Are Categories Real
Posted on September 26, 2008 at 12:45 am
Somewhere in our development, a sense of self, of me and mine, arises. Perhaps our curious attachment to this identity is simply a survival mechanism, helping us to separate from the world beyond our senses, enabling us to navigate effectively. Whether this is a human function, or primarily a cultural way of knowing, it defines the world as we see it.
The separation of objective and subjective experience is a powerful mode of perception. In the 16th and 17th centuries, modern science was born. Newton, Bacon, Copernicus, and Gallileo were a few of the giants upon whose shoulders this powerful method of inquiry was constructed. Hypothesis, deductive and inductive reasoning, experimentation. This was a new synthesis of methodologies aimed at describing the physical world in “objective” terms so that all people could experience the same representation of reality, an objective representation.
An important member of this founding group, a group that led the Scientific Revolution, was Rene Descartes. A brilliant French mathematician, schooled in the Jesuit tradition and living through the Thirty Years War, a war in which Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other over religious differences, Descartes sought a way to transcend these sectarian battles, and found his way in science. Reasoning that the only thing that can truly be known is that we exist, he formulated his famous dictum, “Res cogito, ergo sum”, or “I think, therefore I am.” This assertion reduces the external world to a surface, a flatland upon which reality must be constructed and proven through deductive logic. The world must be reasoned into existence and divided into Res Cogito, thinking substance, or Res Extensa, extended substance. The extended world included everything beyond ones mind, including ones body. And so there was a philosophical separation of mind, body, and world that was to become concretized as the Western/Modern state of consciousness. Thus a grand meta-category was created: the outside, objective world, and flowing naturally from this great category came multiple, smaller categories, and then other sub-categories into which our reality has been divided, subdivided, and then reduced again. Our world has been broken into many parts, a world of pieces floating, held together by invisible forces, described abstractly in complex mathematical formulae; a world by definition quantifiable, one in which quality subtly disappears, the latter believed to be a remnant of the old world of subjectivity, of a pre-modern, primitive way of knowing.
So we live in this inherited world of modern consciousness. But this world is breaking down as we realize the deep connections we have to the planet and cosmos beyond. The degree to which we construct our world is becoming more deeply known. The function of category becomes understood as a particular component of a particular method of knowing, effective for some projects, confusing and disconcerting for others. This categorization, which separates us from our experience, isolates the constructed sense of “self” from the world, leaving us alone, disconnected, and afraid, protected from the world by self fabricated prisons of “I-ness”.
We must question the nature of category, of its representational value. The power of this way of knowing is manifest in the incredible cities we have built, the bridges, the airplanes, the computer technologies. But what of our inner world, our internal maps of consciousness. I am afraid that the deeper workings of our Western/Modern minds are not so very advanced and that we suffer the harsh effects of not knowing that the separation of cogito and extensa, of subject and object, do not operate at our deepest levels of knowing and being. This Western duality has only served to construct a fantastic cosmopolitan world of emptiness. The categorization and subdivision of the world has emptied it of quality, has reduced our experiential and perceptual field to bytes, good for building things, but severely limiting as a way to experience reality deeply. Categories need not and cannot be eliminated, as the process of categorization is a powerful tool. But we must not confuse the construction with the reality. Non-dual knowing includes yet transcends the binary, bringing us closer to direct and full experience of our lives.