More and more, I see the answer of innumerable confusions and conundrums as a matter of prepositional category mistakes.

What do I mean by this? According to Oxford English Dictionary, a category mistake is “the error of assigning to something a quality or action that can properly be assigned to things only of another category, for example, treating abstract concepts as though they had a physical location.” A prepositional category mistake is a category mistake pertaining to relationships between one that explicitly or (more often) implicitly gets a relationship among entities wrong in a way that misleads thinking. The pragmatic consequences following from the relational conception lead to confusion, error or ineffectiveness.

For instance, we might confuse something we ought to experience from — a subjectivity — for an object of experience. (My example here is philosophy. We think a philosophy is a body of truth assertions which are there for us to examine and judge, when in fact the truth assertions are primarily a means for entering and inhabiting the philosophy — from which truths are asserted, examined and judged.)

Or we confuse something that we understand toward (something we orient ourselves toward that is in principle beyond knowledge, or something we can asymptoticly approach in increasing understanding but never reach) with something suited for comprehension as a direct object. (My example here is reality itself vis-a-vis our understanding.)

Or something that mediates an experience of some object as itself an object, instead of an experiencing through. (Here I’m thinking about user interfaces. Novices look at the interface and ask “does it make sense to me?” Experienced designers want to know if the work being done makes sense when performed using the interface, which is why usability testing is organized around the performance of tasks.)

Or we misconstrue a relationship within which partners function as participants within an enclosing whole which includes but exceeds either, snd view it only as an exchange between two self-contained peers. (My primary example here is marriage. The former is what I call actual marriage, but because few modern couples know how to use a participation-in-transcendence conception most enact something closer to what I would call “peers engaged in intimacy exchange”.)

These kinds of things are easy to get wrong. Our thinking is naturally (or deeply, culturally second-naturally) oriented toward objects. Relationships among objects are far more elusive, and we are often distracted by the things themselves when the real confusion is in the manner of togetherness in the things together.

I realize the examples I am providing are sup-optimal. I’ve jumped to the difficult relationships that motivate my thinking, when what is needed are simple, concrete examples that can be built upon.

For this, I plan to rely on a taxonomy developed by Don Ihde and the postphenomenologists: four basic forms of technological mediation: embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations. Both my philosophy and design practice are pressing me to finally commit these relationships to memory, so I will write up a succinct summary of these relationships in the next few days.


I also realize “prepositional category mistake” is bad writing. I plan to call this kind of confusion misrelation. I’m over hideous philosophical language, and I plan to design more usable and desirable vocabulary for conveying my more useful, usable and desirable philosophy. The conceptions I take from phenomenology and other disciplines will all be sent to the gym and given makeovers.

And of course it will all be embodied in a well-designed, well-crafted book.

Useful, usable and desirable all the way down, sahib.

2 thoughts on “Misrelations

  1. I think of categories as simply labels for sets of relations. So to make a category mistake entails making a relational mistake. I simple way of viewing categories this way is to think of how a type system in a programming language works. When I declared a variable to be of type X, what I am primarily doing is stating to the compiler/interpreter/someone-understanding-the-program that X can be used in certain operations (aka relations) and not others. So a type error/category error occurs when I use X in a relation that is not defined for X. Given all this, I’m not sure another word (eg misrelation) is needed. Perhaps just expanding the use of “category error” will suffice.

    Perhaps this question will help illuminate the issue: What kinds of category errors are there besides misrelational ones? I can’t really think of any.

    1. Maybe the word relation is too broad for the use I’m giving it. Would it change anything if I called this variety of category mistake a “situation mistake”? The way entities are situated in relation to one another is incorrect. Or even a “set mistake” — since the set relationships are mis-structured?

      The reason I’m interested in isolating this phenomenon and giving it a more specific name is there is a commonality among these examples that goes beyond the fact that they are all category mistakes. I need a sub-category. Cue joke.

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