Squaring the circle: the cultural relativity of 'good' shape

Debi Roberson, Jules Davidoff, Laura R. Shapiro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Gestalt theorists of the early twentieth century proposed a psychological primacy for circles, squares and triangles over other shapes. They described them as 'good' shapes and the Gestalt premise has been widely accepted. Rosch (1973), for example, suggested that shape categories formed around these 'natural' prototypes irrespective of the paucity of shape terms in a language. Rosch found that speakers of a language lacking terms for any geometric shape nevertheless learnt paired-associates to these 'good' shapes more easily than to asymmetric variants. We question these empirical data in the light of the accumulation of recent evidence in other perceptual domains that language affects categorization. A cross-cultural investigation sought to replicate Rosch's findings with the Himba of Northern Namibia who also have no terms in their language for the supposedly basic shapes of circle, square and triangle. A replication of Rosch (1973) found no advantage for these 'good' shapes in the organization of categories. It was concluded that there is no necessary salience for circles, squares and triangles. Indeed, we argue for the opposite because these shapes are rare in nature. The general absence of straight lines and symmetry in the perceptual environment should rather make circles, squares and triangles unusual and, therefore, less likely to be used as prototypes in categorization tasks. We place shape as one of the types of perceptual input (in philosophical terms, 'vague') that is readily susceptible to effects of language variation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-51
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Cognition and Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2002

Bibliographical note

© 2002 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands 2002. Davidoff, J., Roberson, D., & Shapiro, L. (2002). Squaring the Circle: The Cultural Relativity of 'Good' Shape, Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2(1), 29-51. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/156853702753693299


  • Gestalt theorists
  • twentieth century
  • psychological primacy
  • circles
  • squares
  • triangles
  • shapes
  • shape categories
  • shape terms
  • language
  • geometric shape
  • asymmetric variants
  • language variation


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