Why do we categorise thinking?

If you were to put your key ideas, your primary thought drivers into writing and present them to another person, and then asked them to pass commentary on your thinking, what do you expect would happen?

I’d put it to you that this person would inevitably resort to categories as a methodology of transmitting concepts. Now this may be completely logical and absolutely appropriate but what impact does it have?

Firstly, let’s consider examples of this category process. The transmitter person may have trouble coming to grips with some of your ideas. To enable them to grasp the core of your thought, and to coalesce that they may look into their own experiences, knowledge or background to find similarities. Where your thoughts engage particular remembered ideas then there will inevitably be comparisons. If the comparisons appear to hold water then your ideas may be expressed in terms of that previous experience. So the person may perceive that you are following a line of thought that reflects the writings of Karl Marx, for example. Let’s say they now use the phrase “Marxist” when describing that particular portion of your thoughts. There may be another apsect to your thought that reflects elements of the pursuit of pleasure, in which case the phrase “Epicurean” may arise.

Even if we concede that these ‘categories’ correctly reflect the portions of your thought they are ascribed to, just what impact does it have on the transmission of those ideas?

Firstly, the person assessing your work will have preconceived reactions to those particular categories. The person they are transmitting the ideas to will also have preconceived ideas as well. This will immediately influence the overall perception of your work. Even the most objective person will struggle to remove themselves from such conflicts, so we are going to have to accept that it simply will happen, regardless of what precautions we take.

There is also the risk that such categories may expose a conflict that does not actually exist in your overall ideas. Marxism and and an Epicurean approach could be seen as conflicting from the start – leading to a reduced reception to other components of your thought.

I am not pointing this out to suggest that categories should not be used but rather to highlight the implications of doing so. In effect, they will be reductive and this could be seen as good or bad. Either way, it is inevitable.

If either the transmission person or the receptor person should have an academic background then such categories can be particularly intrusive. This occurs because an academic person is trained from the classics that relate to their particular discipline. By habit, they will compare and contrast any new ideas against generally acknowledged categories. If you doubt me, sit down and work your way through a technical humanities text.

This same idea haunts the political sphere in the most insidious way. In Australia for example, there are two dominant political parties – Labor and Liberals. A similar issue exists in the United States, with Republicans and Democrats. In either country, it is difficult for an individual to be an individual. This or that characteristic is going to reflect one or the other of these two parties, resulting in an easier pathway to simply lump all ideas into that one bucket. And so your ideas have a reduced scope the moment they are transmitted.

What does this mean?

I am skipping through ideas and pathways here but grant me a little leeway and maybe you’ll see where i am coming from. It means that the only way to get your full thought process across is to put it down in full yourself. The problem is that the bulk of people on this planet have a fairly limited amount of time available to investigate particular ideas or thoughts, as well as potentially limited interest in your thoughts (unless you are already associated with a category that is their interest).

One way of tackling this is to consider the categories yourself. Ponder your ideas and which particular categories they could be considered to represent. This may result in identifying a category that you are quite happy to attach yourself to (or maybe a few). Alternatively, it may help you to identify a category/categories that you definitely do not wish to be associated with. You then have the opportunity to incorporate this into your own work.

The difficulty of such an approach is that you will then need to perform all sorts of additional work to ensure you are able to identify these categories, which in turn may mean a great deal of study or research that you don’t have the time  or interest to do.

Another way of tackling the issue is to ensure that your work is simple from the start – or that you take a reductive strategy yourself, distilling and filtering your work until you are satisfied that you have correctly set out your thoughts in such a way that losses of data (and therefore intent) on transmission are minimised.




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