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Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science

by Margaret Boden
Oxford University Press, 2006
1712 pp. in two vols., illus. Trade, $225.00
ISBN: 978-0199241446.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art
University of Northern Iowa
Website: http://www.bobolinkbooks.com


Whatever may be said of this book, it is not likely to go unnoticed. At the same time, it may be a while before it gets detailed reviews: clearly, it was a phenomenal undertaking on the part of the author (a leading British scientist), and the prospect of reading it closely, from beginning to end, is nothing short of intimidating. By a judicious sampling of various parts, it seems certain that an extended careful reading would be both stimulating and enlightening, but it would require an enormous time commitment–maybe as long as a couple of months–and a dogged persistence to staying on task. The experience would be enjoyable because the writing is clear and engaging throughout, so much so that it often sounds less like scientific prose than literature (e.g., many if not most of the headings are puns or other word play; and the text is often interrupted by parenthetical asides, sometimes to the point of annoyance). A careful reading would also be informative because there is likely no comparable volume about the history of cognitive science, the interdisciplinary study of all mental phenomena, most typically within such fields as psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, computer science and so on.

The author rightly calls this book "a historical essay, not an encyclopedia." She continues: "It’s best read entire, as an integrated whole–not dipped into, as though it were a work of reference." Unfortunately, the book’s two volumes are of such length and complexity that even she herself admits "that many readers won’t want to do that." So how best might this book be used, in a society which values tools that are "user-friendly," or tools that are likely to function in ways that their inventors intended? If a book is a tool we can learn from, it might be wise to enable us to access it in any number of ways. I, for one, love reference books, and I’ve often found that I learn best by dipping into lengthy texts (even when I’m told not to), sometimes with two or three books on my lap. In the dipping process, descriptive headings (playful or not) and a detailed and accurate index become indispensable. Of equal value is an extensive bibliography, and this book has a lengthy one that takes up more than 130 pages. The aim of all this, states the author, "is to see the wood as well as the trees. I want to help readers understand what cognitive science as a whole is trying to do, and what hope there is of its actually doing it." She adds that, despite the inordinate length of the book, "it’s a thumbnail sketch rather than a comprehensive record."

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 1, Autumn 2007.)



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