word-sound structurally related to the neural patterning of the experience. The function word generated by one individual could be recognised by others as referring to the particular function because the sound of the word matched the neural patterning of the function for them as it did for the originator of the word. For example, the word ‘if’ (or the equivalent word in any other language)was first generated by a single individual; there is nothing external from which ‘if’ can be derived, so ‘if’ must have been derived from pre-existing neural patterning. Function words can be seen as marking real categories of human neural functioning on which the grammatical organisation of language has been constructed.
[Extracted from THE CHILD AND THE WORLD 2005 pp. 1-48]


  1. Erik ha detto:

    It is misleading when considering Kant's categories to bring in any special science (neurology, biology, linguistics), this is not how the categories are verified, rather they are verified with reference to the possibility of thinking an object, and restricted to theoretical cognition, the possibility of thinking an object of some possible experience. The question here is not how these judgments relate to grammar, but how thought relates to appearance or things-in-themselves (problematically) as the specific determinations of the object in general.

    When considering the category of cause, one is considering the necessary conceptual content of the experience of something happening. That the experience of something happening has something presently appearing (effect) which presupposes in thought a cause; the cause (as we know from the resolution of the third antinomy) may be thought as either in terms of appearance or thing-in-itself. When thought in terms of thing-in-itself, it is no longer an object of possible experience, and cannot come to be known by theoretical cognition, however, it can be known practically.

    I would suggest Heidegger's work “What is a Thing?”, as I feel he does a very good job with discussing the categories in detail, and comparing them to Aristotle's treatment of things.


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