Categorization and Nomination

The term categorization refers to the various cognitive and practical operations through which an individual is integrated into a category and designated by the name attached to that category:

— What is this?   Identification process
— This is a X      Name of the object

The name can be taken from the current lexicon or from a scientifically controlled taxonomy or theory. Categorization as a cognitive and empirical operation cannot be dissociated from nomination, a linguistic operation.
The classical example illustrating Toulmin’s layout of argument is an example of an administrative categorization: the individual Harry is categorized as a British citizen on the basis of the criterion, “— to be born in Bermuda”.

Categorization is the first step to implement an argumentation by definition, “he is a British citizen, so …” S. Argument from definition. In law, categorization corresponds to the legal qualification of an act (is it a crime or an accident?); it determines the law applicable to the case, S. Stasis.

1. Categorization tests: distinctive features and global analogy

An individual is given a name and integrated in a category mainly on the basis of a set of distinctive features or out of a global analogy with an outstanding member of the category.

The categorization by distinctive features is based upon a definition. A definition of a noun is a set of heterogeneous features that can be used to test an individual for the corresponding category. If a significant number of these distinctive features fit with the description of the individual, then this individual belongs to this category, and can be given the corresponding name.
If the categorization-nomination is based on unsystematic, anecdotal features the category is inconsistent: “the bird is gray, the sky is gray, the bird is a cloud, the cloud is a bird” S. Intra-categorical analogy.

The categorization by analogy is based on a common global form (Gestalt) shared by the individual under consideration and a prototypical member of the category: this mushroom looks like a Scotch bonnet, it is a Scotch Bonnet. The prototypical species is the species with which the community is best acquainted with.

The concrete task of nomination–categorization combines the two sets of tools, distinctive features and analogy. The distinctive features can be drawn from the stereotype rather than from any kind of definition; all the features found on the stereotype tend to be considered as essential for the definition of the category, S. Imitation.

Binary and gradual categorization — The categorization made on the basis of essential, distinctive features entails that category predicates are binary: an individual is a member of a category or is not.
If membership within a category is determined simply by stacking any sufficient number of features, category predicates are gradual; the richer the combination of features, the stronger the link with the category. Similarly, a bird which looks more like the prototypical bird than another is “more” a bird than the other one. Category membership becomes gradual, and its top members cannot be transcended; this can be the meaning of the juvenile expression “more X than him, you die”, “cooler than him, you die” in other words, one comes out of the category upwards.

Categorization mistake? — In Alice in Wonderland, the pigeon wrongly categorizes Alice as a serpent:

‘Serpent!’ screamed the pigeon.
‘I’m not a serpent’, said Alice indignantly. ‘Let me alone!’ […]
‘A likely story indeed!’ said the Pigeon in a tone of the deepest contempt. ‘I’ve seen a good many little girls in my time, but never one with such a neck as that! No, no! You’re a serpent; and there is no use denying it. I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you never tasted an egg!’
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland. [1865] [1].

The pigeon wrongly categorizes Alice as a serpent on the basis of the long neck she is developing in this episode. For the pigeon, this characteristic evokes a snake, so that the pigeon fears for its eggs; and in addition, Alice eats eggs, a feature perhaps inessential for the categorization of beings, but which reinforces the pigeon’s conclusion.
From an essentialist view, the pigeon miscategorizes Alice; “having a long neck” is not a specific difference nor a characteristic proper of snakes; giraffes, herons, swans… are also animals with long necks. Actually, the pigeon classifies Alice from a functional point of view. From the pigeon’s perspective, a long neck is a natural sign of danger and it is wise to apply a precautionary principle, that is to shout “snake!” as people shout “wolf!” when perceiving a strange creature lurking behind the house.

2. Technical categorization

The categorization-nomination can be expressed via a simple judgment about an individual “X is a bastard, it shows immediately”; most designations are not the result of a careful examination of the relevant criteria, but if in doubt, the availability of such criteria proves essential. The mushroom picker who has doubts about the nature of the mushroom he has just picked must engage in a careful process of categorization; the same goes for the municipal employee seeking to determine the rights of an individual applying for social security benefits. First of all, they must refer to the criteria enumerated in the relevant reference books: the encyclopedia of mushrooms in the first case; the decrees and dispositions defining the terms and conditions of attribution of social security benefits in the other. A well-conducted process of categorization will lead to reasoned conclusions, such as:

Y is / is not a marasmius oreades, i.e., a Scotch bonnet.
X is / is not a single parent in the administrative sense of the expression.

The investigating parties will then take the relevant action: keeping the mushroom for eating or throwing it away; accepting or denying the application for social security benefits.

Social Categorization — A parent is defined as “a parent or a person who bears the financial burden of one or more children”. “To be single” is defined as: “to be widowed, divorced, separated or unmarried not cohabiting”. The meaning of parent is finally extended to include “pregnant” and “people having the legal responsibility of a child”.

Natural Categorization — Wikipedia describes the Scotch Bonnet as follows:

Marasmius oreades, the Scotch bonnet, is also known as the fairy ring mushroom or fairy ring champignon. The latter name tends to cause some confusion, as many other mushrooms grow in fairy rings (such as the edible Agaricus campestris, the poisonous Chlorophyllum molybdyte, and many others).
Distribution and habitat — Marasmius oreades grows extensively throughout North America and Europe in the summer and autumn (fall) (June – November in the UK), or year-round in warmer climates. It loves grassy areas such as lawns, meadows, and even dunes in coastal areas.
Description — It grows gregariously in troops, arcs, or rings (type II, which causes the grass to grow and become greener). The cap is 1-5 cm across; bell-shaped with a somewhat inrolled margin at first, becoming broadly convex with an even or uplifted margin, but usually retaining a slight central bump — an « umbo »; dry; smooth; pale tan or buff, occasionally white, or reddish tan; usually changing color markedly as it dries out; the margin sometimes faintly lined.
The bare, pallid stem grows up to about 7cm by 5mm in diameter.
The gills are attached to the stem or free from it, fairly distant (rather a distinctive character), and white or pale tan, dropping a white spore-print. The spores, themselves, are 7-10 x 4-6 µ; smooth; elliptical; inamyloid. Cystidia absent. Pileipellis without broom cells.
This mushroom can be mistaken for the toxic Clitocybe rivulosa which lacks an umbo, is white to grey in color, and has closely spaced decurrent gills.
Wikipedia, Marasmius oreades

If the harvested object thing complies with this description, then it is a Scotch Bonnet. Categorization is achieved on the basis of a set of quite different procedures: observing whether the key elements of a definition by description apply to the individual; looking carefully at the picture showing a prototypical Scotch Bonnet; testing the object for its “elasticity under finger pressure”. Some features of the definition can be checked immediately, for example, by looking at the surroundings:

grassy area —grows gregariously in troops, arcs, or rings (ibid.);

or at the mushroom itself:

a slight central bump: an ‘umbo’ (ibid.);

or practicing a small experimentation:

usually changing color markedly as it dries out (ibid.)

These are positive criteria, that, if met, justify the claim “this is a M. oreades”.

Of special importance for the task of categorizing and giving names, are the distinctive criteria; the umbo criteria proves essential, and, for some other species, vital:

This mushroom can be mistaken for the toxic Clitocybe rivulosa which lacks an umbo, is white to grey in color, and has closely spaced decurrent gills (id.)

In contrast the name-derived criteria “fairy ring mushroom” seems to be a necessary, not sufficient criteria, very risky since it is shared by both edible and toxic species. These are key criteria in the case of categorization issues (cf. infra, §3).

Notably, other parts of the definition may remain puzzling for many: “inamyloid. Cystidia absent. Pileipellis without broom cells”. Categorization is commonly achieved on the basis of a selection of criteria. Once categorization has been performed in view of a reasonable set of elements, it is possible to allocate to the object under examination all of the features mentioned in the definition. It is in this way that categorization connected with definition becomes a powerful argumentative machine, argumentation by definition:

it is a Scotch Bonnet, SOinamyloid, etc.

or, more realistically perhaps:

“Many mushroom connoisseurs are fond of M. oreades” SO, let’s cook it at once!

Over time and with growing experience, this knowledge, manipulations and, most importantly, reasoning will be incorporated in perception, and the mushroom picker will immediately see and recognize Marasmius oreades as such: “look, Scotch Bonnets!”.


3. Categorization Issues

The fact that categorization is an argumentation-based process is clearly illustrated by borderline cases, in which the individual or situation under consideration meets some, but not all of the criteria defining the given category.

Let us consider the above-mentioned case of social security benefits, provided by the state to help a single parent to raise a child. The municipal employee receives the following application:

I am currently separated from my husband, who has moved out of the conjugal home, leaving with another woman. We will be taking steps to divorce, but in the meantime, I am living alone with my daughter.

This woman is not divorced, but is apparently engaged in court proceedings, or at least plans to file for divorce. Does she therefore qualify for immediate financial support?

A stasis or conflict of categorization occurs when discourse and counter-discourse are based on conflicting categorizations of the same event, action, or person:

S1_1      — he is a poor guy
S2         — no, he’s a real bastard
S1_2      — no, he is a poor guy, we should pity him

S1_1      — Syldavia is now a great democracy!
S2_1      — how can you talk about democracy in a country that does not respect the rights of minorities?
S1_2      — there are tons of democracies that do not respect the rights of minorities.

Such antagonistic categorizations occur frequently in conversations.
— In dialogue (1), the antagonistic categorizations of the same individual as a poor guy vs. a bastard, are just stated and repeated.

— In dialogue (2), S2_1 rejects the categorization of Syldavia as a democracy, arguing that protecting the right of the minorities is a necessary feature to qualify for being a democracy. S1_2 maintains and backs up his or her appreciation, arguing that democratic regimes, as they are, often fail to respect minority rights. In a very common opposition, S1 categorizes Syldavia on an essentialist criterion, S2 on an empirical criterion, which opens a perfect argumentative situation.

[1] Quoted after Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, BookVirtual digital edition. P. 71; 72-73. (11-08-2017).