People, in common with other creatures, need to identify recurrences in the world in order to thrive. Recurrences, whether in space or time, provide the stability and predictability that enable both understanding of the past and effective action in the future. Recurrences are often collected into categories and, in humans, named. One crucial category, and set of categories, is events, the stuff that fills our lives: preparing a meal, cleaning the house, going to the movies. Event categories are an especially rich and complex set of categories as they can extend over both time and space and can involve interactions and interrelations among multiple people, places, and things. Despite their complexity, they can be named by simple terms, a war or an election or a concert and described in a few words, folding the clothes, rinsing the dishes, or tuning the violin. People have an advantage over their non-verbal relatives in that language can facilitate learning categories and serve as a surrogate for them in reasoning. What are the effects of naming or describing over and above identifying categories? And what do the descriptions reveal about the categories? Here, we examine some of the consequences and characteristics of language for familiar categories, events, and the bodies that perform them.
A category is a category is a category. The whole point of categorization is to treat unlike things as if they were alike. After all, if we treated each encounter with each object or event as the unique thing it is, we would be unable to generalize, unable to learn, unable to remember, unable to communicate. Ignoring differences underlies all of cognition. But which differences to ignore? And are all categories alike, or do some, in particular those associated with our bodies and their actions, have a special status? First, we review the structure of categories, then the special features of bodies and events, and finally relate them together and to the topic of this book, imitation.
Structure of categories
Defining features or family resemblance?
What has been termed the “classical theory” has been trounced in recent decades as a theory of how people decide on category membership or draw inferences about category members (e.g., Medin, 1989; Miller & Johnson-Laird, 1976; Rosch, 1978; Smith & Medin, 1981). At the core of the classical view is the notion of defining features, features that are singly necessary and jointly sufficient for category membership. Certainly some legal and mathematical categories, such as citizenship and odd number, have that character. But psychologists want to know how people think about categories: do they think of categories in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions? The evidence suggests otherwise. It suggests that people think of categories in terms of central tendencies or frequent features or typical examples.
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