A generous pluralism

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © James Laidlaw. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.015

Book Symposium

A generous pluralism

Comment on LLOYD, G. E. R. 2012. Being, humanity, and under-standing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

James LAIDLAW, University of Cambridge


It is clear what Geoffrey Lloyd is recommending in this engaging book. He argues for—and in so doing exemplifies—a tolerant, liberal, pluralist mode of inquiry into the variety of forms of human life and thought. We should approach exotic forms of life modestly, seeking to grasp them from their own point of view, and applying the well-known “principle of charity” in interpretation (Lloyd 2012: 36). Since the phenomena we seek to understand are “multidimensional,” we should approach them through a multiplicity of styles of inquiry (37, 101–5), each driven by a different kind of interest, and aspiring to different criteria of explanation. We should not expect to be able to reconcile these styles of inquiry with each other, still less that some should be reducible to others, and nor should we seek to order them in a hierarchy. Their plurality is not a sign of incomplete or incoherent understanding, but of its richness (111–15, 119). Several equally valid but very different things may be true about a single subject matter, and no single mode of understanding will be able to encompass them all. There is never going to be a key to all mythologies, Mr. Casaubon.

But if the plural mode of understanding this book proposes is persuasively and attractively described, the question to which it is presented as being specifically the answer is less clearly or steadily delineated. The subject matter covered is multifarious: not just diverse forms of science—systematic and explicit investigations of the world around them by more or less specialist and organized groups of people in ancient Greece and China, as well as the modern world—but also “the implicit cosmologies recorded in the ethnographic literature” (4), which is to say the sense anthropologists have made of the content of myth, ritual, and esoteric knowledge in varied societies, but also their everyday common sense and common knowledge, taken-for-granted assumptions and unarticulated notions. Treating both explicit theorizings and implicitly understood lived worlds as tokens of the same type was one of the errors repeatedly made by participants in the so-called “rationality debate,” and Lloyd is well aware of and attentive to the differences between organized, systematic speculation and the conceptions and commitments that might be thought to be implicit in a way of life (e.g., 67). He discusses at length the multiple theories of reality put forward by different schools of ancient Greek thinkers (and also by their Chinese equivalents), and how these differed from the features of and assumptions built into the way of life they all shared—the reality in which they all lived. The former, varied as they were, were all put forward in overt contradistinction to the latter (all claimed to be in some sense new and unobvious), which their authors all took as their point of departure and which constituted their largely unacknowledged shared presuppositions. Lloyd even, very plausibly, ex-plains the very proliferation of contending ancient Greek speculations about the nature of reality, and the competitive idioms in which they were formulated, in terms of features of the lived world they all shared. His claim is that the highly competitive “communication situation” in which these ancient Greek thinkers formulated their theories influenced those theories’ content in definite ways (5, 57– 64, 68–71, 80–92).

But Lloyd’s sensitivity to such matters, which involves scrupulously distinguishing explicit theories on the one hand and the thought that inheres in practices and ways of life on the other, struggles against a contrary tendency in this book, of grouping them together under a singular problematic: “the question of ontologies.” As is often the case, use of the expression “the question of X” tends to obscure the fact (which ought to be grist to Lloyd’s pluralist mill) that there is not ever just one question to be asked about X, and so it allows the question that is actually being asked from moment to moment to slip about imperceptibly—an effect exacerbated in this case by a deep ambiguity in the use of the word “ontology.”

Consistent with his general pluralism, Lloyd is scrupulously open to the possibility of radical diversity. Anthropologists report that the world has been understood differently in different times and places, “to the point where the question has been raised whether indeed it is the same world that is being understood” (2). So although what anthropologists have reported under the labels of animist ontologies and perspectivism have been, as Lloyd notes, actually anthropological formulations of what are supposed to be indigenous theories (20), he forebears from asking questions about the “communication situation” in which statements of these “indigenous metaphysics” were elicited ethnographically, parallel to those he investigates quite systematically in the case of ancient Greek scientists and philosophers. To what extent might these specific communication situations have affected the content of what anthropologists report? How should we understand, in comparison, say, with the Greek situation, the relation of an “indigenous theory” (17) to the world in which it was formulated? Can we take at face value some anthropologists’ claims that such a theory straightforwardly describes a world from which it springs, and constitutes sufficient grounds there-fore for the existence of diverse ontologies, not in the sense merely of varied theories (or experiences, perceptions, apprehensions, etc.) about what there is in the world, but for the existence of diverse actual worlds? Lloyd does appear to accept such anthropological accounts, though it is clear that he would reject anything similar for China or Greece: a report of the views of Mencius, for example, purporting to be “Chinese ontology.” And although he begins by describing the subject matter of his inquiry in this book as diverse “cosmologies,” and the human propensity to produce a plurality of theories about what there is in the world (30, 113), and although he nods in passing to the rather massive additional claims and difficulties that come with doing so (20–22), for the most part he settles into describing the problem the book addresses as “the question of alternative ontologies, alternative worlds” (9). But while the approach set out in this book— including specific ideas such as that of “semantic stretch”—are obviously of enormous value in approaching the study of diverse forms of understanding and of the forms of life that sustain and give rise to them, it is not clear that they take us very far in answering, or even making sense of, “the question of ontology” in that latter sense.

Rightly, Lloyd thinks it is important—it is one of the basic commitments of his pluralism—to be alive to the possibility that both explicit theories and implicit ways of life might tell us important new things that “our own” theories do not (45). We should grasp eagerly, as he puts it, “the opportunity they present to see things differently” (25, cf. 91, 117–18), and the hearty liberal optimism of Lloyd’s position shows clearly in his confidence that however radical the alterity of other ontologies might be, if we are open minded and willing to revise our initial assumptions, then it will always be possible to grasp other human perspectives on the world (38, 108). He expects such new insights to be found as much in the ethnographic record as in the histories of science in the literate civilizations, but he does not subject the anthropological literature to the kind of scrutiny he exercises so carefully here on the history of science and philosophy in Greece and China.

When discussing the ancient Greeks and Chinese, and of course in relation to modern Europe, Lloyd is crystal clear that the kinds of new insights and challenges to our assumptions that he seeks are possible only from forms of understanding that are open, at least in principle, to error. So considering how error—and even “perversities” (12)—are possible within them, is a necessary part of grasping them adequately (39–45). And he is equally clear that comprehending any particular form of understanding involves a critical grasp of the historical circumstances that gave rise to and sustained the forms of life in which that form of understanding took shape (48, 117). This kind of sociological understanding, of course, itself presupposes some fairly definite ontological commitments of its own. But in contrast to his way of proceeding in relation to ancient Greece and China, Lloyd forbears from applying either of these sorts of critical scrutiny to the more extravagant claims for “other ontologies” made by some of the anthropologists he draws upon. This does not, perhaps, matter very much to what he actually does in this book. For the most part, even when he uses the word “ontologies,” the book contains enlightening discussions of the diverse cosmological theories proposed by ancient Greek and Chinese thinkers (as in “this is an ontology that pays particular attention to… ” [55], and, “an amazing proliferation of ontologies, of accounts of what there is” [59], etc.), and these discussions are used, most effectively, to advance the highly persuasive general claim that taking these forms of understanding seriously enriches our understanding of the world we live in.

In these terms this book is a signal success. But this is to some extent obscured by the ambiguities created by Lloyd’s espousal of the quite different claim, announced early in the book but not in fact advanced in the discussion that follows, that “different animals, and also different members of the human race have such different experiences, perceptions, and ways of interacting with their environments that we should think of them as living in different worlds” (21). He does not even really pursue the question of quite what kind of should that proposition turns on. More in keeping with the pluralist thrust of the book as a whole, and a stronger general point to take from the book is: just as the historically particular dichotomies between nature and culture (56–71) and the literal and the metaphoric (72–76) were inadequate for “arriving at fully satisfactory character-izations of the underlying conceptual systems of whole collectivities” (70), neither are all the problems of such an undertaking solved by any one generalizing rubric, including that of ontology.


Lloyd, G. E. R. 2012. Being, humanity, and understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Department of Anthropology
King’s College
Cambridge University
Cambridge CB2 1ST