RYLE AND LATOUR: On Category Mistakes

At the beginning of Chapter Two of AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE Bruno Latour recounts an anecdote based on Gilbert Ryle’s introduction of the notion of category mistake in THE CONCEPT OF MIND (1949): “The canonical example involves a foreign visitor going through the buildings of the Sorbonne, one after another; at the end of the day, he complains that he “hasn’t seen the University of the Sorbonne.” His request had been misunderstood: he wanted to see an institution, but he had been shown buildings . . . For he had sought in one entity an entirely different entity from what the first could show him” (AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, 48-49).

Latour’s initial comment on this story is a little surprising, as he supposes that the visitor’s request would have been satisfied if he had been introduced to the rector, to the faculty assembly, or to the university’s attorney, but this supposition is itself based on a category mistake, since Latour is here confusing the University as an institution with particular members or representatives of that institution. Latour then proceeds to explain: “His interlocutors had misheard the key in which what he was requesting could be judged true or false, satisfactory or unsatisfactory” (49). Ryle’s name is not cited, but this remark is faithful to Ryle’s analysis of category mistakes as based on a misapplication of concepts consisting in allocating them to the wrong logical type.

Latour’s explanation follows from the introduction, in Chapter One, of his thesis concerning “the pluralism of modes and thus the plurality of keys by means of which their truth or falsity is judged” (18). The context he gives is that of Austin’s theory of speech acts:

“But the difficulty is not so great, after all, if we turn to the work done by J. L. Austin and his successors on “speech acts.” The notions of felicity and infelicity conditions, now solidly established in our intellectual traditions, make it possible to contrast very different types of veridiction without reducing them to a single model” (18).

If we look up the expression”category mistake” on the site associated with the book, we find this entry:

“The expression is valuable in beginning to separate the different modes: it supposes that we question a situation in a key which we soon realize is not the right one and in which it will be pointless to persist. Better simply to change key. The phrase is attributed to (Ryle, 1949 [200]), who wanted to counter the Bifurcation of soul and body; his example is of a visitor wishing to visit the University of Oxford, who complains after seeing a large number of buildings that he has still not seen the University”.

It is interesting to compare Latour’s account with the original version, which is a little clearer:

“A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University.’
It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The University is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized. When they are seen and when their co-ordination is understood, the University has been seen. His mistake lay in his innocent assumption that it was correct to speak of Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the University, to speak, that is, as if ‘the University’ stood for an extra member of the class of which these other units are members. He was mistakenly allocating the University to the same category as that to which the other institutions belong” (THE CONCEPT OF MIND, 6).

This mistake of allocating a term to the wrong category is an error in logical grammar. Latour seems to want to echo this analysis when he chooses the term “preposition” to designate the interpretive key necessary to situate a set of utterances in their appropriate category, to understand them according to the correct régime of enunciation, and to follow their particular trajectory of veridiction:

“To designate these different trajectories, I have chosen the term preposition, using it in
its most literal, grammatical sense, to mark a position-taking that comes before a proposition is stated, determining how the proposition is to be grasped and thus constituting its interpretive key”.

This use of “preposition” is in fact metaphorical, and not at all “literal” (word added by the translator) nor “grammatical” (the grammatical category of preposition is not at all engaged), but etymological and morphological: “preposition” is analysed into pre-position. Here again Latour is guilty of a category mistake. A further example of this non-literal use of  the term “preposition” comes in Chapter Six when Latour discusses the difference between his project and critical thought as exemplified in Derrida’s deconstruction: “And it is finally Derrida, the Zeno of “differance,” who was right always to preface the notion of construction with the preposition “de”: constructivism is always in fact de-construction” (156). This is a grammatical error, we are not properly talking about a preposition but about the prefix “de-“. Thus the author finds himself once more enmeshed in the very error that his manual is warning against.

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