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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in philosophy, the most general and fundamental concepts, reflecting essential, universal properties and relations of the phenomena of reality and cognition. Categories originated and developed as the result of generalizing from the historical development of cognition and social practice.

In the early forms of philosophical thought, categories emerged as principles of departure, as the world’s “first principles”: water, air, earth, fire, ether, and other primal elements. When the distinction was made between being and thinking, between consciousness and cognition, the categories took on a logical aspect. For example, Plato recognized five basic categories: essence (being), motion, rest, identity, and difference. Aristotle wrote a special treatise entitled Categories, in which categories are treated as a reflection and the highest generalization of objective reality. He distinguished ten categories: essence (substance), quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and affection. However, Aristotle did not reveal the dialectical interrelationships among the categories. His system of categories was the predominant one for many centuries.

In the modern period thinkers advanced various systems of categories, treating them either materialistically or idealistically. Thus, I Kant regarded categories as the a priori forms of understanding. In his view they are merely the forms into which, as it were, is cast the diverse content of the material of cognition, which is furnished to them from the outside by the senses. The categories do not define objects in themselves (the “things-in-themselves”) but rather the cognizing subject, the structures of his thought. Kant distinguished the following categories: quality (reality, negation, and limitation), quantity (unity, plurality, and totality), relation (substance and property, cause and effect, and community, or reciprocity), and modality (possibility and impossibility, existence and nonexistence, necessity and contingency). This system encompasses the most important categories of human thought and, to a large degree, still retains its significance.

Enormous progress was made by the system of categories set forth by G. Hegel, for whom philosophy is nothing else but a dialectical system of categories—in thought, nature, spirit, and history. The purely logical categories are these: being (quality, quantity, and measure), essence (ground, appearance, and actuality—this last, moreover, includes substance, cause, and reciprocity, or mutual interaction), and the Concept, or Begriff (subject, object, and absolute idea). Although he demonstrated the dialectics of categories, their interconnection and reciprocal transitions, he treated categories as the production of a thinking world spirit.

Certain contemporary bourgeois philosophers regard the categories as a special autonomous world of ideas, torn away from both the material, objective world and the subjective world of man. Subjective idealists assert that categories have no objective content. Thus, for example, the existentialists assume that any category that man uses in his thought bears his own unique and profoundly personal coloration. Emphasis on the intimately personal sphere of inner life and the forms of its expression in concepts and symbols, which are full of psychologism, is fundamental to existentialism. In contrast to existentialism, which strives to “humanize” categorial concepts, to deprive them of objective content, and to accord them an emotionally subjective sense, neo-positivism attempts to reduce philosophical categories to the terms of formal logic and to the concepts of specialized spheres of scientific knowledge. Neo-Thomists have imbued the categories with a religious sense, asserting that they have existed since the beginning in the divine reason as archetypes of real things, properties, and relations.

By using the attainments of world philosophical thought, Marxism has developed the categories on the basis of dialectical materialism. The categories of the materialistic dialectic are a generalization of the experience and practice of the previous history of mankind. They include the singular, particular, general, part, whole, form, content, essence, phenomenon, law, necessity, contingency, possibility, reality, quality, quantity, and measure, among others. They reflect the entire world (insofar as it is known) but not everything in the world. They reflect it only on the plane of universal properties, relationships, and regularities of development. Categories form the basic intellectual means for the philosophical cognition of being and of the results of its concrete scientific and artistic reflection. The concepts of specialized fields of knowledge have arisen through studies that have generalized from a certain separate sphere of being. However, no system of analytical concepts has exhausted the entire richness of mankind’s intellectual experience as embodied in global philosophical categories.

Categories are focal points of cognition, “stages,” moments of thought’s penetration into the essence of things.

In characterizing the cognitive significance of categories, V. I. Lenin wrote: “Man is confronted with a web of natural phenomena. Instinctive man, the savage, does not distinguish himself from nature. Conscious man does distinguish, categories are stages of distinguishing, i.e., of cognizing the world, focal points in the web, which assist in cognizing and mastering it” (Poln. sobr. sock, 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 85). In expressing, as it were, the world’s framework, the categorial structure of thought is relatively stable. Nevertheless, it is also changeable and historical. The content of the categories is especially mobile. During the course of history the role and place of individual categories have changed. The materialistic dialectic has been enriched by new categories (for example, structure and system), and already existing categories have been deepened.

Categories are an ideal analogy of the material world, its general properties, connections, and relationships; from this are derived their methodological value and the need to apply them to the study of phenomena in nature, society, and thought. The categories of dialectic, as distinct from general concepts in specific fields of knowledge, which play a methodological role only within a delimited sphere of thought, penetrate the entire fabric of scientific thought. In addition to reflecting reality, categories are a necessary intellectual means of transforming it. The theoretical reproduction of reality and its creative transformation in thought are possible only within a system of categories. Categories play the role of “yardsticks” of the intellectually grasped object, the logical means of its comprehension and fixation. They are the organizing principles of thought, the focal points of the connection between subject and object, the standards, as it were, with the aid of which we make sense of all the richness of sensory immediacy.

Philosophical categories, by continuously accumulating within themselves the results of individual specialized disciplines, have facilitated the separation and the synthesis of worldview and general methodological moments in the content of scientific thought. It is precisely the categories of human thought that present an index of the level of mankind’s general intellectual development during a given historical period. It was not in vain that Hegel called philosophy an epoch seized in thought. Thanks to categories, particular objects are perceived and conceived as particular manifestations of the general, as included within a system of generalized relations. The mastery of categories during a person’s individual development is a necessary condition for the formation of the capacity for theoretical thought.

The categories of materialist dialectics are in a definite relationship among themselves, and they represent a system. In discussions being conducted on the composition of categories in this system and their hierarchy, the following principles concerning its structure have been generally accepted as points of departure. In objective reality everything is interconnected and is in a state of univeral reciprocal interaction. Hence even the categories reflecting the world have a definite interconnectedness. Each category reflects a certain aspect of the objective world, while taken together they “embrace conditionally, approximately, the universal law-governed character of eternally moving and developing nature” (ibid., p. 164). Each of the categories, by reflecting the universal connection among things, thereby expresses something absolute. Therefore, none of the categories can be replaced, “overcome,” or changed into another. The system of categories is constructed on the basis of a unity between the logical and the historical. A logically consistent elaboration of categories within the system of Marxist philosophy must in an abbreviated form reflect the history of the formation and development of the categorical structure of human thought, proceeding from the simple to the complex. Categories are interconnected in such a way that each of them can be understood only as an element of the entire system of categories. The process of the development of phenomena consists in their passing through a step-by-step transition from simple things to complex ones, from lower to higher forms of being. Knowledge too advances in just such a regular sequence.


Kategorrii materialisticheskoi dialektiki. Moscow, 1956.
Georgiev, F. I. Kategorii materialisticheskoi dialektiki. Moscow, 1960.
Sheptulin, A. P. Sistema kategorii dialektiki. Moscow, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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