A diplomatic bridge between universalism and relativism

Currently there’s a conference called Language in Cognition – Cognition in Language going on here in Århus and I had the privilege to hear Paul Kay and Terry Regier speak about the laterelization of categorical perception. In itself a topic that has had my interest for a couple of years now, but the talk Kay and Regier gave was nothing but amazing. I was, at more than one point, tempted to jump up and yell “woohoo!” and start dancing a little happy celebratory dance.

The main point was, of course, about categorical perception, but the talk also delivered a very diplomatic and compelling point about the whole universalist/relativist discussion, that’s been going on ever since the 1950’s or so, namely that both may co-exist – even peacefully – and be perfectly compatible. In itself not a new idea, but Regier’s points about optimal partitioning of the color space, which seems to be near-universal, and the possibility for language specific deviations were really exciting and they definitely support the claim that there’s no ultimate universal or relativist truth within the domain of categorical perception.

Kay’s points about lateralization of categorical perception seem to support my feeling on the subject, namely that if you ask people to categorize something, they’ll do it by the means readily available. So when language already has color categories set up, why not use them when asked to categorize colors? Kay’s data seems to support this idea, which I’m absolutely thrilled about, since until recently I’ve had close to nothing to back up my feeling, but since Mr. Color Categorization himself seems to be on my side, I haven’t got the slightest reason to worry.

Should you want to check out Kay and Regier’s claims, read:

  • Regier, T., Kay, P. & Khetarpal, N. (2007), Color naming reflects optimal partitions of color space, PNAS 2007 104: 1436–1441 (PDF)
  • Gilbert, A.L., Regier, T., Kay, P. & Ivry, R.B. (2006), Whorf hypethesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left, PNAS 2006 103: 489–494 (PDF)

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