He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.
—Jesus Christ, Matthew 12:29-31 King James Version
The same mistake would be made by a child witnessing the march-past of a division, who, having had pointed out to him such and such battalions, batteries, squadrons, etc., asked when the division was going to appear.
The theoretically interesting category-mistakes are those made by people who are perfectly competent to apply concepts, at least in the situations with which they are familiar, but are still liable in their abstract thinking to allocate those concepts to logical types to which they do not belong.—Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949)
In his book The Concept of Mind (1949), Gilbert Ryle introduced the notion of the category mistake to describe a seemingly nonsensical mixture of logics. For instance, one mistakes a part for a whole or inverts levels in a hierarchy. The child confuses a division with a battalion or a squadron when it is the overarching category. After a tour of the entire campus the visitor asks, “Where is the university?” Ryle used the category mistake to demonstrate that the mind often escapes Cartesian logics. To believe that the mind is contained within a singular dominant logic is itself nonsensical. A bemused Ryle noted that non-conforming phenomena must, in that event, be treated as “ghosts in the machine.”
When Jesus said, “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad,” he made a category mistake—one hardened with an extra messianic twist. Jesus declared that anything in the world that does not include him is something that excludes him—implying that everything in the world is somehow governed by or concerned with Jesus. Jesus is the larger category within which everything in the world must be contained. Yet he also identifies a parallel world outside of his own—the world in which one can wantonly “scattereth abroad.” That space is then a strange phantom space, a vacancy of some sort that can only be defined by the rejection of Jesus. It is an imponderable, a non-conforming, not-Jesus space—a “ghost in the machine.” Jesus conflated the narrower realm (himself) with the broader domain just like the child who tries to find the broader designation within the narrower designation. But Jesus also makes the über-category mistake of declaring irrelevant or unknowable the gigantic space where people “scattereth abroad.”
While Ryle used the category mistake to identify the limits of Cartesian logics, it is also a useful symptom of any dominant logic with universal claims. In even the richest and most heterogeneous environments, ostensive isomorphism and rhapsodic absolutes of meaning are common. They usually involve the anointing of an approach or a subset of skills as pure, elevated or totalizing. While one would typically consider this move to reflect religiosity or exclusivity, it is also instructive to understand it as a category mistake. The identification of a category mistake helps to break the conundrum that occurs when a dominant logic takes on the messianic posture of declaring that it is everything.
In a critical discourse, one might challenge or argue with this messianic posture, yet most messianic characters know that attracting criticality on pre-ordained terms only enhances a campaign for omnipotence. Messiahs are primarily interested in keeping the attention on themselves, even if it means adopting an even more absolute position to attract contention. Arguing with Jesus, then, compounds the über-category mistake since it reinforces or reifies the dominant logic. It is best not to argue with Jesus. It is perhaps better to leave him alone.
An ability to detect the category mistake allows one to stand just outside the bounds of these absolutes, pointing to and working with the thumping extrinsic evidence found there. It allows one to focus on all of the material of potential creativity that is excluded from a dominant logic rather than merely quarreling with it. The category mistake can be a trap door into the vast pasture of options beyond the circular conundrums of recursive logic. With this expanded mandate the category mistake becomes a metacritical tool that is in constant use, kept at hand, or worn on a string around one’s neck.