Review: Lloyd, Cognitive variations

Lloyd, G.E.R. 2007. Cognitive variations: reflections on the universality and diversity of the human mind. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press. 201 pp.

Reviewed by Grace Pappalardo (Wayne State University)

G.E.R. Lloyd’s Cognitive Variations is loyal to its name, exploring a wide variety of cognitive differences as well as similarities cross-culturally and historically. Lloyd vehemently supports a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding cognitive variations and proves this time and again throughout the text, exploring and analyzing arguments in favor of both nature and culture as well as from universalists and particularists. He also makes the important distinction that he seeks not to prove the validity or falsity of past claims on the topics he explores, but rather to determine to what extent these claims are applicable to the greater argument. Cognitive Variations serves not as a cognitive encyclopedia, but rather as a critical overview of the research that has been done thus far in some areas of cognition. Lloyd does not seek to answer any unresolved matters, but rather to analyze the value of the available data and offer a new platform for further discussion.

Cognitive Variations addresses the commonalities and differences in human cognition using a multidisciplinary approach. In each section, he focuses on a different area of cognition currently under investigation and assesses the research and findings on each thus far. He systematically tackles topics of debate, such as color perception and natural kinds, and forms each chapter in a way that synthesizes the multidisciplinary information provided, alongside his own extensive knowledge of classical Greek and Chinese thought. In doing so, he emphasizes the multidimensionality of phenomena, explaining that across cultures, each group of people will choose to assign importance to one or some of a variety of aspects. Additionally, he grapples with the reality that even people within a common culture can differ from each other considerably, making the discovery of commonalities a challenge. However, these differences are also not solid evidence for particularism, which, as Lloyd establishes throughout, is why an interdisciplinary approach to cognition is truly best. Lastly, throughout the text, he touches on themes of methodological error and erroneous conclusion based thereupon, explaining that presupposing a result can in fact skew that result. He argues that a myopic approach utilizing a single viewpoint or discipline can lead to false conclusions masquerading as accurate findings.

Lloyd very cogently argues this last point throughout his book and is careful to point out errors in methodology that may have led researchers to misleading conclusions about their subjects. This puts much of the evidence he provides into valuable perspective and reminds the reader to take caution in assuming the validity of research results. He address Berlin and Kay’s study on color perception in this way, explaining that, whether or not they intended to, their research question and materials were inherently skewed toward the results they hoped to find. He explains that Berlin and Kay essentially got the results they hoped for by failing to recognize the connotations of the differences they perceived. He claims that in their methodology, they favored hue over luminosity, which does not really allow for an appropriate answer if the informants categorized color in other terms. Lloyd here employs his knowledge of ancient Greek color classification to further explain his opposition to Berlin and Kay’s supposedly conclusive results on color universals. He presents the terms leukon and melan, which he explains are descriptors not of hue, but rather of luminosity. Additionally, Lloyd adds that similar to perceiving luminosity or saturation instead of hue, Berlin and Kay may have overlooked the fact that a color term may not have been the target identifier for a particular object. As Conklin’s findings explain, although an identifier may appear to be addressing color, it may very well be instead addressing a different primary connotation, such as wetness or dryness.

Despite the extreme variability of claims Lloyd addresses in Cognitive Variations, he manages to maintain an unbiased stance on each topic. While he imbues the text with his own judgements, his attempts at a true dissection of past arguments for the betterment of the cognitive discourse are successful. While Lloyd’s book is an impressive piece of scholarship, weaving together arguments made by those with opposing viewpoints, it is certainly an overview of these arguments. This is not to discount his achievements in bringing together such a diverse set of accounts, but rather to note that each chapter does not go into immense detail on each cognitive variation discussed. If more information was desired on certain arguments, further outside reading would be required. However, painstaking detail is not Lloyd’s objective here, but rather to bring together various and often opposing viewpoints and piece them together to make more sense of human cognition.

In total, Lloyd accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do. In sharing such a wide variety of findings from research in biology, psychology, anthropology, history, and more, he rightly concludes that the most effective way to approach issues of human cognition is through an interdisciplinary approach. As he shows throughout the text, failing to look at research findings through multiple lenses can lead to error and misleading conclusions. Taking advantage of the strengths of each discipline can make for more conclusive and accurate discoveries.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #5 | Doug's Archaeology

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