What Categories Reveal About the Mind


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What Categories Reveal About the Mind

I graduated from Oklahoma State University in January of 1959 with a BSEE (Bachelor of Science in Electronic Engineering) and went immediately to work for Hughes Aircraft Corporation in Southern California. In college I took an elective course in Symbolic Logic, this seminal decision was to determine the course of my engineering career and eventually my whole world view because symbolic logic is the heart of computer design.

In 1960 I attended my first computer conference in San Francisco wherein the great excitement was focused upon the idea of AI (Artificial Intelligence). That is to say, the excitement revolved around the idea that humans could design and build computers that might adequately emulate human intelligence.

Western society has long been under the assumption that human reason is disembodied and abstract. That is to say, that reasoning is distinct from perception and the body; furthermore reasoning is free from all the mechanisms of imagination, and is considered by many philosophers, psychologists, and others that reasoning fits the model of formal deductive logic:

“Reason is 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.”

Because the digital computer works through the process of symbol manipulation it can easily be understood as a partial model of reality. Many have taken to the understanding that the computer is essentially a symbol manipulation machine just like the brain. ‘Mind as computer’ is a commonly accepted metaphor by science as well as the culture in general.

Our common world view, i.e. our classical view of categories, is that things are categorized on the basis of what they have in common. Dogs and trees belong in their particular category because of essential characteristics of dogginess or treeness that we can through conscious observation determine.

Such a classical view is not entirely wrong; however, it plays only a small part in our comprehension of our world. “In recent years it has become clear that categorization is far more complex than that. A new theory of categorization, called prototype theory has emerged. It shows that human categorization is based on principles that extend far beyond those envisioned in the classical theory.”

Quotes from Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind by George Lakoff