Knowledge on knowing

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The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences

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MIT Press: 1999. 964 pp. $105, £93.50

How do you describe, on a single page, a book such as The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, with its 471 articles and 132-page introduction? It can be done quite briefly as follows: the main body of the book has 900 pages, the list of contributors fills 11 pages and the indexes occupy some 50 pages. The book was published this year, its size is 29×22×5.5 cm and it weighs 2.9 kg.

But what are the cognitive sciences? A formal definition of the term is not readily found in the encyclopaedia. Cognitive science is mentioned only once in the index (relating to the essay on Sigmund Freud). However, in the six, long, well-written essays that form most of the introduction, the editors portray the six domains they consider to be most important for the cognitive sciences at the end of the twentieth century: philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, computational intelligence, linguistics and what the editors call “culture, cognition and evolution”.

The ambitious aim is to represent, in a single volume, the full range of concepts, methods and findings in cognitive science from the past quarter-century, and to lay the basis for fostering knowledge and understanding between those working in the various fields of cognitive science. The editors certainly achieve this. Furthermore, they want the reader to understand the interconnections between ideas and the links within cognitive science. It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve such integration of information and insight, but the introductory essays and intensive cross-references help. The book combines the advantages of an encyclopaedia, namely succinct, accurate information on a specific term written by specialists, with those of a textbook, conveying more general concepts and a deeper understanding of the structures in a field. The extensive bibliography and cross-references greatly enhance the book's usefulness.

Merely browsing through the tome is enjoyable, and the small bites in which the information is delivered invite reading. While hardly noticing, you learn that blindsight was first described by the Swiss neurologist L. Bard in 1905, that until the eighteenth century most researchers thought the cerebral cortex was simply a protective rind, that in 90 per cent of the adult population language functions are located mainly in the left hemisphere, and much more.

A minor drawback, in my opinion, is that all the entries are of about the same length, so that roughly the same space is devoted to the explanation of, say, psychophysics, illusions or behaviourism as to, for example, Leonard Bloomfield, Paul Grice or Franz Boas. In the latter cases, I would have been happy with just a few sentences, since information is more easily accessible if it is ordered according to topics rather than people.

In conclusion, this is an important encyclopaedia, with a wealth of information supplied by first-rate experts. It also makes agreeable reading. But most people will use it as a database rather than a reading book, as is customary with encyclopaedias. Maybe MIT Press would consider publishing the excellent 100 or so pages of the introduction as a separate, inexpensive booklet.

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Fahle, M. Knowledge on knowing. Nature 402, 460 (1999) doi:10.1038/44946

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