Thursday, January 17, 2008

Wilhelm Köller’s Lack of "Perspective"

In my last post I showed some of the foundations we need  in order to get a communication system of the ground, so that a shared symbolic storage is able to evolve. But how are we able to stabilize a shared lexicon?
Köller (2004) quotes G.H. Mead, who wrote in his 1932 essay “The Objective Reality of Perspectives” that:
“it is only insofar as the individual acts not only in his own perspective but also in the perspective of others, especially in the common perspective of a group, that a society arises […]. The limitation of social organisation is found in the inability of individuals to place themselves in the perspectives of others, to take their points of view. […] we find here an actual organisation of perspectives […] This principle is that the individual enters into the perspectives of others, insofar as he is able to take their attitudes, or occupy their points of view” (Mead 1932)
Flavell (1985) argues for the importance of role-taking (inferring psychological processes in other people) in the development of communication skills in a similar fashion.

As we have seen in the robot-Experiment by Luc Steels & Martin Loetzsch (2007) I described in my last post, in order to arrive at a stabilization of a shared lexicon, it is crucial for the communicating agents to be able to take the perspective of another agent in order to reconstruct the scene from his viewpoint and thus check for all possible referents and meanings of a communicative utterance.
In this experiment, the perspective-taking described is of course only a visual alignment of perspectives, but one can make a conjecture that the same holds true for more ‘abstract’, conceptually-driven, higher-order communicative acts, and that in order to stabilize a full-fledged, semantically laden language system as that of a human language, the same process must be carried out in respect to mental states and thoughts of others. Thus, in order to check for possible interpretations of an utterance in a pragmatic context, we have to be able to infer mental states to others, i.e. have a Theory of Mind which enables us to not only take the visual perspective of another person into account, but also his beliefs, desires, knowledge, etc.
It is likely that visual perspective taking precedes full-fledged mental mental perspective-taking, and Flavell’s distinction of Level 1 and Level 2 acts proves very useful in this context:
“At Level 1, [the child] is capable of nonegocentrically inferring that [someone else] sees an object presently nonvisible to [the child] himself. At Level 2, [the child] is also capable of nonegocentrically inferring how an object that both currently see appears to [someone else], that is, how it looks from his particular spatial perspective.” (Masangkay et al. 1974: 357)
Level 1 perspective-taking seems to be mastered at 24-months of age. At this age children are able to infer that they can see a toy which the adult himself cannot see because his line of sight is occluded. (Moll & Tomasello 2006)

The classic test for Level 2 perspective taking is Piaget & Inhelder’s (1956) ‘three-mountain- experiment’, in which a child has to chose a photograph which corresponds to another person’s viewpoint (in this case a doll's) of three toy mountains. Köller uncritically adopts Piaget & Inhelder’s assessment that only at the age of 8 years were children able to transcend their own egocentric perspective. Before, they would insist that the doll would see the mountains in the exact same way. (Köller 2004: 148)

However, as subsequent research has shown, children already succeed in more child-friendly versions of the task at 4-5 years of age. (Masangkay et al. 1974, Flavell et al. 1979, Light & Nix 1983.) Although these advances in research on perspective-taking are more than 25 years old by now, Köller doesn’t mention them.

There is another, much more elaborate paradigm of cognitive development research which gives insights into what children know about the mental representations of others, namely the Theory of Mind-paradigm. Originally the term stems from primatology: in 1978, David Premack & Guy Woodruff asked “Does the chimpanzee have a Theory of Mind?” ToM was defined as the ability to impute mental states in yourself and others. (The question is still hotly debated, and I’m really interested how the next Behavioral and Brain Sciences Batttle will turn out when it is published along with its target articles).

In 1983 Heinz, Wimmer & Josef Perner developed the following experimental paradigm to check for ToM in human children:
“A story character, Maxi, puts chocolate into a cupboard x. In his absence his mother displaces the chocolate from x into cupboard ‘y. Subjects have to indicate the box where Maxi will look for the chocolate when he returns. Only when they are able to represent Maxi’s wrong belief (‘Chocolate is in x’) apart from what they themselves know to be the case (‘Chocolate is in y’) will they be able to point correctly to box x. “ (Wimmer & Perner 1983:106)
In Wimmer & Perner’s experiment, ToM performance rose significantly around the ages of 4 to 6 years.

In 1985, Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues further popularized the ToM-paradigm, with this experiment:
“There were two doll protagonists, Sally and Anne. […] Sally first placed a marble into her basket. Then she left the scene, and the marble was transferred by Anne and hidden in her box. Then, when Sally returned, the experimenter asked the critical Belief Question: “Where will Sally look for her marble?“. If the children point to the previous location of the marble, then they pass the Belief Question by appreciating the doll’s now false belief. If however, they point to the marble’s current location, then they fail the question by not taking into account the doll’s belief. (Cohen et al. 1985: 41)
Baron-Cohenand his colleagues tested children with autism, as well as children with Down syndrome and normal children. Whereas most normal children succeeded in the test - as did the children with Down-syndrome - most children with autism failed the test.

Typically, normal children pass these ‘classic’ ToM tests somewhere between the age 3-5, depending on a variety of factors (Wellman et al. 2001)

Level 2 perspective-taking seem to be closely associated with Theory of Mind, because it includes the “realization that minds can take different perspectives on the world because they represent it differently“ (Aichhorn et al. 2006: 1067). Thus it isn’t surprising, that Level 2 perspective-taking is mastered around 4, which is the same time children succeed in theory of mind tests (Aichhorn et al. 2006: 1059).
Thus, in order to answer the question posed at the beginning of this post, in order to stabilize a shared lexicon, not only do we need the ability for purely ‘physical’ perspective shifts, but we also need to be able to put ourselves in the ‘cognitive shoes’ (Tomasello 1999) of another person to check for the possible referents of an utterance. Or, as Michael Tomasello puts it:
“As the child masters the linguistic symbols of her culture she thereby acquires the ability to adopt multiple perspectives simultaneously on one and the same perceptual situation. As perspectivally based cognitive representations, then, linguistic symbols are based not on the record- ing of direct sensory or motor experiences, as are the cognitive representations of other animal species and human infants, but rather on the ways in which individuals choose to construe things out of a number of other ways they might have construed them, as embodied in the other available linguistic symbols that they might have chosen, but did not. Linguistic symbols thus free human cognition from the immediate perceptual situation not simply by enabling reference to things outside this situation […] but rather by enabling multiple simultaneous representations of each and every, indeed all possible, perceptual situations.” (Tomasello 1999: 9)
Sadly, this approach is completely absent from Köller’s account of children’s cognitive and perspectival development, and in my next post I’ll write a little more about the cognitive foundations of perspectivity that I plan to write my term paper about.

P.S.: All in all, of course, that's not to say that I don't think "Perspektivität und Sprache" is a great book - arguably it is - but as every book, it has its weaknesses. In other part of the book, on the perspectival implications of lying, for example, he in fact does cite primatological evidence, referring to work done by evolutionary anthropologist Volker Sommer and as well as arguments made by Dan Dennett regarding to Machiavellian Intelligence.


Aichhorn, Markus, Josef Perner , Martin Kronbichler , Wolfgang Staffen & Gunther Ladurner. 2006. “Do visual perspective tasks need theory of mind?” Neuroimage 30: 1059 – 1068.

Baron-Cohen, Simon, Alan M. Leslie & Uta Frith. 1985. Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition 21: 27-46.

Flavell, John H. (²1985): Cognitive Development. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall.

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

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

Light, Paul. and 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

Mead, George Herbert. 1932. The Philosophy of the Present. Edited by Arthur E. Murphy. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court.

Moll, Henrike and Michael Tomasello (2006): Level 1 Perspective-Taking at 24 Months of Age. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 24, 603–613

Piaget, Jean & Bärbel Inhelder. 1956. The child’s conception of space. London: Routledge

Premack, David and Guy Woodruff. 1978 Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1: 515-526.

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.

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

Wimmer, Heinz and Josef Perner (1983): Beliefs about Beliefs: Representation and Constraining Function of Wrong Beliefs in Young Children’s Understanding of Deception. Cognition 13, 103-128


henrike said...

I must say, I am truly impressed by the level of sophistication that your posts on perspectivity and related matters reveal, especially for a person your age! Have you considered spending some time at the MPI - EVA as an intern or research assistant?

I do research on infants and young children's perspective-taking abilities and stumbled over your posts by accident. One thing I would like to clarify, though, is that visual perspective-taking does not precede cognitive perspective-taking (conceptual or epistemic perspective-taking etc). On the contrary, I am trying to argue these days that, at least at level 1, visual perspective-taking is a particular challenge for young children. Here's the data I base my claim on: By 14 months of age, infants already understand who 'knows' what; if we mean by 'know' sth. like the German 'kennen' (and not 'wissen', see Moll & Tomasello, 2007; Moll, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2007). That is, infants at this age know which objects another person has and has not become familiar with from past experience. However, only by about 2 years of age do infants/toddlers begin to understand which objects another person does and does not see from her current point of view (Moll & Tomasello, 2006). Both tasks are to be understood as 'level 1' task, if we want to use Flavell's terminology, in the sense that both require 'just' an understanding of what, i.e, which objects, another person knows/sees. But there is a noteworthy decalage between these two cases.

In my current research project I try to find the reasons why an understanding of knowing develops earlier than an understanding of seeing - again, when we focus on level 1 abiities.

Anyway, very interesting stuff. By the way: Did you buy that book by Koeller? It is sooo expensive (over 200 Euro) if I remember right, and so I wonder if you know a way to get it less expensive than that.

Michael said...

Thanks for your great comment!
Thank you for elaborating on some the more complex aspects of perspective-taking. It is indeed quite hard to figure out what it is exactly a child 'knows', when it, e.g. evaluates pointing gestures based on past shared experience, etc., especially blog about it as an undergrad ;-).
I'd love to spend some time at MPI-EVA some time in the future, but at the moment I have to prepare for my year abroad starting in September.
I'm afraid I can't really help you with Köller's book, as I just copied the relevant parts, which of course took some time, but arguably is probably the cheapest way of getting it.
Google Books has a fairly extensive 'limited preview'-function for Köller's book, which of course is not the best solution.
Thanks again for your great reply.

henrike said...

Yes, indeed, it is very hard to figure out what the child 'knows' or 'understands', what the right level of desciption is. Anyway, I just find striking that they come to understand what another person 'kennt' before they come to understand what another person sees.. visual perspective-taking remains a challenge for many adults. Especially when you are jointly engaged with a person it is hard to picture that the person cannot see what you can see. People point to the screens of their laptop when they give a talk, for instance, forgetting for a moment that the screen is of course not visible to the audience sitting across the room. Or people gesturing while being on the phone. I think this is because the joint engagement created by the communication suggests a 'shared perceptual space'.

I wish you a great time abroad; I myself am in Seattle now. I will read your posts in the meantime and then, when you are back in Germany, you can think about contacting me at the MPI in Leipzig.