How do we structure our moving, changing thoughts and how do we structure the world we design and move and act in?
The venerable view of the movement of thought is association; thought is associative. Sure, but a three-year-old would ask, “Where do the associations come from?” They’re not random, they’re organized, and in many ways, and three-year-olds have long begun to form them. Chair-table, both in the category furniture. Or the theme, dining room. Early on, we form categories: stuff we eat, stuff we wear, stuff we play with. More formally: food, with sub-categories like fruit and cheese and bread; clothing, with sub-categories like shirts and pants and pajamas; toys, with sub-categories like cars and blocks and dolls. There are also themes, stuff that gets used together, like bathtubs and sinks and towels, or pots and pans and dishes, and refrigerators and stoves, or paper and pencil and scissors and glue. Typically, we arrange our homes around both categories and themes. Food is in the kitchen, fruit in one place, cheese in another, together with pots and pans and refrigerators. Toys are in a bedroom (or more realistically for three-year-olds, all over the house) along with books and clothing and beds. Think now of word associations, a standard measure: do we respond “chair” to “table” because they’re in the same category or because they’re used together, they’re in the same theme? For years, cognitive and developmental psychologists thought that categorical associations were more sophisticated than thematic ones. That view is being challenged, and surely we need both.