Monday, January 14, 2008

A Second Perspective

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSo in my last post I criticized German linguist Wilhelm Köller’s book “Perspectivity and Language” (Too be honest, I’m afraid this book is never going to be translated into any other language and even I as a native speaker of German sometimes have a hard time at extracting the meaning from his convoluted sentences) for not taking into account the research done in much of biology and cognitive science over the last 25 years or so. And there is definitely a need of integrating such data into an account of perspectivity and especially perspective-taking, and without it Köller’s book seems (to me at least) awkwardly incomplete.
Yet I also stressed that much what Köller has to say is nevertheless in accordance with recent work done in the field of cognitive science.

To give you some examples:
Köller claims that perspectivity is essentially a context-dependent, dynamic and systematic process of meaning construal. The meaning of metaphors, for example, is in this view created by variable reciprocal semantic interactions of dynamic structural patterns. And Indeed, recent work in cognitive poetics has shown that the mere act of understanding sentences requires perspective shifts (Gibbs 2003: 35ff.). It is further supported by views of cognition which do not treat meaning and categories as static amodal entities, but as instantiated products of “dynamic meaning construal.” (Gibbs 2003).
Thus Köller’s approach is basically compatible with Larry Barsalou’s notion of conceptualization as the integrated interaction of multimodal perceptual symbol systems (1999) That is, a simulation which employs stored ‘captured states’ of specific percepts, such as the groan of a zombie, the smell of rotting flesh, the sight of the white lab coat, and the introspective response of fear in order to form a fully-fledged mental representation of, say, zombie-scientist George.) Of course this assessment needs “caveatting”, as both employ wholly different levels of explanation of perspectives. Yet they also concur in their emphasis of the aspectual and embodied nature of human cognition as one of its main constituents.
Köller also operates under the old philosophical assumption that what we perceive and communicate about actually is just a cognitively constructed model. And Indeed there is a lot of evidence from neuroscience and cognitive science that supports such a view (Metzinger 2004)

When Köller treats perspectivity as a basic semiotic category of human cognition which is deeply ingrained into the structure of human perception, categorization, and communication he also converges with much recent work done in the field of language evolution.
The potential available to express and yield perspectives is an intrinsic property of the language system. It is there because is represents the accumulated attempts of generations of speakers who tried to perspectivize their environment in distinct way, who tried to communicate with each other and directed attention to certain aspects of the world around them in particular ways. Köller also emphasizes the importance of the direction of attention via language, especially that a main function of language is to bring others to focus on distinct properties relevant in a specific socio-pragmatic context.
These observation are in the same vein as the proposals of “Relevance Theory”, first developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in their seminal book “Relevance: Communication and Cognition” (1986). whose main assumption is that
“Human cognition tends to be geared to the maximisation of relevance.” (Wilson & Sperber 2004)
The medium by which
“attention and processing resources are allocated to information that seems relevant.” (Wilson 1999)
is language.

Relevance and communicative success are also seen as the major driving forces in the evolution of language in a communicating group of agents, and a lot of research has been done in this vein (for examples of computer modeling see Kirby & Christiansen 2003, for examples of mathematical modeling see Nowak et al. 2002, and for examples of work done in evolutionary robotics see Lipson 2007.)
The most impressive account of this account I know of is presented by Luc Steels and Martin Loetzsch (2007). They developed
“situated embodied agents that self-organise a communication system for dialoging about the position and movement of real world objects in their immediate surroundings.”
Steels and Loetzsch had two AIBOs play robot soccer with an orange ball and coordinate their actions by communicating (via a highly complex language processing software) about the movements and whereabouts of the ball.

They came to the conclusion that
“Perspective alignment is possible when the agents are endowed with two abilities: (i) to see where the other one is located, and (ii) to perform a geometric transformation known as Egocentric Perspective Transform.”
But what was even more remarkable that under these conditions not only where the agents able to stabilize a shared vocabulary and generate a successful communication system because they were able to verify the possible meaning of a signal from both their own perspective and that of the other, but, given a certain cognitive architecture, their language system also developed perspective markers, which reduced the cognitive effort of perspective alignment and perspective-taking!
I find this a pretty darn incredible result and I’ll try to blog a bit more on it in the future.

Still there are some things in Köller’s book which I’m really unhappy about, mainly his treatment of cognitive development, and I’ll come back to that in my next post.


Barsalou, Lawrence W. 1999. "Perceptual Symbol Systems." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22.4: 577-660.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr. “Prototypes in Dynamic Meaning Construal.” Cognitive Poetics in Practice. Eds. Joanna Gavins and Gerard Steen. London: Routledge, 2003. 27-40.

Kirby, Simon and Morten H. Christiansen, 2003. “From language learning to language evolution.” Language Evolution. Eds. Christiansen, M. and Kirby, S.,Oxford: Oxford University Press. 272–294.

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

Metzinger, Thomas. “The Subjectivity of Subjective Experience: A Representationalist Analysis of the First-Person Perspective.” Networks 3-4 (2004): 33-64.

Lipson, Hod. 2007. Evolutionary Robotics: Emergence of Communication. Current Biology 17.9: 330-332.

Nowak, Martin, Natalia L. Komarova & Partha Niyogi. 2002. “Computational and evolutionary aspects of language” Nature 417: 611-617.

Sperber, Dan., and Deirdre Wilson. 1986. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Steels, Luc and Martin Loetzsch. 2007. “Perspective Alignment in Spatial Language.” Spatial Language and Dialogue. Eds. K.R., Coventry, T. Tenbrink, and J.A. Bateman. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Deirdre. 1999. Relevance Theory. 719-722.

Wilson, Deirdre & Dan Sperber. 2004. “Relevance Theory.” The H andbook of Pragmatics. Eds. L. Horn & G. Ward Oxford: Blackwell: 607-632

1 comment:

P@ said...

nice post, thanks! I wish (despite your comments) that I could read the original text, but sadly my German is non-existent.

You have highlighted some important findings from recent research.