What Kind of Categorizer Are You?

Category Imposers vs. Category Explorers

Posted Nov 02, 2016

Have you ever been told not to generalize?

Have you ever told someone not to generalize?

Is generalizing something we should never do? Stereotyping is generalizing and we think it’s a bad thing, so maybe generalizing is all bad. Still, “Don’t generalize,” is hypocritical. It’s like saying, “In general, don’t generalize.”

What would life be like if we never generalized? If we took every experience as completely new, unlike anything else and therefore un-categorizable, we would quickly go nuts.

We can’t help but generalize. You generalize whenever you see an acquaintance. If you saw Dave on Monday, that’s MonDave. If you see him again on Tuesday, that’s TuesDave. You put both experiences of him into the category, “Dave.” It’s how you come to expect similar behavior from Dave whenever you see him.

Generalization or categorization is how we predict. “Since this is Dave again, I can expect him to do what Dave does.”

Perhaps what’s meant by “don’t generalize” is don’t overgeneralize. “Don’t overdo” is actually redundant, as is “don’t underdo,” since, by definition, we don’t want to do too much or too little of anything.

So, perhaps what’s meant is, “You’re generalizing too much in this situation.”  We all know the impulse to say, “Look, it’s not what you think!” or, “Don’t jump to conclusions!” in other words, “I think you’re over-generalizing here.”

But we also know what it's like to be frustrated with someone for not generalizing enough. For example, if your friend keeps giving you particular excuses for showing up late, you want them to face the fact that, in general, they’re late. They fall into the category “late arriver.”

Our arguments, debates and fights are largely about how to categorize events and where to draw the lines between categories.

And what are categories? There are two basic notions about them, one is that they’re given, established, universally-defined already, just waiting to be discovered and imposed. The other is that they’re often confusing, open to interpretation and worth exploring.

Category imposers are the folks who take the categories for granted and say, “Well of course, the categorical line is drawn here.” They treat categories like facts. “Compassion means X,” they’ll tell you, as though there’s an established universally-accepted definition for a term.

Category explorers take plenty of categories for granted but are more likely to explore category definitions when conversation turns into debate. They don’t say, “No, this is what compassion means” as though they already know. Instead, they ask, “How should we define compassion in this conversation?”

Category imposers tend to try to stop debates with their absolute definitions, often just when category explorers are getting started on their exploration.

Category explorers are not loose about categories. Indeed, they are often more strict about them than category imposers, but locally strict. They’re on the lookout for equivocation, drawing slippery gerrymandered category lines to suit their purposes. For example, when category imposers say, “He’s stubborn, but I’m not. I’m just  steadfast,” “He’s wishy-washy but I’m not. I’m just flexible.” Or “He lies, but I don’t. I’m just diplomatic.”

I’m a category explorer. For example, here, I’m just suggesting a distinction between two categories of category users. I can make counter-arguments to my distinction. I might change my mind about it tomorrow. I’m exploring.

I’m a happy category explorer, even a proud one. Though for the record, category imposers are much more popular than category explorers. We category explorers can be a pain in the neck.

Category explorers are often regarded as hairsplitters, though in reality we’re as often hair-joiners. We don’t just divide things into ever-finer categories. Sometimes we unite categories. For example, I can’t tell an objective difference between being stubborn and steadfast, between being wishy-washy and flexible or between lying and being diplomatic.

From what I can tell, the only difference within each of those pairs is our bets about how things will turn out. For example, if I think standing firm is going to turn out badly, I’ll call it stubbornness. If we think it’s going to turn out well, I’ll call it being steadfast.

That’s why, to a category explorer like me, category imposers are often more slippery than category explorers. They are prone to equivocation. They’re so confident that they know what fits in categories that they don’t bother defining them. They tend to gerrymander while claiming absolutism, drawing loose lines to accommodate whatever they want to achieve. They’ll say “Stubborn and steadfast are obviously completely different. They’re apples and oranges, and I’m only ever steadfast, never stubborn.”

Category imposers and category explorers are represented in Plato’s dialogues, but in a way that can make it hard to tell which is which. The dialogues read like category exploration, but Plato’s ambition was to end exploration by discovering the true lines that define the categories so that they could be imposed formulaically.

To Plato, virtue was like a puzzle with one unambiguous answer to it. The answer is at the back of the book, waiting for us to discover it. Once we discover the answer, we can impose it reliably forever more.

Plato believed that categories such as beauty, virtue and friendship are real and permanent in the universe. We can discover what belongs in these categories by generalize from the sampling of imperfect earthly instances of them. Gather up several different examples of beauty. Study what they have in common and triangulate from them to the true universal absolute category of beauty.

Triangles were important to Plato’s hunch that we could discover the universe’s categories. Pythagoras looked at a bunch of imperfect examples of triangles and discovered his theorem about perfect or ideal triangles. Plato wanted to do the same with categories that matter to everyday interaction. He sought the beauty and virtue theorems, formulas by which we could calculate whether something fit into these universal categories.

He was eager to discover the true categories because he knew people who claimed that they already knew the true categories or that it didn’t matter what the true categories were because it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

This approach was called sophistry, and Plato hated it. Sophists are people who just want to win an arbitrary subjective contest. They’re silver tongued devils, like slippery lawyers or politicians today, out to prove whatever suits them with no grounding in the true and universal categories.

Plato’s dialogues therefore have Socrates challenging the sophists. The dialogues usually start with a question like “what is virtue?” Some sophist says, “I know exactly what it is!”

Socrates would then wear out the sophist with questions that reveal he doesn’t really know – that their definitions are inconsistent, half-baked and illogical. The dialogues usually end with the sophists excusing themselves and escaping Socrates, the nitpicker who was always challenging them to define their terms.

I love the dialogues, though not because I agree with Plato about there being real categories in the world. About that I’m with the sophists. I think the categories are subjective. Still, I don’t think it works to just go with your gut on how we define them. I’m seriously nitpicky about the boundaries of categories.

When people say things like, “don’t generalize” “don’t be judgmental,” “don’t stereotype,” or “be nice,” they’re making categorical moral statements. That’s what category imposers do. They’re implying a rule or formula you should live by, on the assumption that the categories that their moral absolutes rest upon are clearly defined. Category imposers act as though they have already got Plato’s wished for formulas.

I’m not at all convinced they do. When I ask them for their definitions of their pivotal terms, they often sigh and act like I’m being nitpicky. I think I’m just exploring for better subjective definitions of the categories so I can generalize more practically, productively and consistently.