Thursday, January 10, 2008

Back and From a Different Perspective I

So I'm back from my internetless Christmas holidays (my newsfeed told me that I had about 300 unread posts - Argh!) and I think that ’ll write a little bit about what I “do for a living” for a change, (or rather, what I do in order to be able to do something for a living somewhere in the distant future), that is, study German and English Philology.

This semester I’ll be writing two term papers and I’ll expand a bit on which issues I’d like to write about.
In German, I’m currently taking a course entitled “Perspectivity in language from a grammatical point of view”, whose main focus lies on the opus magnum of the German linguist Wilhelm Köller, called “Perspektivität und Sprache” (Perspectivity and Language”; The subtitle is too hard for me to translate…).
Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchKöller’s main idea is that when we talk we not only express that we’ve taken a certain perspective toward a situation or set of facts in the world, but that we also try to bring others to take the same perspective. When we use language, we advertise a certain point-of-view from which to interpret and process information. By our words, we stratify and structure information in certain ways and try to bring others to taking a certain perspective toward what we talk about.
In his 900-page monstrum, Köller examines in detail the various means by which we express perspectivity in, say, conversations, talks, or texts, how we direct attentional focus toward certain aspects of a state in the world.
According to Köller, perspectivity is an intrinsic property of language in general, and he shows how such things as the case system, tenses, verbs in general, conjunctions, negations, etc., all posses a potential for expressing perspectivity, and advertising certain points-of-view. Metaphors, for example, he treats as heuristic tools for the generation of meaning and orientation, bringing the world into focus in variable ways (Köller 2004: 600).
Köller’s book is divided into four parts, A a general introduction, B perspectivity in the visual domain, C perspectivity in the cognitive domain, D perspectivity in the linguistic domain. Interestingly, Köller comments on some of the key themes of discussions about human cognition and its evolution, although being oblivious of most of the recent research done in the English-speaking scientific community. For someone whose focus is primarily a linguistic/philosophical one, Köller takes a fairly interdisciplinary approach.
In his chapter on “perspectivity in the visual” domain, he stresses the importance that our “minds have bodies that are situated in environments” (Poirier et al. 2005: 741) which he describes as a preconditional a priori of all our experience, which defines our point-of-view and demarcates what we can and cannot perceive (Köller 2004: 133). As the quote from Poirier et al.’s 2005 paper already showed, Köller shares with them and other modern researchers the idea that embodiment is an important aspect of all cognitive processes.
In his chapter on “perspectivity in the cognitive domain“ Köller addresses perspectivity as a primeval anthropological problem, and tries to gain insight into the phylogenetic history of perspectivity by looking an the ontogenetic cognitive development of children and drawing conclusion from them. He sums up the theories of Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotski, Alexander Luria, Jean Piaget and John H. Flavell and comments on their implications for a theory of perspective taking.

Sadly, this is as far as he goes on the scientific timeline. The most recent work he cites on the topic of cognitive development stems from 1976. No mention of Theory of Mind, or any of the experiments trying to infer when this ability really kicks off in children, no Tomasello etc.
Thus the main problems of this section are that firstly, Köller seems to swallow Piaget’s idea of egocentric speech whole, (which, I think, is clearly refuted by such data accumulated by e.g. Tomasello et al. 2005).
Secondly he uncritically adopts Piaget’s take on the development of perspective taking, which, as a ton of research done since then (e.g. Premack & Premack 1997, Hamlin et al. 2007, Rakocy et al. 2007, Surian et al. 2007) clearly shows, gives children way too little credit for their cognitive achievements in early years, and generally sets the development of such cognitive traits such as Theory of Mind way too late. I really can't understand why Köller only describes Piaget & Inhelder's (1956) "Three-Mountain" experiments, which established that only at the age of eight were children able to consider that someone else saw a mountain from a different angle,  without ever mentioning the important revisions made by Nasangkay et al. (1974), Flavell et al. (1981), and Light & Nix (1983), who argued and presented evidence that children were already able to succed at more child-friendly versions of this task at the age of 4-5.
Thirdly, Köller doesn’t cite any primatological or comparative ethological research in order to gain insight into the evolution of perspective-taking in humans (which is especially startling given the slight phonetic resemblance between the names Wilhelm Köller and Wolfgang Köhler)(e.g., again, Tomasello et al. 2005).
So this is what I’d like to do in my term paper: present a cognitive science update of Köller’s inquiries into the phylogeny and ontogeny of perspective-taking.
I’ll come back to that in my next post.

On a related note, Benoit Hardy-Vallée has posted a cool summary about "Embodied, Situated and Distributed Cognition", which is really worth to be checked out.


Flavell, John H., Barbara Abrahams Everett, Karen Croft, & Eleanor R. Flavell (1981): Young Children’s Knowledge about Visual Perception: Further Evidence for the Level 1 – Level 2 Distinction. In: Developmental Psychology 17, 99– 103

Hamlin, J Kiley, Karen Wynn & Paul Bloom.2007. “Social evaluation by preverbal infants.” Nature 450: 557-560.

Köller, Wilhelm. 2004. Perspektivität und Sprache. Zur Struktur von Objektivierungsformen in Bildern, im Denken und in der Sprache. Berlin/ New York

Light, Paul. und Carolyn Nix, (1983): Own View versus Good View in a Perspective-Taking Task. In: Child Development, 54.2, 480–483.

Masangkay, Zenaida. Kathleen A. McCluskey, Curtis W. McIntyre, Judith Sims-Knight, Brian E. Vaughn, aund John H. Flavell (1974): The Early Development of Inferences about the Visual Percepts of Others. In: Child Development, 45, 357–366

Poirier, Pierre, Benoit Hardy-Vallée and Jean-Frédéric Depasquale. 2005. “Embodied
Categorization.” Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science. Eds. Henri Cohen and Claire Lefebvre. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Premack, David and Ann James Premack. 1997. Infants Attribute Value to the Goal-Directed Actions of Self-Propelled Objects. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 9:6: 848-856.

Rakoczy, Hannes, Felix Warneken, Michael Tomasello.2007.““This way!”, “No! That way!”—3-year olds know that two people can have mutually incompatible desires.” Cognitive Development 22: 47–68

Surian, Luca, Stefania Caldi, and Dan Sperber. “Attribution of Beliefs by 13-Month-Old Infants” Psychological Science 18.7: 580-586

Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, and Henrike Moll. 2004. “Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28.4: 675-735.


psycho said...

i too had 300+ rss, but at least it helped me to remove the less relevant feeds :)

however my reading todo list is still too big :/
how do you cope with this situation, when there is so much interesting stuff to read, but so little time?

Michael said...

I think the best thing to do is following Dan Dennett's advice to establish filters such as:

"ignore everything that appears in X"

and then take your chance and count on the good ideas making it "eventually through the stacks of filters of others into the limelight of our attention."

On the other hand, you probably have to acknowledge the fact that you just can't know and read everything. I, for example, really like such blogs as Gene Expression, or Developing Intelligence, but some times the posts are just way too technical and convuluted for me to really get into them, and if I really could manage to do so (which I doubt) it would probably need way too much time in which I could have read a whole bunch of other interesting stuff ;-) )
Alas, but that's life.