# What does 'categorical denial' mean, and where does it originate?

categorical denial

Is this in fact a term with logic roots, applied to daily use?

I thought it meant something like:

placed in a specific, simple, logical category, thus easily dismissed and absolutely denied on the basis of pure logic

But, no sources seem to claim that category = absolute.

So, I'm confused about how to use it.

Cambridge: categorical denial (often used together)

categorical:

without any doubt or possibility of

Why would categorical mean that? ...unless it refers to a logical category?

denial:

a statement that something is not true or does

So, we are to believe that categorically means "absolute" in lexical meaning, as even Quora users say?

Quora: categorical denial

...leaves no room for doubt or ambiguity

While categorical denial means absolute denial in applied nuance and connotation, I doubt that is its lexical-literal origin. It seems to me that the term categorical as used in categorical denial is a term borrowed from logic jargon because I recognize it...

Britanica: categorical syllogism

The traditional type is the categorical syllogism in which both premises and the conclusion are simple declarative statements that are constructed using only three simple terms between them, each term appearing twice

So, is the term categorical borrowed from the logic term categorical syllogism?

What specifically would categorical denial mean—and not mean—if used properly based on its logic roots?

Or, did the term category originally mean absolute, then the disciplines of math and logic borrow the term and start using it in logical syllogisms.

• Answered pretty well here: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/47752/…. That answer could be improved with an etymological reference, like this one: etymonline.com/word/categorical Commented Aug 7 at 22:54
• @Juhasz that's great, but it doesn't address categorical denial and proper usage given any logic background it may have. Commented Aug 7 at 22:57
• Google ngrams list examples from around 1880. 'Denied categorically' has tokens from the same era. Commented Aug 7 at 23:20
• @EdwinAshworth some of those seem to be used in the context of logic. So, will you write an answer? Commented Aug 7 at 23:23
• An absolute denial like No, No, No can say Not Guilty, but be protesting too much. A categorical denial is a summary dismissal - the court won't even hear the case to dignify the assertion. This use is what I hear. Commented Aug 8 at 0:18

You are correct in assuming that this use of categorical has its roots in traditional logic. You are, however, wrong in assuming that the exploration of these roots will be very illuminating.

The use of the word in the phrase categorical syllogism is secondary to its use in characterising the components of such a syllogism (i.e. its premises and the conclusion) as categorical judgements or categorical propositions. That characterisation is a part of a way of classifying judgments/propositions in traditional logic, which was abandoned by logicians well over a century ago, and superseded by the classification that forms the basis of the propositional calculus. The traditional classification is now unanimously regarded by logicians as confusing an unhelpful, and learning about it as a waste of time, unless one has special interests in certain topics in the history of philosophy (the traditional classification is reflected in some components of Kant's theory).

Don't ask what categorical, in this context, has to do with categories (whatever that is), as that will only lead you further astray. The only aspect of the traditional classification of judgements/propositions that is relevant to this question is that categorical is used in it in distinction to hypothetical. Suppose I say:

This £100 is not a part of what I owe you.

and contrast that with

If this document is authentic, this £100 is not a part of what I owe you.

My denial that I owe you the money in the latter case holds only under the assumption, 'hypothesis', that the document is authentic, and would thus in the traditional classification be labelled as hypothetical, which expresses the same idea as would be expressed in the ordinary present-day English by saying that it is conditional. My denial in the first case, which would in the traditional classification be labelled as categorical, is not subject to any such conditions; it is unconditional.

The word categorical in the usage that this question is about is thus interchangeable with unconditional and unqualified. Its etymological connection with category is best ignored in trying to understand this way of using it. As to whether it is also interchangeable with absolute, it might be, but the word absolute is capable of being used in so many different ways that one should always be hesitant to use it if a more precise term is available.

In English rhetoric of the 17th century, "categorical" as applied to statements was synonymous with "simple" in the sense that the statement could have no conditions or qualifications or modality of any kind:

The sky is blue.

A categorical proposition would consist of a single subject, the copula, and a predicate.

A "categorical denial" is a simple, bare denial, one involving no contingencies or qualifications or modalities:

I did not murder Colonel Mustard.

Non-categorical modal denial:

I did not murder Colonel Mustard with a candelabra in the study.

# lit. "deny absolutely & publicly"

Category is a word meaning "absolute denial in public", like a formal accusation or indictment. It is a loan word borrowed from that context into the study of logic to have a nuance of class or classification.

# category = deny publicly (lit.)

category does not actually mean classification

Online Etymology Dictionary

From 1580s:

category should be used by no-one who is not prepared to state (1) that he does not mean class, & (2) that he knows the difference between the two .... [Fowler]

The nuance of having a logical class came some 80 years later...

From 1660s:

The sense of "any very wide and distinctive class, any comprehensive class of persons or things" is from 1660s.

Use of the word category has caused confusion before...

What, exactly, is meant by the word "category," whether in Aristotle or in Kant and Hegel, I must confess that I have never been able to understand. I do not myself believe that the term "category" is in any way useful in philosophy, as representing any clear idea. [Bertrand Russell, "A History of Western Philosophy," 1945]

...cf...

# English use

Google returns use of "categorically deny" from 1800s publications. Most seem to mean "absolutely deny". Though one is found in context of science, it still means absolute denial and not any kind of logical syllogism.

# Expanded use

Since "categorically" means "absolute" in the context of public dissent or accusation, it could also be used in:

• categorically oppose...
• categorically refuse...
• categorically conclude...
• categorically accept a [disagreement, dissent, reproof, admonishment, etc]
• categorically want hamburgers and not pizza

...and none of those statements make any reference to a "class" or "classification".

So, from my own question...

I thought it meant something like:

placed in a specific, simple, logical category, thus easily dismissed and absolutely denied on the basis of pure logic

...no. That is not and never was what it originally meant. It was adopted to mean that in nuance, in more rare circumstances, as early as the 1660s.

Or, did the term category originally mean absolute, then the disciplines of math and logic borrow the term and start using it in logical syllogisms.

Correct, it has always meant "absolutely deny" from the Greek era, to the 1580s, through the 1800s, and still today.