March 29th, 2007

Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 3

Categorisation

We have trouble communicating because we can’t get into each other’s bodies and experience things as somebody else does. But that is just the beginning of the problem. Categorisation makes the problem even more complex.

Categorisation is the most fundamental building block of knowing anything. As Lakoff and Johnson write:

Every living being categorizes. Even the amoeba categorizes the things it encounters into food or nonfood, what it moves toward or moves away from. The amoeba cannot choose whether to categorize; it just does. The same is true at every level of the animal world. Animals categorize food, predators, possible mates, members of their own species, and so on. How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and to manipulate objects. (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999 p. 17)

Categorisation is essential to almost everything we do. Information from our eyes is categorised into objects so we see a tree, grass, a person, etc., instead of a mass of coloured dots. This allows us to quickly process a scene, looking for important things like danger, food or other people. We also learn by categorisation. We learn, for instance, that certain objects are good for holding liquids and drinking out of. When we recognise similar objects later we then know that we can drink out of them; saving us the trouble of performing trial-and-error experiments.

Unfortunately, this learning aspect is yet another mechanism that makes communication difficult. Our knowledge about categories is continually being updated and refined as we interact with the world. This causes problems for anyone trying to study categorisations at the very basic level, because the very experiments set up to investigate categorisation cause us to change and update our categories (Markman and Ross, 2003). It also causes problems when I try to communicate. For example, what I mean by the phrase `politically correct’ today may not be the same as what I meant when I used the term two weeks ago. In the meantime, I may have been to a seminar on diplomatic use of language and thus gained a more subtle understanding of the phrase. On the other hand, I may have heard a politician use a particularly amusing euphemism and that also changes my category. These shifts and changes in categories mean that not only does understanding vary greatly between individuals, but even in the same person.

Our categories are also highly contextual. That is, when we categorise things, we don’t just store information in our brains about which things belong in a group, but also the contexts in which the category is meaningful. We do this automatically and unconsciously. Homonyms are a good example—where one word has several meanings. For instance, the word cake refers to ‘a baked mass of bread or substance of similar kind, distinguished from a loaf or other ordinary bread, either by its form or by its composition’.1 However, in the context of alternative music, Cake refers to the name of a band. In the context of a political discussion, the phrase `everyone wants a slice of the cake’ refers to a resource to be shared out. We work out the meaning from the context. And when we communicate, we often leave out a lot of contextual information because we are in the context. When somebody else comes along, however, the context may not be immediately apparent.

The upshot of all this is that categories don’t just vary between different people, they vary within the same person. Categories change over time and are arranged differently to suit different contexts. This makes it difficult to communicate because even if I talk about a concert we experienced together last week, our individual understandings of it may have changed in the meantime. I might also imagine that you immediately understand I mean last week’s concert. You, on the other hand, may have been thinking about a concert next week because you had just been in the process of buying tickets. Our highly-adaptive brains make communication just that much harder.

This is just the beginning of our problems however…