Inter-categorical: Here there be Monsters

To make sense of the world we naturally group things into categories. Categories aren’t scientific or fixed, they’re simply generalizations we use to lower the amount of mental processing we have to do when we encounter something new.

For example, tables are a familiar category of things that usually, but not always, have four legs and you can place things on them. When we see something table-like we immediately and unconsciously categorize it as a table.

What happens though when something defies our normal categories? John Vervaeke, relying on the work of Mary Douglas, discusses this in his 34th episode of Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. He says:

Inter-categorical are things that don’t fall into our ready-made categories and therefore we typically regard them as ‘weird’.

What do we do with inter-categorical things? Here’s an example from Mary Douglas (in Vervake’s words):

…in the Bible, the book of Leviticus, all the animals that are unclean, they’re very weird! It’s a very weird collection! If you tried to find some sort of essence, like why owls are unclean and crocodiles are unclean, and certain birds are unclean… It doesn’t make any sense! And then she argues, “Well, no, what happens is there’s ways in which people have categorized things and those categories have a certain pattern. And when that pattern is being broken, then these things challenge our grip on the world!


Douglas argues that you should have an interconnection between a creature’s shape–it’s morphology–its means of locomotion and its location–where it lives. So if it lives in the sea, it should swim and therefore it should have a fish shape. So you have things that are in the sea that don’t seem to be swimming, like the crawfish, shellfish, and therefore they’re kind of weird and they turn out to be unclean.

This type of thinking may seem outdated, but Vervaeke points out that we too have our own purity codes.

Jonathan Haidt has written quite a bit about this, notably in The Righteous Mind. There he talks about how, even today, the strength of someone’s sense of disgust plays a strong role in determining political beliefs. As summarized by David Potts:

Disgust is the emotional foundation of the moral ideas of pollution, stain, miasma. It is also (according to Haidt), paradoxically, the ultimate source of our sense of the sacred. For, the idea of pollution suggests its contrary, purity. The sacred is the pure, that which must be kept from pollution and degradation at all costs. It is the infinitely valuable. When we speak of the sanctity of human life, the Sanctity/Degradation foundation is in action. Sanctity talk is in decline in the West. There are still Westerners who think of virginity as sacred, for example, but they are outliers. However, as Haidt points out, we can still see Sanctity/Degradation at work in biomedical debates over abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and stem cell research.

Inter-categorical is similar to, but not quite the same as, disgusting. Vervaeke uses horror creatures as another example:

So if you take a look at many horror creatures, they’re prototypically inter-categorical. The Wolf man is inter-categorical between the beastial and the personal. The ghost is into categorical between the living and the dead. The vampire is also inter-categorical between the living and the dead and also between being alive in the sense of consuming and being alive in the sense of being able to be generative.

Something that’s simply disgusting can gross us out, but something that’s inter-categorical can have a much stronger effect, it can cause us to lose “grip on reality, and intelligibility, because of the deep connectedness between realness and intelligibility.”

(Thanks to Chris, JD, Benica, and Nica for the transcription of the lecture!)

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