The Embodied Mind: Neural Beings Must Categorize

Every living being categorizes. Even the amoeba categorizes the things it encounters into food or nonfood, what it moves toward or moves away from. The amoeba cannot choose whether to categorize; it just does. The same is true at every level of the animal world. Animals categorize food, predators, possible mates, members of their own species, and so on. How animals categorize depends upon their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and to manipulate objects.

Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied. We have evolved to categorize; if we hadn’t, we would not have survived. …

A small percentage of our categories have been formed by conscious acts of categorization, but most are formed automatically and unconsciously as a result of functioning in the world. Though we learn new categorizes regularly, we cannot make massive changes in our category systems through conscious acts of recategorization (though, through experience in the world, our categories are subject to unconscious reshaping and partial change). We do not, and cannot, have full conscious control over how we categorize. Even when we think we are deliberately forming new categories, our unconscious categories enter into our choice of possible conscious categories.

Most important, it is not just our bodies and brains determine that we will categorize; they also determine what kind of categories we will have and what their structure will be.

The Inseparability of Categories, Concepts, and Experience

…Categorization is thus not a purely intellectual matter, occurring after the fact of experience. Rather, the formation and use of categorizes is the stuff of experience. It is part of what our bodies and brains are constantly engaged in. We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, “get beyond” our categories and have purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience, Neural beings cannot do that.

From George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. 1999, Basic Books, p 17-19