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Tom Hopkins at Usable Interfaces deepens the discussion from categorization to truth. Isn’t truth what’s really at stake, he asks.

Certainly, traditionally the two are tied, since truth was taken to apply to propositions, and the canonical form of  a proposition is X is Y. The Y, one way or another, is likely to be or imply a categorization. We’ve always been happy to say both that Socrates is a human and Socrates is hungry, without thinking there’s a contradiction between those two, because Socrates can have more than attribute (i.e., belong in more than one category). Classically, though, we’ve wanted to be able to assign one category as fundamental, or “essential.” That accords with common sense: Socrates really is a human, whereas his hunger is just a passing attribute of a human. But we took that common sense and over-thought it, saying that each thing must have one and only one essence. Further, we thought those essences had to form a perfect, harmonious, beautiful order that exists independent of our awareness of it. In fact, its existence was taken to be a requirement for us to make sense of the flurry of perceptions, and a requirement for knowledge.

We’ve  been undoing the work of essentialism for a long time now. That has entailed recognizing our human role in letting various true categorizations emerge: We see Socrates as hungry because he’s in our restaurant now, but we see him now as a physical human because he’s in our emergency room. We can be mistaken in our categorizations – Socrates is in our restaurant to use the men’s room and is not hungry at all – but there are so many truths and so many possible categorizations that our projects and interests are far more important to what emerges than are any hoped-for privileged essences.

Tom’s post takes this down a different path, leading to the importance of “testimony,” which is a very fruitful way of proceeding. But, it’s Memorial Day, I’m on dial-up so  I have to post a first draft, and this is it…

6 Responses to “Truth and categories”

  1. on 28 May 2007 at 12:42 pmDan Kearns

    I’m not entirely convinced that– stipulating everything you argue– there still cant be essential natures as well. Socrates has endless attributes, but the essential Socrates was the one searching for why the Delphic oracle would claim “no one is wiser than Socrates.” Or, in other words, it matters that we order “Socrates=search for wisdom” over “Socrates=curly hair.”

  2. on 28 May 2007 at 5:12 pmTom Hopkins

    First of all, many thanks David for following up my rather disorganized ramblings with such a fascinating and insightful post. It was a most pleasant surprise.

    It seems to me that one of the most interesting things about moving away from the taxonomy-centered approach means we no longer need to see categorizations as exclusive. It frees our methods to act like multiple sets of circumstances can be true simultaneously.

    Previously there might be a conflict between certain categorizations. You can’t be a mamal and a insect; fiction and non-fiction. To make taxonomy work, we need certainly.

    But this puts a strain on our thinking – especially when using subjective terms where there are other variables.

    So, was Clinton a good president at home? Was Clinton a good president in terms of the Rwandan crisis. You probably get different answers. And this is why we just can’t answer the question “was Clinton a good president”. Because it’s not a straightforward classification. Were genetically modified crops progress?

    And this is why truth and falsity seem harder to grasp, and why what counts as knowledge, harder to reconcile.

    Do we still say some facets are essential? It seems like the debate about essences is way too big for this space, buy by its nature I’m very wary of any attempt to take the certainty of the analytic truths of mathematics or logic (‘triangles are three sided’, ‘x or not x’) and apply them to the synthetic truths of observation and testimony (‘grass is green’ or ‘every nice girl loves a sailor’).

  3. on 28 May 2007 at 5:40 pmDavid Weinberger

    Dan (and this follows up on some of what Tom said as well), there is certainly an intuition we want to preserve: Socrates is more essentially (?) a human, and is more truly (?) the seeker after truth we know him as than he is a snub-nosed person or a collection of physical organs within a sac of skin. We want to be able to say that if all you know about Socrates is that he’s snub-nosed, you don’t really (?) know Socrates.

    Now, there are times when those “essential” characteristics of Socrates don’t matter: If he’s a dead organ donor, he’s a sac of collectibles to be evaluated purely in terms of the condition of his liver. And his essence doesn’t mean he can cut in line. Nevertheless, some characteristics that seem more telling, more important, more essential..

    But, we can acknowledge that intuition without falling for the rest of essentialism. The essence isn’t necessarily definable. It isn’t necessarily know-able or certain. There isn’t necessarily only one essence for each thing that makes it what it “really” is. Those essences don’t necessarily go together in an orderly way. And they are not independent of us, at least in the sense that they strike us as essential because we care about such things.

    So, yes, it matters that we value Socrates as a searcher for wisdom over categorizing him as snub-nosed, at least if we’re trying to understand Socrates. But that doesn’t get us very far into essences.

  4. on 28 May 2007 at 7:41 pmDan Kearns

    Where would it go wrong to say that THE essential human nature is one of reasoning and morality?

  5. on 29 May 2007 at 4:36 amPhil

    there are so many truths and so many possible categorizations that our projects and interests are far more important to what emerges than are any hoped-for privileged essences

    I can see how this reflects the way we think already, albeit in a liberal way (“I don’t care what you call yourself, as far as I’m concerned you’re a friend/colleague/worker…”). I can see how it could challenge us, in dangerous ways (“fish, dolphin, who cares when you’re hungry?”) What I can’t see is how it challenges us in a good way.

  6. on 29 May 2007 at 10:01 amDave Snowden

    It might be easier if you abandoned the primacy of categories alltogether. Alloing multiple categories, none of which are essential is an improvement but it still fits within a static, or equilibrium based model. If we look at this through the lens of complex adaptive systems theory then we would talk about “coalesences”, “attractors” and “modulators” amoung other things. All of which are more closely related to definining things in terms of their relationship than categories.

    A now classic test on this is “Which is the odd one out? Cow, Chicken or Grass?” Anglo-saxon (NA, England) tends to be based on categories, grass is the odd one out as its a vegitable. Asia, African, Soouth Europe, Celts tend to eliminate chicken as the cow has a relationship with crass.

    Now this has implications for social computing. By increasing tags (a form of category) we do enable richer meaning to emerge but it is limited by common use of language and sophistication of tags. If instead we look at the network relationships we get richer meaning faster.