A Short Piece Featured In (Re)constructing “A is A” by O.G. Rose

The Ubiquity of Categorization

Is applied thinking inescapably an act of categorizing?

Photo by Luke Tanis

If we know x is good, this knowledge will only be useful if we are able to accurately discern when something is x. If we are incapable of making this judgment, then knowing “x is good” will not be useful, and in fact could be harmful if we wrongly define something as x that is bad but we try to use that bad thing anyway because we believe it is good. If we cannot categorize well, knowledge often proves useless.

If I know from St. Augustine that “it is wrong to constantly vindicate myself,” but cannot discern when x is “vindicating myself” from “telling the truth,” then I will easily believe I am wise and someone who avoids the temptation to self-vindicate, because every time I do self-vindicate, I categorize the activity as “telling the truth.” Thus, thanks to mis-categorization, I hide my self-vindication from myself, which both makes me think I follow the sage wisdom of Augustine and that I ethically “tell the truth.” In society, telling the truth is often seen as praiseworthy and brave, so thanks to mis-categorization, not only do I get away with vindicating myself while truly believing that I am not, but I also get to see myself as a truth-teller. Thanks to error, I benefit on many counts.

If I know “I shouldn’t hurt my wife’s feelings,” but cannot discern when y is “being mean” from “helping her change for the better,” then I will easily believe I am helping my spouse when I am in fact hurting her. When my spouse asks me to stop, I will believe first that she is not appreciating my efforts to help her, and second that if I do stop it would be unloving, because I am only trying to help her change for the better. Thus, due to mis-categorization, I will refrain from doing what my spouse wants (for her own sake) and continue to be mean meaninglessly, which I will believe is not meanness but “hard love” or something. When I am accused of not knowing the basic truth that “you shouldn’t hurt your wife’s feelings,” I will first be insulted that others don’t think I know something so basic, and second I will feel like I am a martyr under attack (I’m only acting this way for her sake, after all).

If I know that “it is important to increase justice” but cannot discern when z “worsens poverty unintentionally” versus “actually reduces poverty,” then I may support an economic program that aims to help the poor that ends up making the poor worse off, all while I believe I am increasing justice. If I know that “relationships matter” but cannot tell which associations with people are actual relationships versus interactions due to happenstance proximity, then I will not know who I should invest in and who I shouldn’t invest in. If I know “learning is important” but cannot identify what constitutes mere memorization from actual learning, then I won’t be able to identify when I’m doing that thing which I know is important, and in fact this knowledge may contribute to me investing my time in something that ultimately is unimportant.

If I know “it’s not good to be in a bad mood,” “good coaches set up their players to win,” “love your enemies,” “listen to what people have to say,” “fight for justice,” “communicate,” “increase community,” “that is a fact,” “that is a lie” — there are millions of possible examples of categories — all of these examples of knowledge (concepts, ideas, values, and the like) are only useful to the degree I can accurately discern which phenomena, actions, and experiences fall under which categories. If I cannot correctly categorize, not only will my knowledge prove useless, but it will likely actively harm me in that it will contribute to self-deception, self-righteousness, damaged relationships, increased misunderstanding, and so on.

Failure to mis-categorization is not a small intellectual mistake, it is arguably the intellectual mistake. And critically, we cannot avoid making this mistake by simply watching the world around us, for we cannot observe any necessary relationship between a thing and its most fitting category. We cannot “observe” which category a thing, action, etc. should fall under, for, like mathematics, categorizes themselves aren’t found in the world. “Pure observation” is impossible, which means categorization must be an act of thought: unless we are to accept “thoughtlessness” and all its risks (as discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose), we cannot escape the difficulty and anxiety of thinking.

II

Another form of mis-categorization is creating and working with and from bad categories to begin with, that is the creation of problematic, half-true, and/or incomplete categorizes by which I try to understand and organize life. If I believe “love is niceness,” then whenever I see niceness, I will categorize the activity as “loving,” which though not entirely wrong, could cheapen love and reduce it to mere pleasantry. Furthermore, if I see my spouse being nice to a stranger, I may accuse her of flirting and unfaithfulness. Also, sometimes love must do things that are hard, and sometimes a woman comes home from work in a bad mood because of something that happened. In these instances, a person might not be “nice,” but it does not necessarily follow from this that the person isn’t “loving.” However, if we have the wrong category (“love is niceness”), we might conclude the person is hateful, leading to problems.

Compounding the difficulty, categories present themselves as objectively true, and from these categories there is a subtle and unjustified “transfer of objectivity” to our discernment about what falls under these categories. If we know “love is unconditional,” then “the universal and self-evident trueness” of this category easily leads us to think that our judgment of x falling under “unconditional love” is likewise “universal and self-evident” — a big problem (and reminiscent of the mistake of “pure observation”). It does not follow from the trueness of a category that our sorting of phenomena under that category is likewise accurate (but it will certainly feel that way).

The “objective trueness” of a category will seem to make our discernment of what falls under that category likewise “objectivity true,” but this does not follow, and if we think this way, we will easily conclude that anyone who disagrees with us is foolishly denying “objective truth.” This may lead us to ignore that person’s council and locking ourselves up in a self of self-deception and self-righteousness while concluding “objectively” that those outside the safe are self-deceived, self-righteous, and ignoring the facts. Even if a given category is true, it does not follow that our categorization is right, though the trueness of a category will seem to justify our categorization. Failure to catch this fallacy can direly stress people and cause endless drama.

Despite the dire consequences which result from mis-categorization, there can actually be a perverse incentive not to develop skill in categorization (as there is incentive not to develop empathy, resistance to ideology, critical thinking, etc.), precisely so that we can get our way, use our ideas in our favor, and never have to change ourselves in light of the truth. If I always mis-categorize “being kind” in a manner that makes everything I do “being kind,” then I don’t have to do anything but keep being myself to “be kind.” However, if I begin learning to categorize rightly, I might find that I won’t “be kind” unless I change, and change is hard. If I mis-categorize my boss as “not being considerate,” then it is my boss who needs to change, but if it’s actually the case that my boss is considerate while I’m the inconsiderate one, then not only am I wrong, but work is required of me. Thus, I’d naturally rather maintain my present structure of categorization and interpretation: to learn how to categorization rightly would be a threat to my worldview, ideology, and self-image. Change is hard, and why would we want to change a system in which we’re always in the right?

III

According to some classical thinkers, the final intellectual act was “judgment.” Generally, it was understood that one did not engage in knowledge if one did not ultimately determine if x, y, or z constituted a manifestation of an idea. If I believed “humans are kind” but never judged anything as “an example of humans being kind,” then perhaps I had an idea, but I did not have knowledge. Judgment transforms an idea into knowledge, into an abstract comprehension of the actual world. Today, however, we seem to confuse and conflate “knowledge” and “idea,” and also we seem to have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that strikes us as “judgmental.” But of course, we still do make judgments in that we categorize, but in failing to realize we judge (or even disowning that we judge), we tend to judge poorly.

Consider the modern distaste for judgment, and also considering that I define the word “judgment” specifically in other papers, I’ve tried in this brief work to introduce a different term that rises above connotations, emotional charges, etc. — categorization. By “categorization,” I mean what someone like Aquinas would have meant with the word “judgment,” but hopefully the term is not automatically combatted just because of how it sounds. Aquinas was right that all knowledge ends in judgment or categorization, and failing to realize this, our ideas become forces that work against us as opposed to lead us to knowledge. Knowledge is power, but when mis-categorized, knowledge is a power we can use against ourselves.

Is all thinking categorization? Well, categorization is at least ubiquitous even if not omnipresent, and if the thinking is meaningful to me (versus just flashes of images), categorization seems unavoidable. If I see a cat in my head, I put the image under the category of “cat” in order to make sense of the image; likewise, if I see a cat in a tree outside my house and say “there’s a cat,” again, I put the animal under a category. Perhaps I can avoid categorization if I only perceive the world without thinking about what I perceive (as I perhaps do something similar if I only “let the images in my head pass through me” without a second thought), but that would mean I only avoid categorization by avoiding intelligibility. Considering this, it seems to be impossible to avoid categorization if my thinking is “applied” (versus “passive” or “just passing through me”). Even if I’m arguing that “the cat outside is not a cat,” I at least have to start with a category that I then proceed to deconstruct, but even if I succeed at proving the animal outside isn’t a cat but instead a bird, I’ve only changed categories, not done away with categories entirely.

But how do we rightly categorize? That’s the million-dollar question, and to answer it, we will have to take the whole philosophical journey (a question is resulted in me writing many papers). There is no short road, but there are roads worth taking.

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Write Launch. Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Streetlight. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. Open. UNO Finalist. Pushcart Nominee. ogrose.com

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