Vantage Theory in Cognitive Science: An Anthropological Model of Categorization and Similarity Judgement

Robert E. MacLaury,
Cognitive Anthropologist,
University of Pennsylvania

Abstract Vantage theory offers a testable model of categorization and of the part played therein by judgements of similarity and difference. Researchers in various branches of cognitive science may subject this framework to methods and applications beyond those practiced in anthropology. Vantage theory originated during the 1980s in the laboratory of Berlin and Kay as a cognitive model of crosscultural color categorization. Its initial objective was to complements Berlin and Kay's discovery of physiologically grounded universals with an account of dynamic processes, such as the agency of predictable change and the involvement of observers in the categories they create. During the next fifteen years, this program developed a tightly principled explanation system that ties together over 100 replicable observations of color categorization collected in response to 330 Munsell stimuli from 3000 subjects in 150 minor and tribal languages by the North American, Mesoamerican, and World Color Surveys. The theoretical synthesis, which is compiled in a 1997 book, may apply to categorization in domains beyond color. However, in part for its novel premises and in part for its technical nature, not every cognitive scientist who has sought exposure to vantage theory has walked away with it after a first pass. As a SimCat 1997 referee wrote, "I am simply unable to evaluate it given the brief presentation here. . . I would prefer to see on finding worked out systematically." As experience has shown, it takes a small-group session of three hours to discuss and impart vantage theory (which is why the book is 616 pages). Since even the most generous academic fora allow less time, we shall work out one finding systematically step by step as far as we can, welcoming questions along the way. The aim will be to introduce vantage theory to the extent possible, hoping to stimulate interdisciplinary interest and to encourage vitally needed collaboration. The finding to be worked out will be the dominant-recessive pattern of coextensive naming, an asymmetrical construction of one category from two angles of emphasis or vantages. Presentation will follow the outline of the workshop paper.
See also:
MacLaury, Robert E. 1997. "Color and Cognition in Mesoamerica: Constructing Categories as Vantages." Austin: University of Texas Press. 616 pages, 241 figures, 10 tables, glossary. ISBN 0-292-75193-1 London, Trevor Brown, Tel. 44-171-388-8500, fax 5950; USA 1-800-687-6046