Categorical Thinking and the Narrowness of Rhetoric

Oh, what a week ! Sometimes it is that uphill struggle to get the most simple of things done. I find myself occasionally battling with people’s apathy and cynicism born of apathy, the inertia of the superstructures we work and live within, the anger of people reified from years past when they tried and failed to do something, and the desire to be recognised.

I remind myself what is possible by looking around to the buildings, the landscape; I go to the library and think of those with the perseverance and tenacity to have written their thoughts down and shared them.


I look at the skies and see the planes fly overhead and think about the millions of people from every culture who contributed to the necessary knowledge to have lifted us into the clouds in these manifest collective efforts.

I look at the Victorian times and see the optimists clashing with the self-defeating pessimists and raising the game to say this can be better – this can happen, these are the ways we can make constructive progress. Getting people to work together and effective coordination is a tricky task, there are all sorts of reasons why people don’t get around to doing things…

The Monty Python syndrome – for this I casually refer you to that great film The Life of Brian, a masterpiece in my estimation. Let us have a meeting about a meeting about a meeting; the propensity for small minds to divide groups aka “We’re the People’s Front of Judea! Judean People’s Front…The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front….Splitters….And the Judean Popular People’s Front….And the People’s Front of Judea.

Talking and talking and talking and talking – a state of constant deferral from action. A charismatic avoidance of working together to tackle a common problem.  This is a common symptom we find in modern life where, in an attempt to structure a coalescent action amongst a group, action is lost in debate, rhetoric and/or personal drama.

So often in conversation the convenient default is the position of the devil’s advocate. This is to work from the opposite extreme of the idea being put forward to understand the weaknesses of the argument. In my opinion, without careful self-regulation, the spoken word is prone to give rise to dualistic and binary expressions which result in the use of categorical statements.

This is generally because we can only process one person vocalising at a time, also we can only say one thing at a time so vocal communication has a linear nature – there is thus an inherent dualism which arises in the spoken word. Spoken conversation around certain topics so often degenerates into power dynamics and argumentation simply to win a point. Argumentation often creates an exciting and pleasing adrenal flow which results in a soothing self-affirmation.

Dale Carnegie picks up on something of importance in his book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. He touches on the point that we all want to feel important. In a section discussing why people go insane he writes this:

“I put that question to the head physician of one of our most important psychiatric hospitals. This doctor, who has received the highest honors and the most coveted awards for his knowledge of this subject, told me frankly that he didn’t know why people went insane. Nobody knows for sure But he did say that many people who go insane find in insanity a feeling of importance that they were unable to achieve in the world of reality.”

I think it is important to understand some of the neurotic discussions and decisions we make when working with others. Carnegie also touches in on the use of praise instead of criticism as the basic concept of B.F. Skinner’s teachings. When we work with people on the premise that the affirmation we seek comes from agreeing and mutually finding a solution, things become a lot more productive and communally enjoyable. By this road more complex questions and tasks can be tackled, more complex behaviour can evolve.

Competitive behaviour is a pain in the neck. Oneupmanship, as it has been put by Stephen Potter, is incredibly destructive in that it cuts short the finer points which need a receptive environment to thrive and yield fruit. I try and remind myself – beware the feelings of self-importance – maybe Rudyard Kipling was thinking about this when he wrote “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…”

It is easy to criticise, endorse apathy and say the world is going to hell in a hand basket. It is easy to accuse others of laziness and selfishness to post justify inaction. It is easy to say you will do something and get swept away on the next given daydream. It is easier to talk than to listen. It is easy to behave according to the prevalent group. It is easy to cut someones ideas up than to work through the communication barrier to understand the concepts underneath.

It is not so easy to do what we say we will. It is not so easy to take into account what we do not know before we suggest an opinion – there is a folly to ‘knowing’. It is not so easy to think beyond our next self-affirmation. It is not so easy to understand that our identity is not the group/clan/club which lends us our totem.

The fruits of the easy fall into hand. The fruits of the counter-intuitive we must work to gain. To finish off this thought I will quote from the introduction of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organon, a work which provided a critical foundation to the development of modern objective thinking not least through insisting on grappling with first principles:

Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury. For as they have been successful in inducing belief, so they have been effective in quenching and stopping inquiry; and have done more harm by spoiling and putting an end to other men’s efforts than good by their own.

Those on the other hand who have taken a contrary course, and asserted that absolutely nothing can be known – whether it were from hatred of the ancient sophists, or from uncertainty and fluctuation of mind, or even from a kind of fullness of learning, that they fell upon this opinion – have certainly advanced reasons for it that are not to be despised; but yet they have neither started from true principles nor rested in the just conclusion, zeal and affectation having carried them much too far.

The more ancient of the Greeks (whose writings are lost) took up with better judgment a position between these two extremes – between the presumption of pronouncing on everything, and the despair of comprehending anything; and though frequently and bitterly complaining of the difficulty of inquiry and the obscurity of things, and like impatient horses champing at the bit, they did not the less follow up their object and engage with nature, thinking (it seems) that this very question viz., whether or not anything can be known – was to be settled not by arguing, but by trying.