Categories, Part I: The Fall of the Classical Theory12 min read

In a “monster of the week” episode of the The X-Files, Mulder and Scully encounter a genie, Jenn. She tells Mulder — who has three wishes — “Everyone I come in contact with asks for the wrong things…” Thinking the trick is to ask for something altruistic, Mulder wishes for “peace on earth.” Jenn grants his wish by vanishing all humans except Mulder. Distraught, Mulder uses his second wish to undo his first wish. He then decides the problem is that the wish was not specific enough, and we see him writing a lengthy “contract” in a word processor. In the end he wishes Jenn to be free, but if he were able to ask for this really specific contractual wish, things probably still wouldn’t have went as he intended. This is because there will probably always be “wiggle room” when Jenn begins to interpret the wish —  she could find a loophole. As we know from Durkheim, “the contract is not sufficient by itself…”

If we think of a contract as a set of explicit rules allowing some things and baring others, then a perfect contract is what we would call a classical category. For example, the category “world peace” describes certain states of affairs, which includes some things (like people are to be calm) and excludes others (like people are not to be fighting). This used to be the dominant way philosophers, psychologists, and most other disciplines were thinking about categories, and it continues to pop up as a kind of “Good Old-Fashioned Category Theory” — or, we might say, GOLFCAT — even in sociology.

What are “Classical” Categories?

John Taylor, in Linguistic Categorization (Chapter 2) and George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (Chapter 1), provide great overviews of this theory of categories. In short, this theory is based on a metaphor (Lakoff [1987] 2008:6):

They were assumed to be abstract containers, with things either inside or outside the category. Things were assumed to be in the same category if and only if they had certain properties in common. And the properties they had in common were taken as defining the category.

To put this more formally, Taylor (2003:21) offers the following four conditions:

  • Categories are defined in terms of a conjunction of necessary and sufficient features.
  • Features are binary.
  • Categories have clear boundaries.
  • All members of a category have equal status.

One can easily see this view of categories as built into the early 20th century approach to phonology — which often conforms well to the folk theory of phonology today. Basically, speaking is a linear sequence of discrete sounds. A single language has a finite set of discrete sounds. More formally, these sounds are defined by distinguishing features that correspond to how they are produced in the mouth and throat — e.g., /m/ as in “mom” is found in almost every language, and is a “voiced bilabial nasal” because it is produced with both lips (pressed together) and by blocking the airflow and redirecting it through the nasal cavity, and it is voiced because the vocal cords vibrate. Furthermore these features are said to be “binary” in that they can either be present or absent (either the vocal cords vibrate or they do not: think of /th/ in thee compared to thy). This was the theory championed by the incomparable Roman Jakobson. Take this example (published in the same year Jakobson arrived at Harvard):

Our basic assumption is that every language operates with a strictly limited number of underlying ultimate distinctions which form a set of binary oppositions (Jakobson and Lotz 1949:151)

This theory was more fully elaborated in the book Preliminaries to Speech Analysis: The Distinctive Features and Their Correlates. Later, two MIT linguistic professors, Noam Chomsky (who, while a doctoral student at Penn supervised by Zellig Harris, conducted research at Harvard as a member of the Society of Fellows) and Morris Halle  (a doctoral student of Jakobson’s at Harvard) would write in The Sound Pattern of English (1968:297):

In the view of the fact that phonological features are classificatory devices, they are binary… for the natural way of indicating whether or not an item belongs to a particular category is by means of binary features.

Chomsky, of course, did not stop with phonology but continued down this path intending to discover the simple categories of syntax, which could explain all the regularity and variance in human languages. Surveying these developments in linguistics, Taylor offers three common additional conditions:

  • Features are primitive (i.e. irreducible to any other features)
  • Features are universal (i.e. there is an all-encompassing feature inventory)
  • Feature are abstract (features do not directly correspond to any particular case)

Finally, and both famously and controversially, this classical category theory as applied to language is extended by Chomsky et al. much further, forming the basis of the “nativist-generative-transformational” theory (Taylor 2003:26):

  • Features are innate

The Beginning of the Fall (in Linguistics)

Screenshot from 2019-04-17 15-38-26

Chomsky published Aspects of the Theory of Syntax in 1965, and it quickly became a kind of sacred text for the nascent MIT linguistics department. In it, he lays out the basic task of the “Standard Theory,” as discovering “generative grammar” which “must be a system of rules that can iterate to generate an indefinitely large number of structures” (Chomsky 2014 [1965]: 15-16).

One strong assumption built into his program is that there are “grammatically” correct sentences, and that lexical units could be adequately arranged in either-or categories (e.g., noun, verb etc…). A second assumption built into is that the highly variant “surface structure” of given utterances can be reduced into constituent categories or a “deep structure,” and a set of rules of composition and transformation. Finally, Chomsky felt there was clear and necessary boundaries between phonology, semantics, and syntax — and syntax was the real goal of linguistics (see Chapter 2 in Syntactic Structures in particular).

For all these reasons, he was skeptical that descriptive and statistical studies could reveal the underlying structure and offered a now infamous example:

  1. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
  2. *Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

According to Chomsky, “It is fair to assume that neither sentence…ever occurred in an English discourse… Hence, in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will be ruled out on identical grounds as equally ‘remote’ from English.” Even though, according to Chomsky, a reasonable person could tell that sentence (1) is syntactically correct, while (2) is not. (Although, one paper (Pereira 2000:1245) does test this assertion and finds that sentence (1) is about 200,000 times more probable than sentence (2), and thus Chomsky’s assertion is either naive or in bad faith.)

Harsh Words for the Master

George Lakoff was an undergrad at MIT, majoring in mathematics and poetry when Noam Chomsky founded the Department of Linguistics in 1961. As part of the founding, Chomsky invited Jakobson from Harvard to teach a class. As Lakoff describes it:

So my advisor in the English Department said: “Roman Jakobson is coming to teach poetics, you’re interested in poetry, you should take this course, but if you’re going to do it, you should know all your linguistics, so also take Morris Halle’s Introduction to Linguistics”

In the 1960s, Chomskyan generative linguistics had become hegemonic, superseding the Bloomfieldian paradigm, and after his first years studying English at Indiana University, Lakoff intended to contribute to this new project. He returned to Cambridge in the summer of  1963 to marry Robin (Tolmach) Lakoff — a linguistics PhD student at Harvard at the time who, among other things, would go on to found the study of gender and language with Language and Woman’s Place.

While there, Lakoff found a job on an early machine translation project at MIT, where he met several others who would oppose Chomsky in the “linguistics wars.” When he returned to Indiana, he decided to turn to linguistics, and studied under Fred Householder, who famously published an early critique of Chomsky and Halle’s theory of phonology in 1965. In his final year, Lakoff returned to Cambridge, where Paul Postal directed his dissertation, and he also worked closely with Haj Ross and James McCawley.

Together, Lakoff, Ross, McCawley and Postal each explored cases that didn’t seem to fit Chomsky’s Standard Theory, and attempted to offer “patches” that would adequately account for these anomalies. In fact, Lakoff’s dissertation was “On the nature of syntactic irregularity.” This resulted in Extended Standard Theory.

In there exploration of exceptions, however, they soon landed on the kernel of an idea that would force a break with the Standard Theory entirely and form the basis of what they called generative semantics: “syntax should not be determining semantics, semantics should be determining syntax” (Harris 1995:104). In other words, “the deeper syntax got the closer it came to meaning” (Harris 1995:128). The result was something of a tempestuous counter-revolution, as Lakoff put it in a New York Times article, “Former Chomsky Disciples Hurl Harsh Words at the Master”:

Since Chomsky’s syntax does not and cannot admit context, he can’t even account, for the word ‘please’…Nor can he handle hesitations like ‘oh’ and ‘eh,’ But it’s virtually impossible to talk to Chomsky about these things. He’s a genius, and he fights dirty when he argues.

As John Searle observed, “…the author of the revolution now occupied a minority position in the movement he created. Most of the active people in generative grammar regard Chomsky’s position as having been rendered obsolete” (Searle 1972:20). (Interestingly, it appears that the groundswell of interest in the alternative approach at MIT coincided with Chomsky leaving on sabbatical to Berkeley.)

In the end, as the boundary between semantics and syntax began to blur, these counter-revolutionaries would soon need to grapple with theories of meaning found outside of linguistics. This would ultimately, but not immediately, lead them to engage with non-classical theories of categorization. In my next post, I will discuss the logical weaknesses of the classical theory and the alternative approach.


Chomsky, Noam. 2014. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam and Morris Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. Harper & Row.

Harris, Randy Allen. 1995. The Linguistics Wars. Oxford University Press.

Jakobson, R. and J. Lotz. 1949. “Notes on the French Phonemic Pattern.” Word & World 5(2):151–58.

Lakoff, George. [1987] 2008. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. University of Chicago Press.

Pereira, F. 2000. “Formal Grammar and Information Theory: Together Again?” Transactions of the Royal Society of London ….

Searle, John R. 1972. “A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics.” The New York Review of Books. Retrieved April 16, 2019 (

Taylor, John R. 2003. Linguistic Categorization. OUP Oxford.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Categories, Part III: Expert Categories and the Scholastic Fallacy – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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