Top 10 ways to get stuff into two piles

by CarlD

The simplest kind of analysis is the one where stuff is all the same, everything is one thing, or it all boils down to that in the end. One pile analysis. It’s all good, it’s all bad, or perhaps it’s all absurd. “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

One step up the analytical complexity scale is when there are two kinds of stuff. In the classic version of two piles analysis there is no middle ground or mixing; the categories are mutually exclusive and mutually defining. It’s even been argued in structural anthropology that such binaries are the building blocks of all of our thinking. Of course, complexity sneaks in if the two piles can be mixed, or if they sit at the ends of a continuum of possibilities. Still we are not yet close to the analytical scope and flexibility of fields and networks. Pure binaries are not found in the wild, but they can still be helpful as an orienting fiction if we don’t mistake them for real; they can also be fully imposed on occasion if the alignment of conditions and forces is just right.

Here are ten of my favorites, in no particular order, only there are eleven.

1. Lumpers and splitters: This one is fun because it’s an attempt at a meta-binary that calls into view the whole process of categorization. Lumpers do few big piles, splitters do many little piles. Splitters think the lumpers are missing important distinctions, lumpers think the splitters are splitting hairs.

2. Folders and crumplers: Sort of a crude, buttwipey way of getting at the “odd couple” binary between orderly and chaotic personality types; metaphorically covers just about any performance of self. Planners and improvisers are in here. Freud called these types “anal-retentive” and “anal-expulsive.”

3. People with loaded guns and people who dig: Still one of the best meditations on the deficiency of simple categorizations in a complex world, and of the irrationalities produced by trying to get the categories to settle down into simplicity, is Sergio Leone’s great spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” This one is the last and most explicit of a series of contingent “two kinds of people in this world” binaries the movie contemplates, each only as successful as the violence that can be deployed to enforce it.

4. Foxes and hedgehogs: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” A quote from Archilochus, picked up by Sir Isaiah Berlin in a famous essay, adapted for various applications. Again, this binary threatens to split open the whole exercise, because hedgehogs will tend to put everything into one big pile and foxes will tend to make lots of little piles.

5. Positive and negative liberty: Again thanks to Isaiah Berlin. Negative liberty refers to individual freedom from constraint; positive liberty focuses on freedom to act within the context and for the good of community. Accordingly, the emphasis of negative liberty is ‘rights’, that of positive liberty is ‘duties’. These two different and possibly contradictory understandings of what it means to be free underlie a great deal of confusing political discourse.

6. Autonomy and heteronomy: Auto-nomy, self-regulation; hetero-nomy, other-regulation. From the perspective of normative autonomy, any restriction of my sovereign self-rule is a kind of oppression. The ‘other’ in heteronomy may be a person or persons, rules and concepts, environmental conditions, even one’s own habits, passions or desires (like body parts that have ‘minds of their own’).

7. Movement and position: I covered this one here. Some people are comfortable with dynamics and uncertainty; some people want things to sit still and behave.

8. Via positiva and via negativa: My thanks to Marc at In Harmonium for this one, more thoroughly explored there. He’s referring to mindsets according to which the focus is on what we can be (positiva) or can’t be (negativa) certain about. Positiva statements are accordingly about Truth, negativa statements about possibilities. Objectivity and subjectivity is a subset binary here; as Marc and others like Sandra Harding point out, the best solutions are a matter of adaptation and negotiation among perspectives.

9. Men and women: Look, as soon as men can be said to have a ‘feminine side’ or women who like sex and open doors for themselves threaten ‘masculinity’ this whole house of cards collapses into a messy pile of possible human traits. But that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most basic myths we use to organize our sense of who’s who and what’s what.

10. Public and private: In England the schools people call ‘private’ in the U.S. are called ‘public’. Sex is private unless it’s homosex, in which case it’s publicly regulated. Halliburton and Blackwater are part of the ‘private sector’, while the ‘public sector’ includes agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice that do some of their business in secret. Private names both my genitals and a rank in the army; public names kinds of libraries and enemies. A ball of confusion; see Weintraub.

11. Us and them.


5 Responses to “Top 10 ways to get stuff into two piles”

  1. You know the old jokes…
    -“There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary and those who don’t.”
    -“There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand ternary, those who confuse it with binary, and those who can’t understand either.”

    Your mention of structural anthropology is quite opportune. Through the linguistic basis of anthropological approaches to structuralism, we may link this “root of all thinking” notion back to Saussurean semiology and contrast it with the hairiness of Peircean semiotics. Post-structural anthropology (especially North American approaches to linguistic and symbolic anthropologies) have used a number of ternary models, perhaps in direct reaction with the binary obsessions of Lévi-Strauss and other European universalists. Still caught up in glorified numerology, I guess. But usually with an even funnier twist than Lévi-Strauss’s «forme canonique».

  2. Before Sergio Leone (#3), there was Bertrand Russell: Generally-speaking, there are two types of work in the world: one type of work involves moving some of the earth’s surface relative to the remainder; the other type of work involves supervising people doing the first type. On the whole, the second type of work is preferable to the first.

  3. Nice. Thanks for that connection, Peter. So where do we sort into that, as educators? I have colleagues who think each way!


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