Sunday, October 31, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

G. E. R. Lloyd, Disciplines in the Making: Cross-cultural Perspectives on Elites, Learning, and Innovation. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 215. ISBN 9780199567874. $50.00.

Reviewed by Ubiratan D'Ambrosio, UNIBAN. Brazil

G.E.R. Lloyd is a most distinguished scholar. He is recognized for important contributions to the history and philosophy of science. In the last decades, he has authored a considerable number of books and papers, comparing the development of science in early China and Greece. He developed a methodology, examining, for example, how the social and political context was a determinant of the development of scientific ideas. Comparing the scenarios of ancient Greece and China is present in many of Lloyd's works. But Lloyd's scholarship has also another strand. He tries to explain why and how different individuals, of the same species, reveal different interests and preferences, talents and abilities, different specificities in generating, organizing and sharing knowledge.

In the first sentence of the book under review, Lloyd says "This book is a sequel to my Cognitive Variations. Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Human Mind." In it, he looks into commonalities and variability of human cognition in response to the natural and cultural environment. Without endorsing either universalists or relativists, Lloyd discusses some categories usually claimed as cross-cultural universals, such as color perception, spatial cognition, classification of animals and plants, emotions, health, action, rationality and the recurrent and ideologically loaded theme of nature versus culture.

In Disciplines in the Making, Lloyd draws from a typical university departmental structure and select eight basic disciplines: philosophy, mathematics, history, medicine, art, law, religion and science. These are the eight chapters of the book. This book, as well as the previous one, indeed since the controversial Demystifying Mentalities (CUP, 1990), is very difficult to review. Of course, the selection of the eight disciplines is a first problem faced by the author. What does it mean, in different cultural settings, mathematics or philosophy, medicine or religion, and so on? This book is an example of the fact that dealing with such an ambitious project results more in opening than in answering questions.

The undeniable prestige of the author, acquired through his publications and academic recognition, allows him to venture into exploring the concept of disciplines. By doing this with intellectual instruments, such as theory and methodology, developed in the western frame, many factors that influence the generation and organization of knowledge may not be fully appreciated. Disciplines are the result of a dynamic complex of organized strategies generated in response to the pulsions of survival and transcendence, both as individuals and as groups. Although we recognize societies that were, until recently, isolated—such as the Amazonian Pirahãs—we may say that, since prehistoric times, cultural encounters have always played a major role in the dynamics of strategies to survive and to transcend. In every cultural encounter, we note either total acceptance or total rejection or, what is more common, syncretism. But in any case, extant conscious and unconsciousness forces play a role in further generation of knowledge.

The subtitle of Disciplines in the Making is revealing: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Elites, Learning, and Innovation. Indeed, the concept of elite differs much from one society to another. For example, in China, scholars were selected by public examinations and were at the service of the Emperor, the focus of their advances was to respond to the Emperor's wishes, hence learning and innovation were subordinated to the Emperor's interests. In Greece scholars organized themselves as small elite, a sort of fraternity, aiming at intellectual enhancement, who practiced outside of public visibility in their leisure time. Differently than the Chinese scholars, they had to make a living in other activities. The Greek intellectual elite coexisted, although distantly, with citizens concerned with common problems of every-day life, typical of a progressive society, such as urban events, production and commerce. Learning and innovation and the role of elites reflect the structure of the society. We recognize this when we look into the philosophy of education in different cultural environments. It is always possible to recognize two strands for education: to transmit to new generations what is accepted, such as values, and to create opportunities for improving everyday life. In other words, we recognize in education conservative and progressive strands. The equilibrium between the two is the great challenge of education. Disciplines tend to favor the conservative strand. This permeates the eight chapters of this book.

Different from the other chapters, the title of Chapter 1 is itself a question: "What is Philosophy?" The author discusses philosophy in Greece, arguing that in coining the name, a conception was stated. Some authors consider that China had not philosophy, but, instead, wisdom, while Indian and Arabic scholars came closer to the Greek concept. He places himself in the position that philosophy is associated with basic human cognitive capacities, which allows for informal reasoning.

Mathematics is the theme of Chapter 2, the longest chapter. The author briefly examines conceptions of Platonists, of constructivists, of formalists, and other currents in the philosophy of mathematics. He goes into etymological arguments and synthesizes what have been the main discussions of historians of mathematics. The chapter is limited to Greece and China. India and Islam. Except for a few lines on the Peruvian quipu and Pirahã culture, non-literate societies are not considered. If we accept Lloyd's view of knowledge as the cognitive response to the natural and cultural environment, and look for organized strategies for survival and transcendence, we may recognize more than incidental coincidences. This is not contemplated in this book.

Chapter 3 deals with history. The chapter begins with a discussion of the concept of time, which is associated with an enchainment of past ↔ present ↔ future, be it linear or cyclic. As Lloyd points out, this enchainment is challenged when we consider the mythological and the sacred, the times of heroes or gods. Lloyd lists three fundamental problems faced in historiography: 1. no description can be entirely neutral, value-free; 2. the use of history as instruction; 3. are agents in history individuals or groups? History is, probably, the most challenging discipline among the eight selected by the author.

Chapter 4 discusses medicine. Rightfully, Lloyd considers this the least problematic of the chapters. Diseases are regarded as perturbing the well-being, which is a common notion. How to reestablish well-being is approached in very different ways, from invoking supernatural powers to appropriate feeding and use of drugs, to skills in dealing with sprains, bruises, fractures and even to the resource to surgery, and now to neuroprosthesis, not contemplated by Lloyd. The chapter closes with an observation that I consider very relevant for the proposal of this book, considering that the making of disciplines is a process that is going on.

Art is the subject of Chapter 5. The author starts with a list of authors responsible for widely divergent theories about the aesthetic experience, focusing political, economic, ideological, symbolic aspects of art. Instead of discussing approaches to the concept of art, Lloyd goes into the commercial aspects of art. The elites, he considers, are the artists, who produce the objects of interest, and the connoisseurs, who create fashions and influence taste, and in many ways induce both consumers and producers of art. Art is a highly priced commodity, bringing remarkable profit for art dealers. This chapter, more than the others, examines non-literate societies as a way to capture symbolic meaning, which is essential to art.

Chapter 6 treats law. Every society has ways of dealing with individual behavior in matters affecting others. Some have formal legal systems, other have authorities caring for the appropriate behavior. Both cases have a system of values as support. This chapter focuses on the relationship between law and morality; the issue of how the law is interpreted and applied; the origin and status of law; change and innovation of laws; the separation of powers between the legal and the political authorities; and the differences of attitudes when laws deal with intra-state and inter-state affairs. Lloyd concludes with a comment that implies the equivocal model of modern civilization: "unwritten laws, to encapsulate shared moral principles, remain as much in the realm of utopian dreaming as they ever did in the days of ancient Greece and China." (p.136)

Religion is the theme of Chapter 7. The first line is a question, which defines the complexity of the subject "By what criteria should we judge a belief or a practice to be 'religious'?" (p.137) The discussions contemplate not only the monotheistic, but also several forms of polytheism, pantheisms, personal gods, and many forms of spirituality, even ancestor worship.

The final chapter is science. It might well be titled "What is Science?" Lloyd challenges the conventional view that science is a uniquely modern Western phenomenon. He claims that science exists wherever there is a systematic search for understanding phenomena, even in the absence of a recognized method. This calls for the recognition of knowledge produced outside the "official" circles, outside the academy.

The final chapter, "Disciplines and Interdisciplinarity," is an overview of the eight chapters, summarizing what was discussed in each discipline contemplated, particularly discussing the role of elites and the forces that stimulate or inhibit innovation. Lloyd discusses increasingly narrower specialization, which has advantages but at the same time may hinder innovation. He gives many examples of how objects of study and methods are shared among disciplines, leading to interdisciplines. Interdisciplinarity has no established elite, which favors innovation. It is noticeable a kind of paradox: while innovation is easier, the absence of firm epistemological boundaries and of an established elite makes more difficult its acceptance in academic circles. Lloyd concludes observing that different forms of inquiring are the result of human imagination, which sometimes have to circumvent the conservatism of elite and to overcome the hazards of creativity. "But then who would expect the history of human endeavour to be one of uninterrupted progress?" (p.182).

In summary G. E. R. Lloyd has produced an ambitious work about disciplines in different societies, ancient and modern, literate and non-literate, and the factors that encourages or impedes their progress. In particular, he examines the roles, both positive and negative, of elites in the process. Although the book sometimes compares East and West, mainly ancient China and Greece, it is broader, in the sense of going into the nature of the disciplines and of pointing to the inevitability and to the difficulty of the emergence of new interdisciplinary fields.

The book has a glossary of Key Chinese Terms and Names (4 pages), Notes on Editions, a Bibliography of over 300 references, a generous Index, and many useful footnotes. Although the book is well proofed with respect to misspellings and typographical errors, it is surprising that footnotes 1 and 3 of the Conclusions are missing.

Reading this book is a stimulating and enriching exercise. The general tone of the book gives the impression of a "brainstorming" session. Issues are raised, discussed and opened for further reflection. This book would be an excellent guide for an advanced seminar.

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