|Book Review - Oxford Guide to the Mind|
by Geoffrey Underwood (editor)
Oxford University Press, 2001
Review by John Lee, Ph.D.
Oct 16th 2001
In 1987, the Oxford University Press produced its excellent Oxford Companion to the Mind:
a massive collection of short, new articles on many foundational
topics to do with the mind, the brain, mental health and in general
anything related to psychology, written by a who's-who of the
most notable names in the field and edited by the luminous Richard
Gregory. This book, though excellent and compendious, has the
disadvantages of being very large, somewhat unwieldy and rather
expensive. OUP have now addressed these problems by producing
the Companion's little brother -- the Oxford Guide to
the Mind. This Guide is in fact essentially a selection
of some of the most central articles from the Companion.
But it is more than just a selection. A new editor, Geoffrey Underwood,
has abandoned the original alphabetical-by-title, encyclopedia-like
arrangement of the articles, and collected them into thematic
groups, each provided with an editorial introduction. The resulting
chapters cover the issues of: the software of the mind; the hardware
of the mind; brain, mind and consciousness; when minds are damaged;
disturbed minds; and minds in action. Many favorite articles from
the original Companion (such as Peter Nathan's tutorial
on the nervous system, and Gregory's own discussion of visual
illusions) are thus seen in the slightly new light provided by
the surrounding thematic context. Although the book is much shorter
than its senior sibling, the same small print and two-column format
allow its 230 pages to contain a great deal more material than
appears possible at first sight.
Underwood's added editorial material is very well conceived, and
gives the book more of an explicit "agenda" than the
original. Whereas the Companion was very much an encyclopedic
reference work, the Guide is developed to read as if it
were a continuous text. The focus is cast on the mind-brain relationship;
the way the "hardware" of the brain supports the "software"
of mental functioning. The agenda is to substantiate this materialist
conception (which underlies all modern scientific psychology,
and even more so developments such as cognitive science) and show
how it illuminates and advances our understanding of the whole
range of topics relating to the mind. Although this was also Gregory's
agenda, the new approach clarifies the ways it relates to (and
sometimes differs from) the main contributions. Underwood exposes
the main concepts and provides down-to-earth signposts through
the sometimes terse and abstract articles, in a way that should
be very helpful to the general reader (e.g. "minds in action"
is organized in relation to the skills required respectively in
driving a car and in problem solving). There is also a much more
obvious focus on the damaged and disturbed mind, with the editorial
thrust being to try to tease out some of the questions about how
psychological disorders relate to brain damage or other, e.g.
genetically predisposed, deviations from normal brain functioning.
It appears that none of the articles has been edited or rewritten
for the Guide, which could therefore be seen as already
slightly out of date. Since, however, most of the material is
more about fundamentals than cutting-edge research, this is not
generally a problem. One notes a few gaps, e.g. that cognitive
science is nowhere mentioned as such. Among the steps taken to
make the material more compact and readable, the reference citations
and bibliographies have been removed from the articles. This seems
a questionable idea in itself -- surely even the general reader
may value pointers to a wider literature ó and it has not
been perfectly implemented, since in the text of a few articles
citations remain, though there are nowhere proper references for
the works mentioned.
These are quibbles, though. The book as a whole is an incredibly
informative and very useful introduction for anyone interested
in the central topics of psychology. Its thematic structure, focusing
in-depth treatments of core issues in mental function and dysfunction,
is most welcome. The intention has evidently been to create an
accessible but thorough introduction to serious psychology for
the general reader (as opposed to the academic student), and this
seems a goal well met.
© 2001 John Lee
John Lee has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Cognitive Science from
Edinburgh. He has worked for some time in areas connected with
the cognition of human communication and language, including human-computer
interaction and educational technology. He has also worked in
the area of supporting creative work, especially computer-aided
design. He is deputy director of the Human Communication Research
Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and also runs the MSc programme
in Design and Digital Media in the university's Architecture Department.
This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001