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On Human Categories 21 December 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Cultural Critique, Ethics.

[This is in response to comments made on the Problems with Pluralism post made be C.L. and -e-. I thought it was an interesting enough converesation to merit its own post.]

I think there are some real cognitive problems that need to be addressed in both C.L.’s and e’s comments. First, our brains are set up to think in categories, indeed, without categories, thought isn’t even possible. The mental categories that we create are largely learned and largely linguistic, but not entirely. In fact, human categories are highly plastic and change and transform over time and among groups as their experience of the world changes and evolves. It helps to think of categories as “tools” that our brain uses to categorize its knowledge of the world.Secondly, I’m not convinced that categorization is in and of itself unethical or problematic. Categorization of people enables as much good as it perpetrates “evil”. For example, categorization allows people to group together to fight oppression; to educate themselves and others; to create communities. The real ethical questions should not revolve around whether or not an individual or a group creates a category; indeed, that is not possible given the evolution and structure of the human brain. Rather, the ethical questions should arise in the specific effects or consequences of a specific act or practice of categorization.

Finally, because of the plasticisty of human categories and because of the continual change of the environment (that is, it is constantly moving and changing, beyond our control), that means that creating, rejecting, maintaining, and tweaking categories, as well as the constant monitoring of the effects of the categories we use, are ongoing, neverending processes.



1. C. L. Hanson - 21 December 2006

I agree that many types of categorizing are necessary and useful.

However there is a natural human tendency to think of other ethnic groups in terms of rigid and limited stereotypes. As you pointed out in your earlier post, this was useful for hunter-gatherers trying to promote the survival of their own kin over others, but it is no longer useful in our current globally-interdependent society. It is a huge stumbling block for cooperation.

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