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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: January ::
Re: Ideology: Category Genes
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 8.0152.  Thursday, 30 January 1997.

(1)     From:   Thomas Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 29 Jan 1997 12:16:59 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0136  Re: Category Genes

(2)     From:   Daniel Lowenstein <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 29 Jan 1997 13:12:39 PST
        Subj:   Category-genes

(3)     From:   Harvey Wheeler <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 29 Jan 97 18:26:12 UT
        Subj:   RE: SHK 8.0143  Re: Ideology/Teaching British to the Englanders

(4)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 29 Jan 1997 22:21:32 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0143  Re: Ideology/Teaching British to the Englanders


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 29 Jan 1997 12:16:59 -0500
Subject: 8.0136  Re: Category Genes
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0136  Re: Category Genes

Bill Godshalk writes:

> Yes, it does seem likely that we humans have a language-gene.
>
>However, I think it's less likely that we have a category-gene, and categories
>are contexts.  We create categories with language in our desire to make our
>lives meaningful.

This is an important argument. It may be that we do have an innate aptitude for
forming categories, though different learnings and different cultures may form
different ones. It may even be that some very basic categories are indeed
hard-wired into neural circuitry, since they seem to manifest themselves before
any possibility of acculturated learning.  Even casual observation of small
infants will show that they discriminate very effectively between "primary
care-giver" and "not care-giver" and communicate that discrimination loudly and
vigorously. This looks like an innate category discrimination to me, and an
absolutely explicable one in Darwinian terms.

A more complex instance would be "things that make me smile". Smiling is a
fascinating activity here: a behavior which infants overwhelmingly acquire at
an early age, which is imitated from adults, certainly, but which is not taught
by them and cannot in any useful sense be included under the rubric of
"culture". In other words, the impulse to imitate in this way, and the
knowledge of exactly how to do it, and, even more interestingly, of what it
"means" to do it, is also hard-wired into the infant brain, again for good
Darwinian reasons.

Tom

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Daniel Lowenstein <
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Date:           Wednesday, 29 Jan 1997 13:12:39 PST
Subject:        Category-genes

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there is someone out there who is
apparently a slower reader than I am.  Sanford Pinker's book is so readable
that even I was able to go through it fairly quickly.  It is both entertaining
and informative to one, such as myself, who knows very little about
linguistics.  The only reservation that I have is that it seems to be very much
a brief for Chomsky's ideas, which I believe are still quite controversial.  Is
there an anti-Chomskyite out there who can write an equally delightful rebuttal
to Pinker's book?

I agree very much with those who have said humans contain category-genes,
though I think to say we are "hard-wired" for categories is a more apt metaphor
(or, as one of the others on this list suggested, we have a categorizing
instinct).  There is a qualification, however.  Analytical philosophy, and the
various social sciences to the extent they imitate analytical philosophy,
assume that all categories (or all worthwhile categories) are logical
categories, with fixed boundaries.  Work in a number of disciplines over the
last several decades suggests strongly that logical categories are only one
category of the categories, and not the most frequent or most important one,
that characterize human thought.  To take one example, whereas in logic an item
either falls within a category or it does not, in actual human thought
categories are matters of degree.  Chickens and robins are both birds, but ask
people to name a type of bird and they are far more likely to name robins than
chickens, despite the fact that most of us have far more frequent contact with
chickens (albeit dead ones) than with robins. The locus classicus for this type
of stuff is George Lakoff's superb book, "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things."

This ties in with the other aspect of this thread, the question of teaching
students bits and pieces of Shakespeare rather than whole plays.  Using bits
and pieces is not inherently conservative, though it may be conservative in
fact, because it would be easy to select extracts from Shakespeare that would
support a conservative or a radical view of society, and probably nearly
anything else in between.  Aside from intellectual laziness, the impulse to
extract bits and pieces may be related to the overly abstract mode of thought
that results in too rigid notions of what categories are.  That is, the impulse
reflects the view that the play as a whole is simply a container of certain
ideas, and it is the ideas that are important. I see the same thing in my own
discipline, law.  In the last three decades or so, the U.S. Supreme Court has
wanted to reduce broad constitutional principles to abstract rules and
subrules.  The result is that studying the doctrine of, say, the First
Amendment, is akin to studying the tax code.  What tends to be obscured is what
ought to be the strength of the common law method of adjudication--case by case
decision-making, each step of which is influenced by a holistic consideration
of all the circumstances of the particular controversy. So it is with
literature, in my opinion.  I certainly am not arguing that ideas in literature
are nonexistent or unimportant.  But they are not CONTAINED in literature, just
waiting to be extracted. Rather, they are dissolved in literature, a part of
the very substance of the whole work, and the only way to ingest them is to
drink the whole mixture.

                                Best,
                                Dan Lowenstein
                                UCLA Law School

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harvey Wheeler <
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Date:           Wednesday, 29 Jan 97 18:26:12 UT
Subject: 8.0143  Re: Ideology/Teaching British to the Englanders
Comment:        RE: SHK 8.0143  Re: Ideology/Teaching British to the Englanders

On the language gene -- doesn't Chomsky deny this - calling language "innate"
rather than genetic?  Genetic potential but not determined - ?

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Wednesday, 29 Jan 1997 22:21:32 -0500
Subject: 8.0143  Re: Ideology/Teaching British to the Englanders
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0143  Re: Ideology/Teaching British to the Englanders

Eric Armstrong  writes:

>Since I have been reading Steven Pinker's remarkable _The Language Instinct_
>. . . I feel that this statement {re: language and categories} is possibly
>contradicting itself.

Okay, Eric, et al., I was shooting from the hip when I wrote that.  I've read
George Lakoff's <italic>Women, Fire and Dangerous Things</italic> as well as
Pinker's<italic> </italic>book, and I guess categories are as wide-spead as
language among our species. I wonder if categories could be constructed without
language.

Yours, Bill Godshalk
 

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