Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Breaking the Mind Forged Manacles

The classical view that categories are based on shared properties is not entirely wrong. We often do categorize things on that basis. But that is only a small part of the story.

~George Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind

What kinds of categories, if any, are best defined classically?

Classical Categorization works well when dealing with Knowns: trees, landscapes, cars, soup, and in a broader sense, people. But it is the fact that it breaks down once we get beyond this broader sense where we stumble into the limitations of Classical Categorization. Itís good enough for getting a fuzzy outline of the Big Picture but itís sort of like looking at the Sistine Chapel Ceiling with your glasses off. Itís just a rough view of the scene and to try to draw any meaningful conclusions about the details form these blurry shapes is to make sweeping generalizations. Which is where Classical Categorization becomes a problemñ see any political speech for an example. Rhetoric is nothing if not the language of the Big Picture.

But the devil is in the details as they say.

Details are Unknowns. Theyíre the filigree pattern of an ornate tattoo. Picture something knotted and Celtic on the arm of a stranger at a coffee shop. If you try to make generalized statements about the person wearing the tattoo, youíre bound to make an ass of yourself. Classical Categorization is perpetually making an ass of itself because itís talking in great sweeping generalizations (which have their place of course) but most people donít live on an abstract plane, with an abstract house and an abstract dog. They live in the Existential World and deal with the infinite and teaming details. This is where prototypical categories may be more suited to deal with the flexible variables of our every day life.

Classical Categorization fails when confronted by the Unknown variables, as it is based on the organization of things primarily in relation to Ideal Forms and secondarily in relation to one another. Unknown variables, being unknown, have no as yet discernable relationship to anything else. They arenít just floating Out There somewhere waiting to be discovered and held up to Known things for comparison. But neither are they fully comprehended. Classical Theory cannot handle the wide variety of metaphorical and poetic ideas that the human mind is capable of generating (though these imagined things are usually based on some half seen or little understood epiphenomenon. Something seen out of the corner of the eye, the details of which are filled in by our brain, which can be quite creative in patching holes in our knowledge).

Classical Categorization is like the three blind men confronted for the first time by an elephant. Each man discovers a different part of the elephant; one the tail, another a leg, the third the elephantís trunk. Each declares that the elephant is thin like a worm, long and prehensile like a snake or thick and stocky like the trunk of a tree. Thus, Classical Categories are inadequate when confronted by Unkowns, such as UFOs, Ghosts, teleporting snakes, rains of frogs or incidents of Spontaneous Human Combustion. These events are epiphenomenon; that is, they are uncommon occurrences that have not fully been analyzed but occur with enough frequency to generate their own set of admittedly chimerical categories. Conventional wisdom is to dismiss such events as frauds, hallucinations or some species of joke, poorly told. These phenomenon are classified thus classified as "Paranormal," lumped together despite their widely varying characteristics. What they have in common is that they are not social phenomenon. They serve no identifiable purpose.

What is the purpose of a unicorn? That is a matter for poets and novelists to determine. We know what function a horse has because we have assigned it various functions over long periods of time and because horses are tangible, so they take to the impressions. But Unicorns, being intangible, can be many things, all of them uncertain and subject to change at a momentís notice. The same can be said for all such "Paranormal" classes. But this is classification by exclusion. "All of these things are suspect, thus they are similar."

As recently as the nineteenth century, gorillas were thought to be merely imagined creatures and sightings of them were treated with the same derisive exclusion as sightings of yeti and fairies today. In the eighteenth century, there was no such thing as meteorites. They didnít exist because no Classical Category existed then that allowed for the idea of rocks in the sky.

This is where Classical Categorization fails. To dismiss epiphenomena into these dustbin categories is to exclude them from the scope of human experience.

UFOs and Unicorns are hyperbolic examples of this tendency to rush to classification, in order to put oneís mind at ease, but they prove a point. A more banal example is one weíve all experienced: You see a familiar face in a crowd and for a moment, are convinced it is an old friend. You look again and realize it is in fact a stranger with a few similar characteristics as your friend but your brain filled in the gaps in order to reassure you that what you saw was familiar, not foreign.

So while Classical Categories are not very well suited for the bizarre details of every day life, they are good for is delineating Metaphysics, which can be seen ultimately as a branch of fantastic literature; an elaborate system of fables and allegories that describe notions that exist solely within the human mind. These notions, such as Goodness, Morality, Virtue and Peace are Platonic in nature. We can conceive of them in our minds and speak meaningfully about them, but only when in relation to other abstractions, like their opposites, Evil, Sin and War. Itís the comparison between ideas that creates these categories and allows for discussion of such abstractions to carry over into our lives when we apply them to the Big Picture in our more meditative moments.

That Plato was a Metaphysician as well as an Epistemologist might come as a surprise to some but if you really look at the Platonic Model of Ideal Forms, it better describes an imagined world of abstract ideas than it does the Existential World in which we live. Some people still confuse the two worlds; the Objectivist with the Existential, which is the cause of many of our problems, both semantic and political. Often we hear President Bush declaring War on Terror, or Death to the Evil Doers and rarely do we stop to think about what sort of categories into which he is shoehorning real people and events. Obviously they are Classical Categories, several degrees removed from any of the more flexible, prototypical categories that we have become accustomed to using in our day-to-day reality.


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