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Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

What Categories Reveal About the Mind

by George Lakoff

Last tended to May 10, 2020

About the Title

Lakoff titled this book for on the Australian aboriginal language of Dyirbal. Dyirbal has a category called balan that indeed includes women, fire, and dangerous things. However, it also includes many non-dangerous things like bandicoots, echnidnas, and the stars.

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It made for a catchy title, and Lakoff was trying to nod to his main thesis that categories are not simply a matter of shared common properties.


New Cognitive Science research into the theory of Categorisation fundamentally disrupts our classical understanding of reasoning

Cognitive Science "seeks detailed answers to such questions as: What is reason? How do we make sense of our experience? What is a conceptual system and how is it organized? Do all people use the same conceptual system? If so, what is that system?"

Much of the work of Cognitive Science over the last few decades as has questioned our traditional answers to these problems, and found them lacking.

  • Our old view of reason as an abstract, disembodied process - one that proclaims everything in the world objectively True or False through rote deductive logic falls far short of reality.
  • Our new understanding sees reasoning as deeply embodied, emotional, and grounded in metaphor, metonymy, and mental imagery.

Lakoff coins the term "Experiential Realism" or Experientialism to refer to this new way of understanding.

  • "Experientialism is thus defined in contrast with objectivism, which holds that the characteristics of the organism have nothing essential to do with concepts or with the nature of reason"
  • "On the experientialist view, reason is made possible by the body- that includes abstract and creative reason, as well as reasoning about concrete things"

The New Principles of Cognition, Thought, and Reasoning

  1. All thought is embodied
    • "the structures used to put together our conceptual systems grow out of bodily experience and make sense in terms of it ... the core of our conceptual systems is directly grounded in perception, body movement, and experience of a physical and social character"
  2. Thought is imaginative
    • Concepts that are not directly embodied are framed in terms of Metaphor, Metonymy, and Mental Imagery
    • All of these go beyond literal mirroring or representation - they takes us beyond what we can see or feel into generative imagination. We use Conceptual Blending to create these.
  3. Thought has Gestalt properties and "ecological structure"
    • The whole is greater than the sum of it's parts. Our ability to think is emergent, and not atomistic. Our ability to think depends upon the overalls structure and its interconnections.

What's wrong with categories?

Our classic understanding of Categorisation is that we group things together based on common properties. All trees have trunks and branches and leaves and grow vertically. All sandwiches come with bread and fillings. This is partly true but it's not the whole story. Categorisation is far more complex.

Enter Prototype Theory – the hot new expansion pack on Category Theory

Categorisation is not simply a small sub discipline of linguistic matters. The way we categorise the world has enormous implications for how we think, perceive, behave, reason, and communicate. It is fundamental to human thought.

An unconscious system invisibly structuring what kind of object, speech, activity, skill, location, social context, tool, etc. we think we are encountering at any particular moment.

"An understanding of how we categorize is central to any understanding of how we think and how we function, and therefore central to an understanding of what makes us human."

Rather than categorising physical things and their properties, we primarily structure our categories around abstract concepts like emotions, spatial relationships, disciplines and social structures.

Up until now, categories have been thought of through the Container Metaphor. They're framed as bounded collections defined by a set of inherent properties. Things with those properties are inside, things without them are outside.

Elanor Rosch pioneered this new categorical understanding in cognitive psychology research. She pointed out issues:

  1. A simple inside/outside view of categorical structures doesn't explain why some members are more "ideal" examples of a category than others
  2. The view doesn't account for how different people at different moments in time will categorise things differently. Categorises and membership fluctuates widely depending on "matters as human neurophysiology, human body movement, and specific human capacities to perceive, to form mental images, to learn and remember, to organize the things learned, and to communicate efficiently."

This new understanding of categorisation breaks our traditional view of reason as deductive linear logic based around manipulating abstract symbols. The same one that forms the basis of the mind-as-computer metaphor.

  • We have come to think of our minds as just "machines" manipulating abstract symbols - little neurone-wired motherboards. Which reflects back on our perception of what computers might be capable of - metaphors flow in both directions. The target influences how we see the source.
  • Seeing reason as simply "the mechanical manipulation of abstract symbols which are meaningless in themselves, but can be given meaning by virtue of their capacity to refer to things either in the actual world or in possible states of the world" is a dangerous fallacy
  • This rigid, disembodied view doesn't take into account everything we have learned from cognitive science over the past decades about the relationships between reason and emotion, embodiment, metaphor, and Categorisation
  • It leads many to think computers posses the capacity to reason. Which fails to account for the role categorisation plays in reasoning. It assumes categories are predefined sets with shared properties. They are seen as "existing in the world independent of people and defined only by the characteristics of their members and not in terms of any characteristics of the human"
  • Rather than being rigidly objective and inflexible properties of the world, the way we form categories is based in specific human experiences. Our categories are defined by our perceptions, imagination, physical movement/motor activity, and culture. As well as our conceptual system of metaphor, metonymy and mental imagery.
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