In this blog entry, I’ll be delving into the issue of categorisation, and discussing this phenomenon’s lasting impacts on the societies in which we live today.
To many of you, categorisation is likely not a topic that you will have considered with great interest and I really can’t blame you. As an isolated word, it frankly sounds as mundane and uninteresting as anything, and yet, I would argue that many of the ‘philosophical’ discussions in which we involve ourselves are rooted in our historic attempts to compartmentalise and separate themes. At the core of these attempts was the intention to simplify things for us when complexity has increased. If we look at libraries, for example, in Ancient Egypt libraries were initially separated into 11 vague categories (1 of which for works which fell into no specific category), each one laid out A-Z. Nowadays, since books are mass-printed and are written at greater frequencies about a wider range of topics, we face the enormous challenge of ordering these works in an accessible format. The UK’s most commonly adopted solution, the Dewey Decimal system, lists 10 vague categories, each with various subcategories. However, it is inherently flawed for a number of reasons:
- There is plenty of ‘fuzziness’ between not only the generic categories, but also the more specific micro-categories.
- These categories are culturally sensitive and tend to reflect discrimination in society e.g. homosexuality was initially placed (1932) in mental derangements and abnormal psychology. To this day, some works about homosexuality are filed under ‘sexual practices viewed as medical disorders’.In a perhaps more appropriate example – who even uses libraries these days? – consider how many genres of music exist.
Spotify seems to think, as of December 2018 at least, that there are over 2,400; what might have once been as a classical song may now fall under the domain of functional music or, more specifically, sleep music. These genre categories are developed through algorithms which often fail to account for the ways in which different people interact with music at different times. I, for example, am equally likely to be listening to techno when I’m trying to focus on work as I am when I’m trying to sleep, whereas others will swear by piano music to get them their shut-eye and pop to help them study.
In effect, categorisation has an inherent flaw of trying to generalise when massive nuances matter. By trying to simplify highly complex situations, by trying to make objective the subjective, we have only gone on to create more problems. On the dark side of this, categorisation has been weaponised in the past with devastating effects to heighten good-vs-evil frameworks, and thus justify action against the perceived evils. If we focus on the issue of race (although sexuality and gendering are equally important examples), the fields of race science and eugenics were created in order to vilify dark-skinned people and minority groups, justifying imperialist interests, slave trade and genocides. In truth, there is no significant genetic basis for the concept of race in human beings, meaning large differences in skin colour do not reflect vast genetic differences at all.
Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges once wrote: “Obviously there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural.” In saying this, he recognises that systems of categorisation are purely hypothetical. In the past, our hypotheses were flawed; we tried to simplify concepts that we didn’t even understand. I am certain that we are still making these mistakes. Take species as an example:
We used to separate species based upon looks but then we realised that different breeds and sexes might vary significantly in looks. We then separated them based on their ability to create fertile offspring but it turned out that interbreeding sometimes led to viable offspring. Now, we separate species based upon genetics, yet we are finding out that the level of genetic difference is completely subjective, making species human-defined categories.
The main conclusion from this weird little piece is that humans don’t know everything. We often get carried away with ourselves thinking we’ve cracked the universe’s code, boosting our collective ego. In the end, we usually end up finding the flaws in our discoveries soon after. We create categories to prove our understanding of a subject and to immortalise our discoveries, soon to realise that the categories are non-functional. The universe is far bigger than us, and it is my belief that acknowledging this will be crucial to our long-term success as a species, whatever that even means.
Thank you for reading.
Guy Phillips, Boger