3 Feb 2017

Sambursky (1.4) Physics of the Stoics, “The Four Categories”, selective summary


by Corry Shores


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[The following is a selective summary, meaning that I select certain ideas to discuss rather than thoroughly summarize the text. All bracketed commentary and boldface is mine. Proofreading is incomplete, so you will encounter distracting typos. I apologize in advance.]





Samuel Sambursky


Physics of the Stoics



The Dynamic Continuum


1.4 The Four Categories


Selective summary



Brief summary [of selected ideas]:

The Stoics held that all things can be metaphysically classified under four hierarchical categories, all of which fall under the concept of the something. In their consecutive order they are: substratum, quality, state, and relative state. The fourth category is divided into two subcategories. {a} A relative state, which is defined by something outside it, like the father-son relation. And {b} a relative, which is something capable of undergoing change between states by matters of degree that are measure by comparing the two states, like being at a level of two degrees of sweetness compared to bitterness. A hexis is an example of a relative, because it is comprised of pneumata that each express a quality such that a continuous variation in the composition of the pneuma will result in a continuous variation in its quality. The four categories fit within the Stoic theory of the dynamic continuum. The substratum is the pneuma which binds the parts of all things and which endows them with qualities. The qualities are determined by the [physical] states of the pneuma, which are always in relative states, given that they are constantly under variation as their pneumata alter their compositions.




Selective summary



Sambursky will now consider a methodological principle of the Stoics, called the Stoic doctrine of categories, which is directly relevant to their physical theory and which “was possibly developed first to fit the conceptual frame of physics and later generalized as a directive for other fields of scientific and philosophical thought” (17). Although they are called “categories”, they share nothing in common with Aristotle’s categories that classify concepts. The categories are not systematized hierarchically in the sense that the categories are not subclassifications of a higher notion. [I am not certain if this is related, but it reminds me of Henry Somers-Hall’s account of how there is no highest genus of being for Aristotle. See section 1.3 of his guide to Difference and Repetition. There he writes, “the ultimate categories through which being is understood must be multiple, as they themselves are species in relation to the undefined genus” (Somers-Hall 27)].

Aristotle’s ten categories82 are an attempt – in accordance with a principle not known to us – to compile a list of concepts such that every word of non-compounded meaning can be shown to belong to one of them. This list thus forms a horizontal classification. In other words-the various points of view from which one can look at objects are regarded by Aristotle as a group of co-ordinated notions not bound together by a higher notion embracing all of them.

82. Substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, affection.



The Stoic’s four categories, in contrast, “are a vertical classification according to which every object is determined by four successive steps of increasing specification such that every category includes the preceding one” (17). By means of this system, one can provide a “complete ontological definition of an object” (17). Now, although there are four categories, there is a notion that comprises all four, namely, the something. Under it are substratum, quality, state, and relative state (17). [Sambursky here cites in footnote 83: “Simpl., Categ., 66, 32 f.; Plotin, loc. cit., VI, i, 25: ὑποκείμενον, ποιόν, πως ἒχον, πρός τί πως ἒχον.” Refering to footnote 60 on page 11: “60. Plotin, Ennead., II, vii.”]


We can relate the categories to the conceptual structure underlying the Stoic’s notion of the physical continuum. [The first category, substratum, is the pneuma. The second category, qualities, arise when the pneuma, which is by itself quality-less, mixes with matter. The third category, state, corresponds to the ratio of Air and Fire making up the pneumata of an object’s hexis and determining its qualities. The sum total of all the pneumata constituting the hexis defines the thing’s physical state. I am not sure if this is the fourth category, relative state. There is a subdivision of this state into two sorts of relations: relative state and the relative. The relative state is defined by something outside it, like the father-son relation. A relative is something capable of undergoing change between states by matters of degree that are measure by comparing the two states, like being at a level of two degrees of sweetness compared to bitterness. I am not sure I follow the next idea. It seems to be the following. Hexis is an example of a relative. The hexis of a thing is the mixture of its pneumata, with each of which expressing one of its qualities and the entire mixture also serving to actively cohere the parts together. Now, if the pneumata alter their composition, they will do so continuously, thereby altering the property they carry continuously. Hexis, it would then seem, is a relative but in a more general sense, because a hexis would seem to contain a variety of relatives, that is, a varied set of many different continuously changeable qualities.]

If we look at the conceptual structure of the physical continuum as we have come to know it in the preceding pages, we perceive a striking analogy with the set-up of the Stoic categories. Shapeless and passive matter is the primary substratum of the cosmos and as such without any qualities.87 It is the all-pervading pneuma which, by totally mixing with matter, imbues it with all its qualities,39 and thus represents the second category. The third category, the state, is given by the fact that to each specific quality of the body there is attributed a specific mixture of the pneuma defined by a certain proportion of its two components, air and fire. The sum total of all pneumata permeating the body then defines its physical state. There is a lack of consistency in the extant sources with regard to terminology. Thus we find no direct reference to hexis as a physical state, but Alexander once mentions the “physical property of a body”, which is much the same as hexis, and calls it “pneuma in a certain state”.88 Hexis, however, is mentioned expressly in connection with the fourth category, and the passage in Simplicios referring to it89 is of great significance for the understanding of the whole subject. Simplicios informs us of a subdivision of the fourth category: the Stoics distinguished between two kinds of relations, the relative state90 and the relative91. The first denoted a state defined by that of another thing outside it, such as the relation father-son or left- and right-hand neighbour. The relative referred to things capable of change (the examples given are sweet and bitter), whereby | the relation is given through comparison of two states of this change (e.g. two degrees of sweetness) . Simplicios quotes hexis as another example of the relative which throws into relief the dynamic notion of Stoic physics, because hexis is the key term of the physical continuum which embraces an infinity of different states. Each of these states can evolve from another by a continuous transition produced through the “change of the former quality”,92  a change which corresponds to that of the spectrum of all pneuma tensions permeating the body involved.

87. Diog. Laert., VII, 137.

[Footnote 39 is on page 7:

39. Plut., De Stoic. repugn., 1053 f.


88. Alex. Aphr., Topica. 360, 10.

89. Simpl., Categ., 165, 32-166, 29.

90. πρός τί πως ἔχον.

91. πρός τι.

92. Galen, Method. med., I, 6 (Arnim, II, 494) .







Sambursky, Samuel. 1973. Physics of the Stoics. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood. [First published 1959, London: Routledge and Kagen Paul.]


Or if otherwise noted:

Somers-Hall, Henry. 2013. Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University.




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