Category mistake

Term introduced by English philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) for cases where we talk of something in terms appropriate only to something of a radically different kind.

For example, ‘The Prime Minister is in London, and the Foreign Secretary is in Paris, and the Home Secretary is in Bristol, but where is the Government?’

The Government is not another person alongside its members.

Ryle used the notion primarily to claim that mind and body cannot be spoken of in parallel ways, but are in different ‘categories’.

One problem is to say when things are indeed in different categories.

G Ryle, The Problem of Mind (1949), ch. 1

Gilbert Ryle

The term “category-mistake” was introduced by Gilbert Ryle in his book The Concept of Mind (1949) to remove what he argued to be a confusion over the nature of mind born from Cartesian metaphysics. Ryle argued that it was a mistake to treat the mind as an object made of an immaterial substance because predications of substance are not meaningful for a collection of dispositions and capacities.[citation needed]

The phrase is introduced in the first chapter.[3] The first example is of a visitor to Oxford. The visitor, upon viewing the colleges and library, reportedly inquired “But where is the University?”[4] The visitor’s mistake is presuming that a University is part of the category “units of physical infrastructure” rather than that of an “institution”. Ryle’s second example is of a child witnessing the march-past of a division of soldiers. After having had battalions, batteries, squadrons, etc. pointed out, the child asks when is the division going to appear. “The march-past was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division.” (Ryle’s italics) His third example is of a foreigner being shown a cricket match. After being pointed out batsmen, bowlers and fielders, the foreigner asks: “who is left to contribute the famous element of team-spirit?”[3]

He goes on to argue that the Cartesian dualism of mind and body rests on a category mistake. In the philosophy of the mind, Ryle’s category mistake argument can be used to support eliminative materialism. By using the argument, one can attack the existence of a separate, distinct mind. The argument concludes that minds are not conscious, but a collective predicate for a set of observable behaviour and unobservable dispositions.[5]


  1. ^ Blackburn, Simon (1994). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press. p. 58.
  2. ^ Lacewing, Michael (14 July 2017). Philosophy for A Level: Metaphysics of God and Metaphysics of Mind. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-351-67460-7.
  3. Jump up to:a b Ryle, Gilbert (1949). The Concept of Mind. p. 16. ISBN 9780226732961.
  4. ^ MacFadden, T. G. (Summer 2001). “Understanding the Internet: Model, Metaphor, and Analogy” (PDF)Library Trends. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 50 (1): 96. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
  5. ^ Welshon, Rex (2011). Philosophy, Neuroscience and Consciousness. Durham: Acumen. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-84465-159-7.

One thought on “Category mistake

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