What is a Basic-Level Category?


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What is a Basic-Level Category?

Consider the category hierarchies: {furniture--chair—rocker} and {vehicle--car—sedan}. The middle categories--chair and car--have been discovered to be “basic”—they have a cognitive priority. “Basic-level categories are distinguished from subordinate categories by aspects of our bodies, brains, and minds: mental images, gestalt perception, motor programs, and knowledge structure.”

The basic level is characterized by at least four conditions: 1) It is the highest level at which a single mental image can represent the entire category (you can’t get a mental image of vehicle or furniture). 2) It is the highest level at which category members have a similarly perceived overall shape. 3) It is the highest level at which a person uses similar motor actions for interacting with category members. 4) It is the level at which most of our knowledge is organized.

The division between basic and non-basic level is body-based. It is based upon gestalt (overall part-whole structure) perception, motor programs, and mental images. The basic-level is that level at which people more optimally interact with their environment.

The basic-level does not merely apply to objects. “There are basic-level actions, actions for which we have conventional mental images and motor programs, like swimming, walking, and grasping. We also have basic-level concepts, like families, clubs, and baseball teams, as well as basic-level social actions, like arguing. And there are basic-level emotions, like happiness, anger, and sadness.”

“Our categories arise from the fact that we are neural beings, from the nature of our bodily capacities, from our experience interacting in the world, and from our evolved capacity for basic-level categorization—a level at which we optimally interact with the world. Evolution has not required us to be as accurate above and below the basic level as at the basic level, and so we are not.”

We have a gut feeling about some things because our sense of correctness comes from our bodies. When Newton provided us with his theory of physics we could “feel” the correctness of much of it because he was using such concepts as acceleration, momentum, distance and velocity all of which we knew because we could intuit them, we could “feel in our gut” these concepts. Such was not the case when the physicist attacked the problem of quantum physics. Who has a gut feeling for the inner workings of the atom?

Our “gut feeling” constantly informs us as to the ‘correctness’ of some phenomenon. This gut feeling is an attitude; it is one of many types of attitudes. What can we say about this gut feeling?

Philosophy in The Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson says a great deal about this gut feeling. Conceptual metaphor theory, the underlying theory of cognitive science contained in this book, explains how our knowledge is ‘grounded’ in a manner in which we optimally interact with the world.

Our basic-level categories are created unconsciously based upon our bodily interaction with our world.