Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Categories: That's not a...

A little while ago, I ranted about how when somebody says that a book or movie or other creative work is “bad”, what they almost certainly mean is that they themselves didn’t happen to like it. Today, I’m going to make a similar observation that when somebody says that something doesn’t belong in a particular category, there’s almost always an unspoken “I like” at the end.

For example:
  • “That’s not a word” probably means “That’s not a word I like”
  • “That’s not art” probably means “That’s not art I like”
  • “That’s not science fiction” probably means “That’s not the kind of science fiction I like” or, coming from a science-fiction fan, probably just means “I didn’t like that book or film”.
Next time one of the major dictionaries announces that they’ve added some recently coined words, or recognised new usages of some existing words, watch the “that’s not a word” folks come out in force. (Aside: in truth, my biggest disappointment with these people is that none of them sound much like Chaucer at all. Ah well.)

Like other primates, we humans understand our environment by categorising the things that we encounter in it. However, our advanced language skills soon show us that other individuals do not necessarily share the categories we have chosen. Most of the labels we use are arbitrary and debatable (even things we tend to think of as universal, like colours). Hard-and-fast definitions are largely confined to mathematics and hard sciences, and even there, a few years ago astronomers notoriously decreased the number of planets in our solar system by a wave of a definition.

“That’s not a baby. That’s a Mr. Potato
Head.” — an example of a useful categorisation
from Amazon Women on the Moon. Copyright
Universal Pictures.
Arguing for the inclusion a particular item in a particular category (or for its exclusion from that category) is sometimes useful if it enables us to make observations about the category that are improved in some way.  Biologists routinely make this kind of argument when deciding how to classify or reclassify an organism. Moreover, the argument for inclusion or exclusion might itself prove illuminating, regardless of the conclusion.

So, to revisit the examples from above:
  • Instead of claiming that something “isn’t a word” (which is almost certainly is, for any useful definition of the word “word”), how about we just admit that it isn’t a word we ourselves would use, or which we would only use in a certain, particular context?
  • Instead of claiming that something “isn’t art”, how about we talk about what kind of art we like or don’t like?
  • Instead of claiming that something “isn’t science-fiction”, how about we talk about the elements that we see as common in the genre and the degree to which they’re present or absent in a particular film or book? (I want to write more on this subject soon).
Attempting to exclude an item from a category by simply shifting the category boundaries closely resembles the “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy. In both cases, the person making a claim attempts to evade having to explain or defend a position. In this case, the position is almost certainly one which, under closer scrutiny, turns out to be just an arbitrary personal preference of some kind.