Monday, January 21, 2008

The Cognitive Foundations of Perspective

In my last three post I have highlighted convergences between the arguments made by German linguist Wilhelm Köller in his 2004 book “Perspektivität und Sprache” (Perspectivity and Language”) and findings in the general area of cognitive science.

In this post, I want to dig a little deeper, and ask what happens when we engage in discourse in regard to the cognitive representations that are established. Köller argues that through the use of language we create a shared ‘systemic space’ (a term he takes over from the German art historian Erwin Panofsky) a virtual, conceptual model of what we are talking about. We can then create and direct attention to certain proposition in this shared systemic space, thereby advertising a certain perspective on the world, and highlighting relevant information. Köller bases this view of language on German psychologist and linguist Karl Bühler’s (1934) notion of the “Deictic/Symbolic field” which we construct, and wherein we place and transport referential semantic messages, and which basically can be illustrated like this:
Bühler calls this the ‘coordinate system of subjective orientation’. The O represents the ‘Origopoint’, the point of origin for all referential messages, and is also called the “I-here-now-Origo”, because from this point of view/perspective the sender refers to thing in the world, and introduces new referents into the discourse. Köller adopts this view of language, but adds to it the perspectival and attention-piloting nature of discourse.

In sum, in Köller’s view Language is:
  1. a means to create a shared, ‘virtual’ systemic space
  2. a means to transfer relevant propositions in to the systemic space and
  3. a means to focus and pilot attentions and thus to
  4. create perspective

This view of mental representations as virtual, internal models of some state of affairs in the world is echoed in a variety of other proposals in cognitive science.

First, and most importantly, Michael Tomasello and his colleagues from our beloved Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology argue for the importance of Shared Intentionality, in human cognition, that is
“the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions” (Tomasello et al. 2005: 675).
In order to both communicate or collaborate, it is necessary that:
“each participant cognitively represent both roles of the collaboration in a single representational format – holistically, from a “bird’s-eye view,” (Tomasello et al. 2005: 681).

Thus, we need to have the knowledge of that there exists a “shared space of common psychological ground” (Tomasello & Carpenter 2007: 121).
This means that the most fundamental aspect of human cognition that enables joint attention and shared intentional actions is the ability to cognitively represent a “shared space of meaning” (Moll & Tomasello 2006: )/ a ‘systemic space’ from a central perspective (Köller 2004).

Dan Dennett (1996) also holds that one of the major feats of human cognition is the ability to build virtual models of reality, especially the ability to build rich intentional models of yourself and others. In this virtual model, you can take the physical stance, the design stance, or the intentional stance toward the systems created and basically see what happens.

In addition, Bickerton (1990) argues that the most special trait of human cognition is the ability to entertain counterfactual propositions. To give you an example in the vein of Köller (2004): If I say something like:
“There aren’t any Zombies in this room,”
not only do I introduce the concept of ‘Zombies’ into the systemic space, but negated Zombies:

Such counterfactual propositions needn’t necessarily be linguistic. In his 2006 Jean Nicod Prize lecture, Michael Tomasello gave the example of a child always wearing a belt when it goes for a walk. When the child and her mother go out of the house, and the mother then sees that the child doesn’t have his belt on, but only points to the child’s waistband, the child goes ‘Ooops’ , goes back inside and fetches the belt. Mother and child thus communicate nonverbally about a counterfactual proposition based on mutual knowledge/common ground about a conventionalized set of actions. Bickerton proposes that this ability is syntactically structured and enables us to manipulate, physical and virtual events, objects, and processes in general.

Don Ross (2007), reviewing Dennett’s and Bickerton’s proposals, argues that on this view language is a means to stabilize ‘referential fixed points’ in these virtual spaces. So on the one hand language can be seen as cognitive aid or artifact which enhances cognitive representations via conceptual labeling, and on the other hand it can be seen as a means of introducing fixed points into the virtual shared systemic space of joint attentional discourse.
Ross then draws our attention to the fact that we also introduced ourselves into these virtual spaces, thus ‘narrating’, and thus creating our selfhood and our identity both in private mental representation and shared intentional discourse.

Suddendorf & Corballis (2007) have similar ideas about the importance of self- and other-projection into virtual spaces as a method of ‘Mental Time Travel’, which enables us to plan and adapt to possible future stages of the world as well as future need by learning from and re-experiencing the past and projecting ourselves into future situations where we can practice various plans of action. They liken this process to a theater production, as the necessary precondition for virtual planning and decoupled thinking processes is a virtual systemic space, or, if you go with their theater-metaphor, a stage. According to Suddendorf & Corballis (2007), further necessary components of Mental Time Travel are:
  • a declarative database or script from which you can infer how to act in a given situations (i.e. the playwright),
  • the ability to represent yourself and others realistically, ergo a Theory of Mind (i.e. the actors),
  • the ability to create an adequate physical context in which the mental representation can operate (the set),
  • the motivation and ability to practice and rehearse future actions in the virtual space.(the director)
  • the ability to voluntarily control and execute the ‘best plan’ to achieve the future goal, which is relatively ‘rational’, and decoupled from present stimuli and neeeds. (The executive producer)
  • and additionaly, many MTTs are expressed publicly via language: "More generally, humans use language to exchange and complement their mental travels into the past and their ideas about future events, as well as to cooperatively coordinate plans and strategies" (Suddendorf & Corballis 2007: 310) (The broadcaster)

Virtual internal modeling can of course also seen as a solution to the exploration-exploitation trade-off as well as to the unstable environment homo is said to have emerged from.

Interestingly, there is additional support for this internal modeling hypothesis namely, from robotics.
As you may recall, In my first post I briefly described an experiment done by Floreano and Nolfi (1996) in which a robot evolved to internally represent the area surrounding him, thus enabling him to act in relation to the virtual internal body-related map he had created.
Even more intriguing, Bongard et al. (2006) describe a robot which adapts to an unstable environment as well as injuries (such as losing a leg) by continuous internal self-modelling.

Of course, the notions of internal systemic representation is practically all-pervasive throughout the field of cognitive science, as echoed for example in the controversy between Theory-Theory and Simulation Theory proponents in Theory of Mind research, as well as the ongoing controversies regarding the relation between mirror neurons and mental imagery, and practically every aspect of cognition, but I find the combination of internal representational spaces, shared intentionality and perspective incredibly, and I write a bit more about their cognitive and linguistic foundations in my next post. I’ll also try to stay more down to earth in my next post.


Bickerton, Derek .1990. Language and Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Bongard, J. V. Zykov, & Lipson, H. 2006. “Resilient Machines Through Continuous Self-Modeling” Science 314: 1118-1121.

Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: Gustav Fischer.

Dennett, Daniel C. 1996. Kinds of Minds. New York: Basic Books.

Floreano, Dario, and Francesco Mondada. 1996. “Evolution of homing navigation in a real mobile robot”, IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics – Part B: Cybernetics 26:396–407.

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

Moll, Henrike, & Michael Tomasello. 2007. Co-operation and human cognition: The Vygotskian intelligence hypothesis. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 362: 639-648.

Ross, Don. 2007. H. sapiens as ecologically special: what does language contribute? Language Sciences 29.5: 7 10-731.

Tomasello, Michael.1999.: The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press

Tomasello, Michael and Malinda Carpenter. 2007. Shared Intentionality. Developmental Science 10:1:121-125.

Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, and Henrike Moll. 2005. “Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28.4: 675-735.

Suddendorf, Thomas & Michael C. Corballis. 2007. The Evolution of Foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30.3: 219-313.

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