On a category mistake: ‘Human beings are weak’

Here are three questions that fascinate me:

1.) How did we go from being creatures who above all ‘desire to know’ (Aristotle, Metaphysics I)–let us say: to understand our place in the world–to being creatures who want most of all to be helped (modernity)?

2.) How did the accidental property of weakness (e.g., feeling weak on Tuesday) become a state or condition (Smith IS weak; human beings ARE weak)?

3.) How was it possible for compassion (or: empathy or pity) to become championed as the supreme virtue of all virtues today?


Consider the category mistake made in the second claim. By ‘category mistake,’ the philosopher Gilbert Ryle means the attribution of certain properties that rightly belong to one category to another category. For instance, although the body certainly has appendages, it seems to me a category mistake to claim that the mind ‘has’ ‘faculties.’

Suppose John has gone for a run. Afterward, when asked how the run went, he tells us, ‘I felt weak today.’ And ‘weak’ may mean that his legs were sore, that his muscles were tired, that he ran slowly, that things felt like a struggle, that he couldn’t regulate his breathing properly, etc. Were we to ask him to tell us what ‘weak’ means in this context, doubtless he would be able to do so.

It would be odd, however, to draw the conclusion from the claim that ‘John felt weak today’ that ‘John is weak.’ And it would be just as fallacious even if John commonly felt fatigued after a run. Of course, we might say that ‘John is a weak runner,’ but that wouldn’t be the same thing as claiming that John is weak.

Something very odd has happened once we began affirming the metaphysical premise that human creatures are inherently weak, with this weakness being some kind of claim about a state or condition of human existence in general. We seem to be searching for a metaphysical warrant for an ethical account of people being ‘in need,’ desiring ‘to be helped,’ and wishing for empathy.

Yet it is only in rather rare circumstances that Smith is actually in need, needs to be helped, and yearns for compassion. Mostly, Smith wants to take care of himself and his own or else wants to learn how to do so. Smith, after all, is not a very young child, and it would be strange for us to model our understandings of fully grown persons on our experiences with very young children.

To do otherwise is decidedly and pointedly to refuse to recognize Smith as a complex human being who is capable of understanding himself and of inquiring about the world he encounters. If one persists in holding that ‘human beings are weak,’ either one has failed to be a friend (in a broad sense of ‘friendliness,’ of ‘being friendly’), or one has failed to be a teacher (also in a very broad sense).