Fuss about Indic categories II

1. Social psychology, for instance, speaks of ‘categorization theory’, and we do use ‘categorization’ also in the sense of classification. However, unless one gives a technical meaning to ‘category’ (which one can), these usages do not violate the primary distinction between a word from some natural language and its meaning.

2. Consider a classificatory scheme, say, cubes. Here, ‘cube’ is a word, it has some meaning, and we classify (let us say) some objects together. That is, we say that some objects can be categorized as cubes. However, by saying this we do not mean that some objects (say some coloured, and some wooden objects) are instances of the English word ‘cube’. (Assume that we are teaching English to someone who does not know that language. When we classify some objects and teach him the word, we are not teaching him how the word is written, what the constituent alphabets of that word are but its meaning. Now he understands the meaning of the word ‘cube’.) What we mean is that each of these objects is an instance of the category ‘cube’ (i.e. the meaning of the word ‘cube’). Even here, we do not mean that the meaning of the word ‘cube’= some physical object. (That is, we do not suggest that ‘meaning’ looks like a physical object. The physical object is not an embodiment of the meaning of a word.) What we mean is that the meaning of the word ‘cube’ allows us to bring descriptions of some other objects together.

3. Our classifications of the world does use language, thus words from a language, and hence categories. Once we appreciate this, there is no problem (this becomes a short-hand) in saying that pratyksha, for instance, is a category. When asked, we always have the possibility of saying that we are talking about the category of pratyaksha and not about the word ‘pratyaksha’.

4. When we observe the way natural language functions, we discern another crucial role of words. They also refer to the world. For instance, London refers to the capital city of UK, whereas ‘London’ is a six-letter word. In this sense, the word ‘cube’ is both a word from English and it also refers to objects in the world. In philosophy of language, there is a huge debate about the relation between the meaning of a word and its reference. But these issues are not relevant for our current discussions.

5. Could we speak of culturally preferred ways of categorization? As long as we keep some distinctions in mind, between a word, its meaning and reference, yes. What does it mean to say this? It means that different cultures provide descriptions of ‘the world’ in different ways. That is, the meanings they ascribe to their natural language words are different. Not merely that. It might also be the case that some of their meanings might be entirely untranslatable into meanings that words have in some other natural language.

6. What does that indicate? In the absence of a theory (that can be tested, improved upon, etc), classifications do not mirror the structure of the world. They could, but the only way to know this is with the help of a theory (even here, qualifications are needed but I will forego them). Consequently, a discussion about whether some categorization (or classification) is cognitively better than the other is an entirely fruitless discussion, if the goal of the discussion is to contribute to the knowledge of the world.

7. As I have said already, if one uses ‘Indic categories’ and ‘western categories’ as a short-hand to indicate how Indians and westerners understand the meaning of some words etc, there is no problem. But if one wants to go further than that, the onus shifts to the one who wants to further.

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