Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: what categories reveal about the mind by George Lakoff is a hefty tome and a core text in cognitive science. It is 587 pages long, so there are a lot of ideas in there and I am not going to do it justice in this little blog post! Basically, Lakoff starts by bringing together aspects of the work of philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, anthropologists, and psychologists – primarily Eleanor Rosch to show how the notion of meaning being rooted in context rather than in some external objective ideal has risen to prominence since the middle of the last century.

Most important for taxonomists is the work of Rosch, whose experiments in the way people form and understand categories shows that categories do not always conform to the “classical” or “folk theory” of categorisation. Since Aristotle, people have assumed that categories are made by noticing “real” properties of things and grouping things by matching those properties. Rosch showed that people actually form categories in various ways, sometimes by grouping matching properties, but sometimes by taking a “central example” and matching similar things that may not actually share any particular properties (e.g. a desk chair is a more typical kind of chair than a bean bag chair, and the two things don’t really have much in common except that we can see they are both sorts of chair). Other ways to form categories include metaphorical association (e.g. communication as liquid in channels) or by metonymy, where a part of something is taken to represent the whole thing (e.g. hands meaning workers).

The categories we choose are also rooted in our nature as physical beings – our colour categories are dependent on the structure of the eye, for example. We also tend to operate most naturally at an “intermediate” level of specificity – the level of the ordinary everyday objects we interact with – books, chairs, dogs, cats, etc – rather than the more abstract level – furniture, animals, etc – or the more specific – paperback novels, deckchairs, Dalmatians, Felix the cat. Children seem to learn these mid-level terms first, and my instinct is that as taxonomists it is typically the middle levels of granularity that are the most troublesome.

Lakoff uses such experimental evidence to argue against objectivism and in favour of “experiential realism” (or “experientialism”) – that our conceptual systems, including the way we form categories – come from our physical bodies and the social and physical environment we find ourselves experiencing. Truth, categories, knowledge, are not “out there” for us to perceive, but are generated from within our subjective experience. (This means that there is no “right” taxonomy for anything – there are only taxonomies that work in particular contexts.)

There’s more detail in this summary and in Donna Mauer’s presentation on the book.

It also has its detractors – this is one critique that I am still working my way through.