Sortal term

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As Sortale Terme ( English sortals ) are in the philosophy of language predicates referred relating to objects which are different from each other in space and therefore countable. Examples are, in particular, predicates that determine the types or types of material objects such as tables and chairs, apples and pears.

The sortal terms determine what counts as an individual of a variety and what is already considered to be another of the same variety. In this way they make it possible to distinguish and count individual individuals of the same species or variety.

Such a predicate is z. B. "Cat". One cat is definitely delimited from another; a part of a cat cannot be called a "cat". However, z. B. “red” or “water” are not predicates of this kind. If two red objects are definitely delimited from one another, it is not because they are red. These predicates do not oppose an arbitrary division either: every part of a red surface is still red.

The term was introduced by Peter Strawson . In terms of the matter, Gottlob Frege already describes a sortal term as a concept "which defines what falls under it and does not allow any arbitrary division".

Grammatical usage

Sortal terms can be used in the subject (“This cat ...”) and predicate position (“... is a cat”) of a sentence. In the subject position, sortal terms in combination with other terms serve as means of referential acts. If a sortal term occurs in the predicate position, it determines the type of the reference object of the term in the subject position. In contrast to other predicates, sortal terms can grammatically only be used with an article (“the cat”, “a cat”). Demonstrative pronouns like “this” can only function as singular terms if they are used together with sortal terms (“this mountain”, “this beetle” etc.).

Philosophical meaning

Expression of spatial and temporal unity

An individual falling under a sortal term represents a spatial and a temporal unit. It can be spatially delimited from other individuals and remains the same for the entire duration of its existence. For this reason, the individuals that fall under the sortal terms can also be counted. Any spatial or temporal division would undo it as an individual of its kind. The referencing with the help of sortal terms is independent of random features of the reference objects. Your knowledge is also necessary in order to be able to speak successfully at all: if we want to refer to an object, we must know its type or type.

The identity criteria necessary for counting the individuals of a species are given with the intention of sortal terms. Whoever understands the meaning of the sortal term "cat" can distinguish one cat from another and knows that a spatial or temporal part of a cat is no longer a cat. Once a speaker has understood the meaning of a sortal term, he has grasped the individuation principle , which allows him to distinguish and count the individuals or the specimens to which the term applies.

Conventionalism debate

In the classical philosophy of language analysis, the sortal terms were interpreted in a purely conventionalist manner . Then the individuals of a species are “constituted” based on purely linguistic conventions. Characteristic of this point of view is Quine's thesis that a term can be coupled with various identity criteria and that its extension depends on these . Would z. B. the term "rabbit" does not coincide with the temporal beginning and end of rabbits, these would be different from rabbits in our sense. Depending on the identity criteria, rabbits would then have to be counted differently. The freedom of conventional stipulations, however, is also restricted for the conventionalists by pragmatic considerations, since some stipulations have proven to be too cumbersome for everyday speaking.

Against the classical conventionalist point of view, David Wiggins raised the objection that what an individual is cannot be traced back to any linguistic convention.

Wiggins illustrates his objection with the biblical story of Lot's wife , who froze to a pillar of salt as she looked back at the rain of fire. Wiggins asks whether we could not introduce a new sortal term “woman-pillar” in the sense of the conventionalist interpretation, which is coupled with new conditions of identity, and thus say that we are dealing with one and the same individual who existed before and after the rain of fire . Wiggins emphasizes that this contradicts our intuitive conviction that the existence of individuals can be extended or shortened at will by introducing new sortal terms.

History of philosophy development

The concept of the sortal terms can be understood as a rediscovery of the Aristotelian concept of substance . For Aristotle , the substance predicates were characterized by the fact that they are gestalt predicates and contain a principle of countability ( hen arithmo ). In the early modern period, the Aristotelian concept of substance was then rejected by John Locke and David Hume . Instead of a substrate that was not perceptible by itself, it was assumed that the objects are based on bundles of properties instantiated in space and time ( bundle theory ) to which the word “this” could refer. This view persisted in English empiricism up to Bertrand Russell and was only called into question again by the concept of the sortal terms.


  • Bartholomäus Böhm: Identity and Identification. On the persistence of physical objects. Frankfurt / Bern / New York / Paris 1989.
  • Wolfgang Carl: Existence and Predication. Linguistic analysis of existence statements. Munich 1974.
  • EJ Lowe: More Kinds of Being: A Further Study of Individuation, Identity, and the Logic of Sortal Terms. Wiley-Blackwel, 2009, pp. 12-28.
  • Edmund Runggaldier : Signs and Signs. Linguistic-philosophical investigations into the problem of reference. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1985, pp. 297-304.
  • Edmund Runggaldier: Analytical Philosophy of Language (Basic Course Philosophy Vol. 11). Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1990, pp. 128-132.
  • Ernst Tugendhat : Lectures as an introduction to the philosophy of language analysis. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1976, ISBN 978-3-518-27645-7 , pp. 453-461.

Web links


  1. Peter Strawson: “A sortal universal supplies a principle for distinguishing and counting individual particulars which it collects”, in: Individuals. An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London 1959), p. 168.
  2. Gottlob Frege: Fundamentals of Arithmetic (1884) § 54.
  3. ^ "... it is excluded that anything can be just anything." (David Wiggins: Sameness and Substance . Oxford 1980, p. 105)
  4. ^ "We do not at the moment think of matters like this." (David Wiggins: Sameness and Substance. Oxford 1980, p. 67)
  5. David Wiggins: Sameness and Substance. Oxford 1980, p. 28
  6. ^ Peter Geach : Reference and Generality. An Examination of Some Medieval and Modern Theories . Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1962, p. 43 f.