Language: August 2008 Archives

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.

I'm not a big fan of semicolons. I could actually find the passage I'm going to go by searching for a semicolon in the document. It took ten seconds. I don't use semicolons very often. So imagine what I'm thinking when the following passage:

We just don't pick out features that depend on genetic structure. We sometimes oversimplify, and some people defy categories. There are borderline cases. We haven't thought to put a name to every category that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy.

comes back from the editor changed to this:

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify; some people defy categories; there are borderline cases; and there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to.

It's not just the succession of semicolons. The final item in the series has an 'and' in front of it, as if it had been a series of commas. When you combine two sentences, it's perfectly fine to use a semicolon or to use a comma with 'and'. When you have a longer list, you can use several commas, and then the last item has a comma with 'and'. Some people like to use semicolons for a longer series. I don't like to, but it's not a grievous punctuation move. But you don't put an 'and' after the last semicolon the way you would with a series of commas. That seems to me to be as bad as putting after the sole semicolon when you're just combining two sentences into one.

But then I don't like what happens when you do it just with semicolons:

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify; some people defy categories; there are borderline cases; there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to.

Also, the editors clearly preferred something like what they did rather than what I had. What I'm hoping is that they'll accept this:

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify, some people defy categories, there are borderline cases, and there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to.

Or does anyone have any better suggestions?

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