Categorical

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In the Mutants and Race piece that I'm trying to get into its final form, I'm trying to figure out a good way to avoid using a certain word. Philosophers sometimes use the word 'categorical' to refer to terms that denote categories of various sorts. But there's also the meaning of the word that Kant means when he talks about the categorical imperative, which is opposed to hypothetical imperatives. A categorical imperative is universal (applying to everyone) and absolute (applying in every case). A hypothetical imperative applies only in certain cases, given certain hypotheticals that may not always apply. So the term can mean "absolute/universal" or "having to do with categories".

I explain some problems with thinking of mutants as a race, even if there are analogous features. It really is an analogy, which means it can be pushed too far if you assume the category mutant is an actual example of the kinds of categories that we call races. Yet characters in the various X-Media regularly speak of mutants with racial language? I then try to capture how sometimes this sort of thing can be perfectly fine as long as we don't take the language too strictly. Here's the sentence as most recently returned to me by the editors (with the following sentence for a little context):

On the other hand, we often speak loosely and use certain categorical terms in an extended or even metaphorical sense. For example, people sometimes refer to co-workers as family.

The word 'categorical' was inserted by an editor, and I removed it in my next draft. I'm not entirely sure whether it's supposed to mean that some terms that are normally absolute are sometimes used in an extended sense, i.e. not absolutely, or whether it means that some terms for categories can be used to include things not technically in those categories. Either one is consistent with what I meant. But it's ambiguous, and good philosophical writing removes ambiguities. Also, it's a technical term, and this is a popular-level work that's supposed to explain technical terms. I thought it best to avoid it, so I rewrote several sentences to say what I meant without needing it. A later draft then came back with the word inserted once again. So I'm not sure what I want to do to avoid the word and yet also express what I mean and whatever the editors thought was unclear without that word.

One thought is just to replace 'categorical' with 'category', but I suspect whichever editor keeps inserting this term doesn't approve of that word as an adjective. They obviously didn't like it the way I had it without adjectives, though. I haven't been able to think of a good word instead of 'categorical' if I don't change it much. I'll put the two paragraphs discussing this issue below the fold. I've love any suggestions.

On the other hand, we often speak loosely and use certain categorical terms in an extended or even metaphorical sense. For example, people sometimes refer to co-workers as family. They aren't related, and in the primary meaning of the term family they simply aren't one. But it has become acceptable to use the term to describe those who are like a family in their closeness. Public debate over same-sex marriage has sometimes centered on whether a couple of the same sex should call their relationship a marriage, when marriage has traditionally been a relationship between a man and a woman. Yet we frequently speak of bonds as marriages, even if they have nothing to do with a man and a woman. William Blake (1757-1827) wrote a book called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and he didn't think of heaven or hell as a man or a woman.

So are comic book characters just speaking loosely when they use racial language with reference to mutants? One indication that they might be is that they move back and forth between speaking of mutants as a species (using the label homo superior) and speaking of mutants as a part of humanity. Magneto does this in several of his appearances, even within the same comic book issue, and he does it in the films as well. So there might be some truth to what they're saying if we don't take it as literally as the writers may have intended it. X-Men stories draw a helpful analogy with the racial problems in our society, even if mutants aren't really a race.

6 Comments

Huh. Didn't think of that, but that might be a nice, easy fix without having to worry about much else. If the editor who changed it intended that meaning, they'll probably not bother me about it if I change it to that.

What about concrete or absolute?

If I wanted to express the other meaning, I could call it absolute, but I think I'd want to define it if I did that, since it can mean different things. It can mean "not relative to a frame of reference" in physics, and it can mean "objective" in Christian apologetics when describing truth. It can mean "without exception" for ethical principles like saying "lying is wrong" is an absolute moral rule. What I would mean here is "without borderline cases" or "non-vague". Those aren't all precisely the same thing, even if there's overlap.

Concrete in philosophy is usually contrasted with abstract. I think you mean to contrast it with the kind of vagueness of borderline cases that aren't clearly in either category, but that would be confusing for any philosophers reading it, who will take it very differently.

Categorizing?

I can see the usage of categorical for the popular level and it makes sense to me when I read it that way though I understand that the technical term brings up a flag for the philosopher's eye that shouldn't have been raised.

The classificatory term above isn't bad either. (Honestly I didn't see anything wrong with having the word Categorical removed altogether but that's what editors are for, right?)

What if the categories became a defining extension of terms.

On the other hand, we often speak loosely: using terms and categories in an extended or even metaphorical sense. For example, people sometimes refer to co-workers as family.

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