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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: July 2009

2 - Historical Background: Aristotle and Kant


The history of philosophical theories of the categories is nearly coextensive with the history of philosophy itself. Even if I were able to, I would not want to tell all of this history, but only those parts of it that are relevant to making sense of the sociological theories of the categories that arose in France at the turn of the twentieth century. As I mentioned in Chapter 1 and will explain more fully in the following chapters, Durkheim's theory of the categories was proposed in response to a French academic philosophical tradition in which theories of the origins and causes of the categories played a fundamental role. To appreciate Durkheim's arguments for reestablishing philosophy on the basis of a sociological theory of the categories, we need to understand this tradition. But to understand the tradition that Durkheim was rejecting, it would help first to survey briefly the prior history of philosophical accounts of the categories.

Our history should start with Aristotle. Not only did Aristotle dominate philosophical thinking about the categories until Kant, but Durkheim and Mauss themselves suggested that this is where we ought to begin. As we saw in Chapter 1, Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life traced the concept of the categories back to Aristotle: “There exist, at the root of our judgments, a certain number of essential notions that dominate all of our intellectual life; these are those that the philosophers, since Aristotle, call the categories of the understanding” (1912a: 12–13, t. 1995: 8).