Stephen Wilks
CEO @ Seneca Learning
November 06, 2017
What do the Pope, Harry Potter, Tarzan & Leonardo Di Caprio have in common?

I never really understood how things fitted into different categories. Something was just a car, chair or mammal. How this process worked in my brain was automatic and hidden. But how do we decide what is a “good” example of one of these categories, as opposed to a “bad” example?

Categories do not exist naturally in the world. They are something that we create in our heads so as to bring about some sense and order. We have food categories, making it easier to know what we should be eating, and film genres, so that we can narrow down what we want to be watching. Light is a spectrum of waves, but mentally and culturally, we see certain wavelengths as specific colours. MacLaury found that the boundaries between different colours varies across geographies and cultures. This implies that there is no objective boundary for “purple”. It is perception and context dependent.

That’s a “rubbish example of…” is a common phrase in the Western world. Some things are widely thought of as better at representing a category than others. Take the example of a “bachelor” to illustrate this, which according to the font of all knowledge (Google) is “a man who is not and has never been married”. Tarzan, the Pope, Harry Potter and Leonardo DiCaprio all seem to fit the bill. But based upon your cultural context, pre-conceptions and beliefs, one may be a better example of a bachelor than the rest. The things that we perceive as the “best” examples of a category are called “prototypes”. They act as reference points and anchors for our thinking.

We often understand concepts through other concepts. For example, love can be comprehended through analogy to health and to force in varying circumstances. The words “attraction” and “electric” are frequently used in relationship discourse, as are the words “lovesick” and “healthy”. Using multiple conceptualisations is common in language and understanding. Electricity is said to act as a fluid and as a crowd, both of which are valid, and the art lies in knowing where each analogy is appropriate.

Categories help us to find order in the world. A person, object or idea can fit numerous categories and be described by countless concepts. But, categories are not a case of black and white. Noticing what makes something a “good” example of a category can help us examine what our true perceptions and pre-conceptions actually are.