Monday, July 14, 2008

Being Categorized

If you have not read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it is a must read. (I'm savoring it page by page. For me, it's one of those.) Tom Peters says, "Read it, Dammit!" in a recent post.

Here is a quote about being categorized:

"Categorizing is necessary for humans, but it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive, preventing people from considering the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone their categories."

While categories may be necessary or impossible to avoid, always leave room for the non-definitive; leave room for the non-descriptive. We are then without boundaries, experiencing life fully as it happens.


John O'Leary said...

Another angle on the same point, Judith: the map is not the territory. Descriptive language (linguistic categories, labels, characterizations) is the map, which is a representation of the territory. It seems to me that failing to appreciate this simple truth is the source of much suffering in the world.

judith ellis said...

"The map is not the territory."

Great, John. So, the map, as a path or route, leads to the territory, but is not the territory itself?

As I see it, the failure you spoke of probably has more to do with the interpretation of the territory, stemming from one's own exprience represented, as you've pointed out, in lingusitic categories, labels and characterizations. The problem may arise in the way we see that which is outside of ourselves and our inability to step out of ourselves to see ourself and others.

Not being bound by a particular image of oneself or the image others give us, is a part of this stepping out. But how do we do this? I think language, represented as thought or spoken words, having both external benefits or consequences, is where we begin. From there our internal and external lives are continuously formed. Consciousness, as thought and spoken words, transform our daily lives.

Regarding language, it's powerful stuff. Two quotes:

"I think therefore I am."

"As a man thinks in his heart so is he."

Can you have a thought without language?

John O'Leary said...

Judith, I do believe we need language in order to think. But much of language - though not all of language - is merely representational - that is to say, it refers to something outside of the words themselves. If I use the term "decisive leader," a decisive leader doesn't fall out of my mouth. The words represent something "in the world," distinct from the words. And that representation is approximate, never a perfect match. In the world of organizations, where we live and work, I feel this is a critical point, especially given how we describe and label others - a necessary exercise, but one fraught with risk. (This slippery slope gets even more slippery when we speculate on the reasons for others' behavior, using language to represent something as ephemeral as motivation.)

Difficult to do justice to this topic in a paragraph or two. That's why I have spent half a day on this in leadership training!

Regarding "I think, therefore I exist" - that's an extremely weak proposition by Descartes, who took the lazy way out. Who is the "I" doing the thinking? He never satisfactorily answered that question, in my humble opinion.

judith ellis said...

Language, to me, has creative power..."In the beginning was the word." It has the power to create and re-create, forever constantly shaping being. As thinking beings we can accept or reject language, but it seems to me to have great significance in how we think of ourselves and excel or are defeated.

I guess I was speaking of language in the "general" sense that Derrida might have seen it. Life, to me, seems like a lot of wading through the often muck, beauty and trappings of language to determine that which is beyond representation in determing being and meaning. The face to face also discloses language beautifully, as does the tone and ebb and flow of the voice.

The basis of my thought is both rooted in the notions of Heiddegger and the French philosopher and founder of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida. He writes of Heiddegger in OF GRAMATOLOGY in the "general" sense:

"Heidegger occassionally reminds us that 'being,' as it is fixed in its general syntactic and lexicological forms within linguistics and Western philosophy, is not a primary and absolutely irreducible signified, that it is still rooted in a system of languages and an historically determined 'significance' although strangely privileged as the virtue of disclosure and dissimulation."

Regarding the world of work, it seems to me that labels and categories are hinderances if they are defined as absolutes. I am a woman. If woman to you is one who stays at home only without any ambition in the world of work, your language will represent who I am to you. But it will never change who I am. This is the beauty and struggle of language that open communciation makes better. Needless to say, culture plays a significant role in these determinations and training seminars as yours are very necessary. Seminars do not only bring personnel enlightenment, they can affect the bottom line.

John O'Leary said...

"Language, to me, has creative power..." Yes, yes. I don't mean to diminish that. Language has the power to create and evoke. And as Heidegger says, it has the power to "conceal" and "unconceal." And in the world of organization and work we need to pay FAR more attention to the language we traffic in. When someone accuses me of "just talking semantics," I often respond, "Well, what else IS there?"

judith ellis said...

John, to me, there is nothing outside of being, out of which language evolves with the power indeed to "conceal" and "unconceal" to form and shape.