Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.46

G. E. R. Lloyd, Being, Humanity, and Understanding: Studies in Ancient and Modern Societies.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. 136.  ISBN 9780199654727.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Anders Klostergaard Petersen, University of Aarhus (


G. E. R. Lloyd is probably best known to most readers for his important work on ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, yet he has also maintained a vivid interest in the vibrant field of cognitive science ever since it came into existence in the early 1990s. Lloyd’s recent book bears ample testimony not only to his impressive erudition in all these fields but also to his ability to have such diverse fields interact in an intellectually stimulating and intriguing fashion.

Despite its brevity, Being, Humanity, and Understanding wrestles with some of the most important and thorny questions in the philosophy of science as it bears on the humanities in general and the study of anthropology and history in particular. How can we possibly transpose ourselves into the thinking of others when we are inescapably bound by the constraints of our own culture and societal context? How do we, on the one hand, account for the undeniably universal elements that human beings share across time and space, while, on the other hand, acknowledging the specifics that tie particular humans to specific contexts? How can we pay credit to cultural whims, bound as they are to the contingencies of history, while simultaneously explaining the biological underpinnings of these caprices? These are among the pivotal questions that Professor Lloyd embarks upon answering. Apart from a short introduction, the book comprises five main parts, a brief epilogue, a glossary of pivotal Chinese terms and names, a bibliography, and an index of names and concepts. There is a laudable lack of errors in the book, which is a rare thing in much publishing of today (I only detected one, on p. 60: ‘is’ for ‘his’). The scene for the arguments of the book is set in the commendably lucid introduction. In the first main part entitled ‘Humanity between gods and beasts?’, Lloyd further pursues the difficult methodological question posed in the introduction of how we can possibly understand the otherness of others if we cannot disentangle ourselves from our own perceptual constraints. Lloyd espouses a sort of vertical anthropological method by which he finds a close resemblance between ethnography (‘horizontal’ anthropology) and ancient history. Although he acknowledges differences between the two disciplines, he underlines how they both face similar and severe hermeneutical problems, so that it makes sense to think of ancient history as a form of ‘vertical’ anthropology. In order to interpret foreign worlds – whether they be remote in terms of historical or of geographical distance – one will need to grasp them through familiar perceptual filters. But will such an approach not ineluctably distort a proper understanding of them? In the terms of the theory of science, Lloyd holds the view, inspired by Quine and not unlike Putnam’s idea of critical realism, that “incommensurability should not be taken (as it sometimes has been) to imply the impossibility of any mutual understanding” (p. 24). Although we may never attain a full understanding of others in their otherness, that does not necessarily imply that “all efforts of understanding are systematically thwarted” (ibid.). One could add that, in order to detect a difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’, there must by necessity exist some element of commonness that instantiates our ability to identify the difference in the first place (cf. p. 111). With respect to this shared element, Lloyd has recourse to biology. He refers to the argument of Tooby and Cosmides that, apart from sharing genes, human beings also have basic cognitive capacities in common that date back to our hominid ancestors. At this point, Lloyd, with reference to Marshall Sahlins, makes the crucial argument that culture is a reflection of biology (p. 25) – but this contention could in my view be pushed further and in a different direction from Sahlins’ claim (which is also found in Clifford Geertz). In fact, one may endorse the view promulgated by Merlin Donald that even culture is a niche of biology – that is to say that there is no culture that is not part and parcel of biology. But in any case, by Lloyd’s combination of biology and the ‘thick description’ of culture (in Geertz’ terms), he is able to avoid the Scylla of overemphasising global and historical commonality, and the Charybdis of turning every culture into a unique and singular phenomenon.

The argument of Chapter One is further pursued in the second chapter, in which Lloyd poses the question of how we may account for error, or even diagnose it, without falling prey to prejudice. In other words, Lloyd takes the post- modernist objection against much previous scholarship in deadly earnest by underlining the need to engage sympathetically with our others; but against much post-modernist anthropology that has run amuck in its attempt to side with ‘others’ by any means, Lloyd retains the need to account for the fallibility of others too. Among a great many wise arguments based on common sense, Lloyd propagates the sound view that “to comprehend a radically different ontology does not mean reducing it to our own (whatever that is), provided, as I have been urging, we allow the revisability of our own assumptions and the possible multidimensionality of what is there to be understood” (p. 38).

The subsequent chapter sheds further light on the overall questions of the book by bringing in the case of ancient science. In contrast to scholars who constrain the use of the term science to an Enlightenment phenomenon, Lloyd, in the wake of the German and French tradition, conceives of science in the broader sense of “every attempt systematically to investigate the phenomena, to observe, classify, predict, and explain them, in short to increase understanding of them” (pp. 4-5). He therefore includes the case of ancient Chinese and Greek science, since both provide an excellent opportunity to examine to what extent we are really dealing with “radically discordant conceptual systems and the circumstances in which they may be challenged and revised” (p. 46). Against scholars who argue that one cannot genuinely speak of ancient Greek society as a society with a naturalist ontology, since such an ontology only penetrated a very limited segment of that society, Lloyd rightly objects that this holds true for much of the subsequent history of science in European society. He also contends that one cannot deny that the main components of naturalism and its multiculturalist counterpart already existed in ancient Greece. In the same breath, Lloyd makes the interesting observation that the first movements to impinge on the masses did not emerge in the context of philosophical debates, but in the realm of religion proper, namely in the context of mystery religions and especially Christianity (p. 70). Whereas I – in agreement with much current scholarship − am skeptical towards the continued use of the fuzzy concept of mystery religion as a proper taxon, I certainly agree with Lloyd’s inclusion of Christianity in the context of ‘popular’ religion. One cannot help recalling Nietzsche’s contention in the preface to Jenseits von Gut und Böse that Christianity is Platonism for the masses.

The question of Christianity leads into the fourth chapter where Lloyd wrestles with the issue of language and audiences. He observes how intricate doctrinal problems within the Christian symbolic system, such as for instance the notion of the Trinity, the idea of transubstantiation, and the concept of virgin birth, led to the study of hermeneutics. One model prevalent in scholarship for accounting for these paradoxical claims has been to differentiate between metaphorical and literal levels of understanding. One may think, for example, of J. Z. Smith’s seminal essay “I am a Parrot (Red)” from Map Is not Territory. Lloyd’s argument in this chapter is, in my view, the most original and thought-provoking part of the book. He challenges the time-honoured take on the topic by insisting that the literal/metaphorical dichotomy falters on the ground that it creates a Procrustean bed in which the statements of the actors are either shortened or extended in a manner that does not do justice to their world-view. Hence, we find a collision between emic and etic perspectives that do not take the sympathy advocated by Lloyd satisfactorily into account. Lloyd further criticises the literal/metaphorical dichotomy for its improperly positivist view of language that presupposes a one-to-one relationship between terms and their referents. Against such a view, Lloyd advocates the idea of semantic stretch, which transposes the customary digital differentiations of literal and figurative, myth and rationality into an analogue spectrum that allows concepts to undergo polysemantic stretch.

In the fifth and last chapter, Lloyd takes up the philosophical implications of the previous discussion. This part focuses in particular on the issue of incommensurability and the difficulty of securing objectivity in our judgments. At the back of the argument looms the frequently heated debate between realism and relativism. Once again, Lloyd appeals to a cool common-sense approach that avoids the pitfalls of any extremist position aligned to this alternative. Distortion of other worlds cannot be remedied by remaining within the confines of the worlds studied. If, for example, we study ancient Greek worlds, we will have to abandon Greek concepts and use modern ones in order to understand what is at stake, although that may lead to distortions. Once more, Lloyd espouses the view of perspectivism – an expanded version of ‘semantic stretch’ applied to the philosophy of science − which allows for the acknowledgement of different dimensions and worlds. Lloyd is extremely sober in pinpointing the problems that pertain to his own views, which makes his arguments even more persuasive. I especially appreciate his humble emphasis on the fallibility of our own present world-view in the West: “We may never be faced with the challenges of subsistence in the Amazonian jungle nor having to navigate the Pacific by stars and winds and waves alone. But we may reflect with due modesty that the skills we happen to pride ourselves on in our society are not the only ones that humans have brought to a high level of perfection” (p. 111). On the basis of such a view, we may enhance our chances of avoiding prejudicial thinking and thereby diminish the risk of falling prey to habitual judgments.

Lloyd’s book is one of the best pleas I have read in recent years for the unremitting importance of the humanities. As should be evident from my review, I am full of praise for the book. Needless to say, there are things that I would have appreciated to see further developed, just as I would have liked to see Lloyd take a stand on the recent resurgence of cultural evolutionary thinking (see e.g. Bellah, Donald, and Eisenstadt). Is it coincidental that the two cultures Lloyd devotes most attention to are both situated at the transition from archaic to historic forms of religion / culture? But these remarks should not in any way obscure the great qualities of this highly ambitious and intellectually stimulating book. I shall leave the last word to the author, who should be granted the privilege of conveying a most edifying and salient exhortation for everybody working in the humanities: “Maybe we should learn to live without the prop of simple answers” (p. 28).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010