The Poetics of Thought

Prototypical Objects

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 18, 2009

In the last entry I began to unpack what kinds of variables mark out the category of those entities we think of as ‘objects’, including such aspects as size, shape, substance, weight, etc.  What I want to move onto here is a discussion of the overall category of ‘objects’ as a whole.

Until recently it was widely assumed to be the case that our ability to understand our perceptions, concepts, and experiences in terms of distinctions between types was modeled on what are sometimes called ‘classical’ categories. That is, experiences could be grouped together according to whatever necessary and sufficient conditions served to define that category. So, for example an even number is a category of integer in which the necessary condition is that it be wholly divisible by two. This is not a sufficient condition however as we must also require that this division leaves no remainder or involves no fraction. We can say therefore, that any number that we generate, providing these conditions are met, is a member of the category of even numbers. Any number which does not meet these conditions cannot be placed in this category. These conditions define the terms of what it means to say that any number is even.

It should be evident from this that classical categorization, in setting up clear definitions based on necessary and sufficient conditions, establishes a form in which any entity, a number in this case, is either a member or not a member of such a category. There are no liminal cases, no fuzzy boundaries, and no irregularities. This clarity is, indeed, the strength of such a method, and classical categorization underpins much taxonomy and typing, as well as Aristotelian logic and the Law of the Excluded Middle, and is the default method of categorization employed within most (disembodied) systems of organization from the separate branches on Diderot and D’Alembert’s tree of knowledge to the Dewey Decimal system in our libraries. As a means of structuring information such that it is impersonal and apparently rational it is stunningly effective; the only drawback is that, when it comes to understanding how categories are constructed within human cognition and human epistemology, it is woefully inadequate.
The major studies into human systems of categorization were initially carried out by Eleanor Rosch (1973, 1983), although this work has been significantly advanced by George Lakoff (1990). Rosch’s work consisted of a series of survey-type experiments in which subjects were offered lists of items in a particular category, say birds, and were invited to put a number next to each item indicating to what extent it was felt to belong to the category. On the face of it this experiment should be nonsensical. If we do use systems of categorization based on definitions formed out of necessary and sufficient conditions then we should simply compare each item on the list to our definition and either say it meets the conditions and is, in this case, a bird, or say that the conditions are not met and it isn’t. The idea of placing different birds along a numerical scale of how ‘birdlike’ they are should be meaningless. This is not what Rosch found however. Subjects given this task found it intuitively obvious that some birds were indeed better representatives of the category than others and were able to allocate a number to quantify this level of membership. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those examples which were given the highest ‘mark’ for birdness were blackbirds, robins, and sparrows, whilst the low scorers were penguins, ostriches, and emus. This finding has been interpreted to suggest that whilst in certain specific practices we do indeed use classical categories; in scientific avian taxonomy for example, in practice we do not classify according to definition but according to prototype. In cognitive terms, and therefore in terms of our intuitive epistemology, we form categories around central prototypical examples, with other members of that category radiating outward and becoming less and less typical the further out they go.
It might be tempting to suspect that, in choosing birds as a category, Rosch singled out a particularly difficult set to define and distinguish, and that more self-evidently logical categories would not show these effects of prototypicality. However, this experiment has been repeated with other sets including furniture (Rosch, 1983) and numbers. Sharon Lee Armstrong and colleagues (1983) found that the category EVEN NUMBERS exhibits typicality effects: participants in their experiments consistently rated certain member of the category including ‘2’, ‘4’, ‘6’, and ‘8’, as ‘better’ examples of the category than, say, ‘98’ or ’10,002’. We can say from this therefore, that the categories we use to organise our cognition significantly centre on such prototypes and have a radial structure with a fuzzy boundary.

To return to the concept of ‘object’ which began this section of writing, and to begin to apply this revised concept of what a category is, we might say that, whilst a prototypical material object might exhibit the features outlined by Stockwell above, our understanding of the general category of objects is likely to extend outward from this point to include less typical examples.  It is also inevitable that there will be no clear line dividing those experiences or perceptions which we think of as ‘objects’ from those which we do not.

A glance around the room or out of the window will confirm the truth of that inevitability.  I am looking at the chair across from where I am typing these words, and it seems to fulfill most of the criteria that Stockwell draws up.  It can be regarded as a self-contained object in its own right, and that right is asserted by the affordances that it offers as a device for sitting on.  It has well-defined edges separating it from the rest of the environment, at least from where I am sitting.  For the period of time that I am looking at it, and that it occupies the centre of my attention, it is better focused and possibly brighter than the rest of the room (although I would not say it was attractive, and now that I am no longer looking in that direction but am instead watching these words march across the screen it has merged into the background.)  Despite these intrusions of subjectivity into my individual identification of that chair I would still regard it as prototypical and undoubtedly deserving of its secure status as a card-carrying member of the category of objects, and you would probably share that regard.

Looking around I can also take in the vase of flowers on the mantelpiece, and have to admit to an uncertainty as to the status of this object, or rather, to the sense of a slight delay in my willingness to acknowledge this collection, this arrangement, this floral contrivance as a single object.  For the briefest of moments I waver between seeing each flower in its own inalienable objective right and seeing the whole kit and caboodle.  What’s more, if I allow myself I can even feel a sense of vertiginous escalation as each flower explodes into petals, sepals, stems, stamens, pistels, ovule, filaments, and anthers before a memory of holding the bunch as a totality in my hand and placing them in that vase returns their wholeness.  The hand-shaped affordance asserts itself as confirmation of the-bunch-of-flowers as a prototypical member of this basic level category ‘a bunch of flowers’, and now I am gripping them, conceptually, as an object again.  I am forced to admit, however, that as an object its self-containedness is less solid than the chair, the edges separating one part from another when there should not even be any parts at all blur and grow transparent. Parts break away, emerge to become new figures, then re-enter the gestalt.  The brightness shimmers unsteadily, growing and shrinking in space and the time of memory.  Outside my window there are clouds in the sky, and under the clouds is the rain that falls on my garden, and on the grass, and last weeks grass is in the compost heap, and next week’s is under the ground.  Each word is separate from every other word and the white space between the words is glowing from the LCD screen on my laptop.

The category of objects, then, and indeed the ontology of objects, is not (only) one of clearly delineated, unitary, stationary, permanent, and unchanging solids.  The space of objects is graduated from such prototypical solidity at its heart through increasingly fragmentary, filamentary, and fungible forms, and there is no delineated latitude at which the objective ends and that-which-is-not-the-object begins.

If this is an approximation of the cognitive ontology of objects, then I will want to argue that it is also the structure of our understanding of the metaphor in which we conceive of KNOWLEDGE AS OBJECTS.  Objects of thought may be rationally identified as involving clearly defined stable facts easily distinguishable from the ground of their context and from the space of our own looking, but the phenomenally-derived experience of it may be more complex and variable than that.  What I hope to show is that objectivity blurs imperceptibly into subjectivity and the solid nuggets of data melt and volatilise into the airy light of wisdom and spirit.  The functioning of our cognition requires that, just as there is no category of entities called ‘objects’ that can be unequivocally identified and separated from non-objects, so there is no category of knowledge which is simply ‘objective’, and which is wholly removed from contact and consanquinity with the body of the subjective.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPLpm9D7ADY

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Armstrong, S. L., L. Gleitman, et al. (1983). “What some concepts might not be.”  Cognition 13: 263-308.

Lakoff, G. (1990). Women, fire, and dangerous things : what categories reveal about the mind. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Rosch, E. H. (1973). “Natural categories.” Cognitive Psychology 4: 328-350.

Rosch, E. H. (1983). “Prototype Classification and Logical Classification: The Two Systems”.  New Trends in Conceptual Representation: Challenges to Piaget’s Theory? E. K. Scholnick. Hillsdale, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates:73-86.

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2 Responses

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  1. Kaposvári Márk said, on September 18, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Are there ideas without ideals?

  2. aiych said, on September 19, 2009 at 2:33 am

    My intellectual comprehension is going to improve as I follow your blog. I was telling a friend that I felt like I was a 5 year old submitting a crayon coloring page outside the lines to a group of physicists in deep discussion.
    Regardless, my attempt to get on the same page continues…..

    Here’s my example. I went to a school one weekend in Yelm where a woman JZ Knight was channeling an entity known as Ramtha. Ramtha said that what we termed as Aliens on other planets thought we were funny. They called us “The Forgotten Gods”. That the running joke is our human brain is so powerful that when we create something, we believe it to be there until some action changes our mind that it is no longer to exist. On their frequency, they create what they need, use it, and it no longer exists. They couldn’t imagine an environment where things exist simply because everyone believes it to.


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