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Alexander Johannesen

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Fri, 16 July 2004 13:00:00 GMT

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Categories : What have I learned?

In two previous chapters I've been digging into human cognition and categorisation, and what have I learned? Quite a lot. This is fascinating stuff, learning about how we humans think, symbolise, deduct and infere from sometimes very vague notions. The most important lesson learnt was that the intuitive feelings I had about the way we categorise was pretty darn on the money.

The Prototype theory is what it is all about, where "something" is a better example of a category than others. Here's an example;

Category : Bachelor

  • Example 1 : Young, hetrosexual man having multiple partners, can't settle down, likes to party, always out
  • Example 2 : Old, homosexual man having no partners, looking for someone to settle down with, likes to read a lot, always at home

Both are bachelors, but example 1 is a more prototypical bachelor; he's more "bachelor" than example 2, yet they're both perfect examples of what fits into the "bachelor" category. Now, this is important because they are equal members of the category.

Next up is the example of semantic constructured categories, like "working mother";

Category : Working mother

  • Example 1 : Married woman with a kid, who works during daytime
  • Example 2 : Surrogate mother who doesn't have any kids herself, who works during daytime

They are both "working mothers" by technical terms, but not by semantic standards. A surrogate mother has no responsibility of a child, yet has had a child and works. This is important because they show differences between semantic and technical attributes.

Next is basic category, which is a category that is a non-constructed category;

Category : Chairs

  • In the category "chairs" we find items that we can imagine, that we have some basic visual and physical representation we can use. This is probably the category we start out by describing.

Category : Furniture

  • The category "furniture" is a construct; there is no single visual or physical representation for it (just try to imagine one single item that stands as a symbol for all types of furniture!) It is higher up the ladder from chair, so we call it a constructed higher category.

Category : Swivel chair

  • It is a chair that doesn't hold the prototypical attributes of "chair", meaning a specialisation of "chair" that does not work in a strict taxonomy; some of these chairs don't even have four legs to stand on, is seldom made from wood (which is a prototypical attribute) and so on. These are lower categories, and are important because they alter prototypical attributes, proving that strict taxonomies doesn't bloody work.

Next, I've learned that our physicqe is an important part of categorisation, that our bodies are part of what makes them work. In my example above with furniture and chairs, the two chairs are called so not by appearance, but by bodily function. We may think it is about functionality, but let's whiff off some more examples of this;

Category : Glasses

  • Let's quickly look at glasses compared to sun glasses; they're both glasses, but serve two different functions. We could add weldering glasses and swimming glasses to it too; it is about a bodily interaction more than it's about actual functionality.

Next up is the link between our language, our culture and categories. Lakoff dives into an Australian aboriginee language which - as the title of his book - puts "women", "fire" and "dangerous things" into the same category; it is cultural constructs, since the moon in Aboriginee mythology is a male, married to the female sun, who is hot and dangerous. The same with most birds are in the "female" category, while a handful of birds are in the "male" category; all birds are in Aboriginee mythology "old ladies", spirits of the dead, except some birds who are thought to be male spirits, hence birds of certain types gets placed in the "male" category. Confusing maybe to our western way of thinking, but perfectly natural to them. Their basic system of belief runs the categorisation, and this is important because traditional category theory makes the stand that categorisation is a universal construct of language. it is not.

Oh, and I've learned about different congitive models, where a "model" is a set of structured ideas that form category thought. For instance, our brain is a really good inference machine that can infer quite correctly from a very loose set of data; the cognitive models help us in "filling out the blanks" in such a way that we can make sense of it. Many belive that our imagination, even our gullibility, is there to help us to gain correct information where the sources we can use for this is lacking.

Anyways, I've got a new set of books to read that follows naturally from "Women, fire and dangerous things" by Lakoff (which comes highly recomended!), and I'll report back here with my ongoing waffle installments.

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