Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

What Categories Reveal about the Mind

by George Lakoff

The University of Chicago Press; (C) 1987.
Lakoff, George.
P37 .L344 1987
Psycholinguistics. Categorization (Psychology), Cognition. Thought and thinking. Reason.
Chicago, IL : University of Chicago Press, c1987.
86-19136



Page 92

Borges attributes the following taxonomy of the animal kingdon to an ancient Chinese encyclopedia entitled the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into

Borges of course, deals with the fantastic. These not only are not natural human cateogires -- they could not be natural human categories. But part of what makes this passage art, rather than mere fantasy, is that it comes close to the impression a Western reader gets when reading descriptions of nonwestern languages and cultures. The fact is that people around the world categorize things in ways that both boggle the Western mind and stump Western linguists and antropologists.

An excellent example is the classification of things in the world that occurs in traditional Dyirbal, an aboriginal language of Australia. The classification is built into the language, as is common in the world's languages. Whenever a Dyirbal speaker uses a non in a sentence, the noun must be preceded by a variant of one of four words: bayi, balan, balam, bala. These words classify all objects in the Dyirbal universe, and to speak Dyirbal correctly one must use the right classifier before each noun. Here is a brief version of the Dyirbal classifcation of objects in the universe, as described by R.M.W. Dixon (1982):

It is a list that any Borges fan would take delight in.


The fact is that people around the world categorize things in ways that both boggle the Western mind and stump Western linguists and antropologists. An excellent example is the classification of things in the world that occurs in traditional Dyirbal, an aboriginal language of Australia.

The classification is built into the language, as is common in the world's languages. Whenever a Dyirbal speaker uses a noun in a sentence, the noun must be preceded by a variant of one of four words: bayi, balan, balam, bala.These words classify all objects in the Dyirbal universe, and to speak Dyirbal correctly one must use the right classifier before each noun. Here is a brief version of the Dyirbal classifcation of objects in the universe, as described by R.M.W. Dixon (1982):

Page 231

David Hilbert (see Kleene 1967, chap 4) came up with a solution that was completely general; his program of formalism. Hilbert viewed mathematical proofs as merely matters of form, with questions of meaning put aside to be discussed outside mathematics proper in "metamathematics." Mathematics, Hilbert suggested, is the study of meaningless symbols, and mathematical proofs are sequences of strings of uninterpreted symbols, with the lines of a proof related to one another by regular rules. In a formal axiomatic system, as Hilbert defined it, axioms are strings of uninterpreted symbols, and theorems are other strings of uninterpreted symbols derived from the axioms by rules.

Page 223

Similarly, mathematical logic is technically no more than the study of sequences of symbols strings (proof theory) and the way symbol strings can be paired with structures continaing entities and sets (model theory). What makes it the study of reason? The answer is: objectivist philosophy plus a way of understanding the models. It is only by assuming the correctness of objectivist philosophy and by imposing such an understanding that mathematical logic can be viewed as the study of reason in general. Such an understanding has been imposed by objectivist philosophers. There is nothing inherent to mathematical logic that makes it the study of reason.

Page 224

Hilbert was wrong about mathematics being nothing more than the study of meaningless symbols and their relationship to meaningless structures. Two things make formal mathematics mathematics: (a) the way those symbols and structures are understood as being about familiar mathematical domains and (b) the detailed justifications for adopting such an understanding. The assumptions of objectivist philosophy have been assumed to be sufficient justification. But that is no justification at all. What is needed is empirical justification.

Page 47

Their basis observation is that the basic level ids distinguished from other levels on the basis of the type of attributes people associate with a category at that level, in particular, attributes concerned with parts. Our knowledge at the basis level is mainly organized around part-=whole divisions. The reason is that the way an object is divided into parts determines many things. First, parts are usually correlated with functions, and hence our knowledge about functions is usually associated with knowledge about parts, and hence part-whole divisions play a major role in de4termining what motor programs we can use to interact with an object. Thus, a handle is not just long and thin, but it can be grasped by the human hand.

Page 260: A New Realism

Thus, Putnam concludes, there cannot be such a thing as "exactly one true and complete description of 'the way the world is'" -- that is, there can be no God's eye view of reality. The crucial words here are "description" and "view." They presuppose an external perspective: a symbol system external to reality, related to reality by a reference relation that gives meaning to the symbols. Putnam is not saying that there is no reality. And he is not saying that there is no "way the world is." He is not denying basic realism. He is only denying a certain epistomology. He is not saying that we cannot have correct knowledge. What ihe is saying is that we cannot have a priviledged correct description from an externalist perspective.
Middle of Nowhere Brad Cox


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