Dangerous notes from Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

July 23, 2007 at 1:30 pm 2 comments

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: what Categories Reveal about the Mind

George Lakoff

I read this book for fun, for entertainment.  That’s saying something.  This is not a book like Everything is Miscellaneous, or Ambient Findability – books where this tome has been mentioned.  Those might be called tertiary texts, where this might be a secondary text replete with references to primary academic papers, of which the book’s author is author of many. This is hardcore, discussing philosophy and cognitive psychology and linguistics. 

The theme of the book is that categorization is a fundamental human task and that how things are categorized is based on the human mind, embedded, for example, in a given worldview.  This contrasts, apparently, with the classical view in which categorization is viewed as independent of the human mind and corresponds to categories that exist in nature.  In some cases these diverging views of categorization seem to overlap, but in others, the human-mind-centric view works better or at least doesn’t lead to philosophical inconsistencies.

So the way people categorize things depends on their experience, their worldview, their context.  This concept doesn’t seem that controversial, but Lakoff seems to describe the situation as shaking the foundation of philosophy.  I am reminded of a submediocre paper I wrote in high school with the basic premise that Jimi Hendrix didn’t accidentally commit suicide; he meant to do it.

p. xi The traditional account claims that the capacity for meaningful thought and for reason is abstract and not necessarily embodied in any organism…meaningful concepts and rationality are transcendental, in the sense that they transcend, or go beyond, the physical limitations of any organism.  In the new view, meaning is a matter of what is meaningful to thinking, functioning beings.  The nature of the thinking organism and the way it functions in its environment are of central concern to the study of reason.

Both views take categorization as the main way that we make sense of experience.  Categories in the traditional view are characterized solely by the properties shared by there members.  That is, they are characterized a. independently of the bodily nature of the beings doing the categorization and b. literally, with no imaginative mechanisms (metaphor, metonymy, and imagery) entering into the nature of categories.  In the new view, our bodily experience and the way we use imaginative mechanisms are central to how we construct categories to make sense of experience.  Traditional = objectivism, new = experiential realism or experientialism.

Rosch provided seminal contributions to theory of prototypes and basic-level categories.

p.5 Categorization is not a matter to be taken lightly.  There is nothing more basic than categorization to our thought, perception, action and speech….Without the ability to categorize, we could not function at all….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.  Most categorization is automatic and unconscious and if we become aware of it at all, it is only in problematic cases.  [this reminds me of similar comments in Sorting Things Out – the framework becomes obvious if it’s not working]

p. 7 The traditional view is that categories are defined – thing are assumed to be in the same category if and only if they had certain properties in common.  And the properties they had in common were taken as defining the category.  Then no members should be better examples of the category than other members.  And categories should be independent of the peculiarities of any beings doing the categorization.

p. 18 …similar means “partially identical”

p. 21 holistic structure, a gestalt…categories like ‘things to take on a camping trip, foods not to eat on a diet…. Such categories, among their other properties, do not show family resemblances among their members.

p.45 Barsalou.  Ad hoc categories …made up on the fly for some immediate purpose.  Things to take from one’s home during a fire, what to get for a birthday present…. The category is principally determined by goals and that such goal structure is a function of one’s cognitive models.

p.51 Basic level categories, categories like chair, elephant, water… we perceive certain aspects of our external environment very accurately at the basic level, though not so accurately at other levels.  Basic-level categories are human sized.  They depend not on the objects themselves, they are independent of people, but depend on the way people interact with objects: the way they perceived them, image them, organize information about them, and behave toward them with their bodies.  We have mental images of chairs, but no abstract mental images of the superordinate category, furniture.

p.55 The word ‘cause’ is reserved for noncentral members of the conceptual category of causation.  The concept of causation is one of the most fundamental of human concepts.  It is used spontaneously, automatically, effortlessly, and often.  Such concepts are usually coded right into the grammar of languages….the prototypical concept of causation is built into the grammar of the language, and the word cause is relegated to characterizing noncentral causation.

p. 56 prototype theory

– some categories, e.g. tall man, are graded, have inherent degrees of membership, fuzzy boundaries, and central members whose degree of member ship is 1.

– some category members are better examples of the category than others

– categories in the middle of a hierarchy are the most basic, relative to …gestalt perception, the ability to form a mental image, motor interaction, ease of learning, remembering and use, most knowledge is organized at this level.

– categories are organized into systems with contrasting elements (differences that make a difference?)

– At least some categories are embodied; depend on human perception, etc.

– prototype effects

p. 68 The main thesis of this book is that we organize our knowledge by means of structures called idealized cognitive models, or ICMs, and that category structures and prototype effects are by-products of that organization

p. 77 Metonymy is one of the basic characterizations of cognition.  It is extremely common for people to take one well-understood or easy-to-perceive aspect of something and use it to stand either for the thing as a whole or for some other aspect or part of it.  Eg. Wall Street is in panic, the ham sandwich spilled his beer (the man that ordered the ham sandwich spilled his beer).

p. 86 An enormous amount of our knowledge about categories of things is organized in terms of typical cases….we are rarely aware we are doing it.  Reasoning on the basis of typical cases is a major aspect of human reason.  Our vast knowledge of typical cases leads to prototype effects.  The reason is that there is an asymmetry between typical and nontypical cases.  Knowledge about typical cases is generalized to nontypical cases but not conversely. …we also comprehend categories in terms of individual members who represent either an ideal or its opposite.

p. 92 Borges taxonomy of the animal kingdom.

‘Woman, Fire, and Dangerous things’ refers to a category of classification of things in the world in traditional Dyirbal an aboriginal language of Australia.  The classification is built into the language…Whenever a… speaker uses a noun… it must be preceded by a variant of one of four words: bayi, balan, balam, bala.  These words classify all objects in the Dyirbal universe… 

Bayi: males, animals
alan females; water, fire, fighting
Balam: nonflesh food
Bala: everything not in the other classes/

Balan includes for example women, dogs, some snakes, some fishes, scorpions, anything connected with water or fire, sun and stars, ….

P118 We use cognitive models in trying to understand the world.  In particular we use them in theorizing about the world, in the construction of scientific theories as well as in theories of the sort we all make up.  It is common for such theories not to be consistent with one another.  …Folk models and scientific models.  Folk theory: ordinary people without any technical expertise have theories, ether implicit or explicit, about every important aspect of their lives…..it is easier to show what is wrong with a scientific theory that with a folk theory.  A folk theory defines common sense itself.

p. 127 What one sees is not necessarily what happens externally; ….seeing typically involves categorization

p. 147  Wilenky’s Law: More specific knowledge takes precedence over more general knowledge – If you don’t know about specific cases use whatever general principles you have.  But if you know something about a specific case, use what you know.

p. 153

– the structure of thought is characterized by cognitive models

– categories of mind correspond to the elements in those models.

– some cognitive models are scalar.  They yield categories with degrees of membership.  These are the source of some prototype effects.

– Some cognitive models are classical; that is they have rigid boundaries and are defined by necessary and sufficient conditions.

– some categories  are metonymic, in that they allow a part of a category ( a member or a subcategory) to stand for the category as a whole for some purpose, usually reasoning.

– the most radical prototype phenomena are radial categories.  Many models organized around a center with links to the center.

p. 157 philosophy matters.  It matters more than people realize, because philosophical ideas that have developed over the centuries enter our culture in the form of a world view and affect us in thousand of ways.

p. 207  Much of our knowledge and understanding is of this sort: where meaningfulness to us is very indirectly based on the experience of others.

p.292  Meaning is not a thing, it involves what is meaningful to use.  Nothing is meaningful in itself.

p. 197 knowledge is possible at least partly because the categories of mind can fit the categories of the world.

p.301  Objectivity consists in two things: first putting aside one’s own point of view and looking at a situation from other points of view – as many as possible.  Second, being able to distinguish what is directly meaningful – basic-level and image schematic concepts-from concepts that are indirectly meaningful.  Requires:

– knowing that one has a point of view, not merely a set of beliefs, but a specific conceptual system in which beliefs are framed.

– knowing what one’s point of view is, including what one’s conceptual framework is like.

– knowing other relevant points of view, and being able to use the conceptual systems in which they are framed.

– being able to assess a situation from other points of view, using other conceptual systems

– being able to distinguish concepts that are relatively stable and well-defined …from those concepts that vary with human purposes and modes of indirect understanding.

The belief that there is a god’s eye point of view and that one has access to it virtually preludes objectivity, since it involves a commitment to the belief that there are no alternative ways of conceptualizing that are worth considering.

P 309 discusses carving nature at the joints as in Everything is Miscellaneous.


Entry filed under: feed my pet brain, Information Architecture.

Information about Disinformation Quantitative notes from Tufte

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Weld S Carter, Jr  |  June 6, 2009 at 1:24 am

    The description of the book looks interesting, but since it appears un-signed, though written in the first person, I cannot tell to whom to reply. I have opinions on the claim to ‘objectivity’ that consider such a claim close to a claim of a god’s eye view.

  • 2. futhermet  |  June 6, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Reply away! It’s been a while since I read this book.


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