Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Shared Intentionality and Linguistic Perspectivity

Shared Intentionality, also called “collective Intentionality” (Tuomela 2007: 65; Searle 1995: 23ff.), is defined as
“the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions.” (Tomasello et al. 2005: 675)
It requires

“especially powerful forms of intention reading and cultural learning, but also a unique motivation to share psychological states with others and unique forms of cognitive representation for doing so.” (Tomasello et al. 2005: 675).
The term intentionality in this context has two meanings: On the one hand it has the everyday meaning deliberate and planned action, but on the other it also possesses the philosophical meaning of ‘aboutness’ (Hurford 2007: 320)
“The term intentional is used by philosophers, not as applying primarily to actions, but to mean “directed upon an object.More colloquially, for a thing to be intentional is for it to be about something. Paradigmatically, mental states and events are intentional in this technical sense” (Lycan 1999: 413)
Shared Intentionality in this sense designates the fact that human beings are able to jointly attend to an object - ‘triadically’ -, to mentally represent such a joint goal or percept, and also to represent the fact that they are doing so (Tomasello & Carpenter 2007: 121).

Tomasello et al. (2005) have argued and presented evidence that Shared Intentionality is one of the major characteristics of human cognition, and is a precondition for language, cooperation, and all forms of human culture in general. Except for borderline cases such as chimpanzee group hunting (Boesch 2005), shared intentionality indeed seems to be a uniquely human feature which arises early in ontogeny and offers a lucid explanation for the failures of non-human primates in many collaborative and cooperative tasks, and for the success of infants at these tasks, respectively. What’s especially interesting in this regard is that, (and as as I’ve discussed before), these forms of shared intentionality seem to lead
“children to construct uniquely powerful forms of perspectival cognitive representation.” (Moll & Tomasello 2007)
Under this premise it seems clear that much of the attested perspectivtiy of language and cognition (Graumann 2002, Köller 2004, Tomasello 1999,) crucially depends on our ability for shared intentionality.

The sentence,
“Let’s carry this vessel to shore!”,
for example, possesses a directive as well as a commissive illocutionary force in the sense of Austin and Searle’s Speech Act Theory. That is, with this utterance the speaker wants to get someone to do something (i.e. carry the vessel to shore) but also commits himself to do something (i.e. carry the vessel to shore together with the hearer). But it also embodies a shared point of view, a ‘we-perspective’ (Tuomela 2007) on a shared future goal, and thus also expresses the mutual knowledge of shared intentionality, shared ‘aboutness’.
The hearer and the speaker of this utterance create a shared systemic space, a joint attentional frame including the vessel, jointly coordinated movements, and the future goal (The vessel is on the shore). Thus the utterance is not only intentionally directed at the future action, but also, as a secondary object, about the shared intentional relation between speaker and hearer.
This “we-intention” (Tuomela 2002: 30; Tuomela 2007: 83f.) enabled by the joint attentional frame is, for example, expressed by the deictic word “this”. It - probably accompanied by a gesture - integrates the vessel into the shared systemic space, i.e. the shared mental representation, of speaker and hearer. Thus integrated, the vessel can now be the target of further specifications and tags, and can be put in various relations and mental contexts (cf. also Köller 2004: 484). Without the shared intentional frame communication would be impossible because the hearer wouldn’t be able to relate the speaker’s proposition to a shared percept in the real world.
Such shared we-intentions and perspectives of course need not be made explicit in every situation, though of course they are a constant precondition of all communication and interaction (Graumann 2002). As Bratman (1993) observes, two people rowing in a boat together need not make their intentions explicit as long as both of them presuppose that the other has the intention of rowing the boat with the other one.

Shared intentionality also proves essential for the so-called ‘self-positioning you’ (Bredel 2002), which can be found, for example, in the recounting of a personal past experience (like, “and suddenly there’s this real horrible ZOMBIE in front of you, and he goes like “BRAAAAINS”, all moaning and whatnot, and you go like ‘oh my God let’s get out of here!”). This form of pronoun use is not only used to distance yourself from such an experience, but also to aid your interlocutor(s) in relating to the episode. You thereby not only inform somebody of something, but also share the experience with him/her (in German this would be “mittteilen” und “mit ihm teilen” (Bredel 2002)).

Another instance of the awareness of a shared intentional frame, or shared systemic space,
can be seen in the fact that speakers constantly monitor their addressees for understanding, and if necessary, alter and modify their utterances (Clark & Krych 2004).
At the age of four years children are already able to modify their description of an event based on whether the hearer was present during it or not. They are also already able to simplify stories for children who are younger than them (Flavell 1985: 259f.). Also at the age of 12-18 months most children monitor whether the adult they are engaged with in a cooperative game requiring role reversal has understood the rules and is willing to perform his role by looking to the adult’s face. (Carpenter et al. 2005). Interestingly, chimps do not exhibit this behavior when engaged in a similar task, and they also fail to spontaneously play the game according to the rules at all (Tomasello & Carpenter 2005).
In contrast, just as four-year old children, captive orangutans also “modify their gestural sgnaling according to their audience’s comprehension” (Cartmill & Byrne 2007). Thus, in a weak sense, the foundations of establishing shared meaning may already be present in non-human primates such as orangutans, forming part of the
“prelinguistic devices that helped construct the very earliest forms of hominid language.” (Cartmill & Byrne 2007 1347).
Thus, and in accordance with the shared intentionality hypothesis,
“Early spoken language may have resulted from, and progressively refined, new patterns of joint attention to and cognitive processing of utterances.” (Goody 1997: 391)
In my next post I’ll ascend the evolutionary ‘ladder’ (yeah, I know it’s really more a bush) one step futher, so to speak, and extend a bit on the relation between perspectivity and Theory of Mind.


Carpenter, Malinda, Michael Tomasello, und Tricia Striano (2005): Role Reversal Imitation and Language in Typically Developing Infants and Children with Autism. In: Infancy 8.3, 253-78.

Cartmill, Erica A. and Richard W. Byrne (2007): Orangutans Modify Their Gestural Signaling According to Their Audience’s Comprehension. In: Current Biology 17: 1345-1348.

Clark, Herbert H. und Meredith A. Krych (2004): Speaking while Monitoring Addressees for Understanding. In: Journal of Memory and Language 50, 62-81.

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

Goody, Elizabeth N. (1997) Social Intelligence and Language: Another Rubicon. In: Andrew Whiten und Richard Byrne (Hgg.): Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 365-296

Graumann, Carl F. (2002): Explicit and Implicit Perspectivity. In: Carl F. Graumann und Werner Kallmeyer (Eds): Perspective and Perspectivation in Discourse. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 25-40.

Hurford, James M. (2007): The Origins of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Lycan, William (1999): Intentionality. In: The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. Eds. Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT P, 1999. 413-415.

Searle, John R. (1995): The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.

Tomasello, Michael. & Malinda Carpenter, 2005 The emergence of social cognition in three young chimpanzees. Monogr. Soc. Res. Child Dev. 70, 133-152.

Tomasello, Michael and Malinda Carpenter (2007): Shared Intentionality. In: Developmental Science 10.1, 121-125.

Tomasello, Michael Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, und Henrike Moll (2005a): Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:5, 675-691

Tuomela, Raimo (2002): Collective Goals and Communicative Action. In: Journal of Philosophical Research 27, 29-64.

Tuomela, Raimo (2007): The Philosophy of Sociality: From A Shared Point of View. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Update II

I’m still working on my second term paper, which is (tentatively) called "The function of narratives in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and its philosophical implications", at least until I come up with a better title. What I like about the novel is the way it links with the issues I’ve explored in this blog.
As Alan Palmer argues, the
"behaviorist narratives of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, in which very little direct access to minds is given, the behavior of the characters only makes sense when it is read as the manifestation of an underlying mental reality" (Palmer 2004: 140).
But not only do we need our Theory of Mind to make sense of texts , the behavior of fictional characters also shows us how we use our cognitive capacities, such as Theory of Mind, to make sense of others and of ourselves, to explain and predict their behavior. Moreover, we can gain deep insights into the structure of human interactions and culture, as well as human cognition in general (Zunshine 2006).
As argued in my last post an for example by Tomasello et al. (2005) and Moll & Tomasello (2007), what makes us distinctly human is not only the fact that we are an "animal symbolicum" (Cassirer 2006: 31) or the "symbolic species" (Deacon 1998), but above all our essentially social nature.

What makes human interaction unique is our capacity to establish joint frames of reference and attend to things jointly, and especially our (meta)knowledge that we are doing so. Thus we are able to coordinate our interactions to a much greater degree than other species, and, in discourse, we can negotiate and fixate meaning, can establish joint and collective interpretation of situations and states of events. This holds true in the semantic domain, where we can fight "semantic battles" (Felder 2006) over word meanings. Consider for example the varying definitions of ‘life’ engaged by proponents and enemies of abortion and/or stem cell research. Moreover, the same process is engaged in our co-creation of narrative and pragmatic meaning in general, for example if a single person tells a stores, yet adapts the form of his narrative on the specific knowledge and demands of his/her interlocutors, who thereby implicity – or explicitly, via questions, and comments – take part in the shaping of the narrative’s form and content (Herman 2007, Goody 1997). Battling narratives can also be seen in court, where various narrative elaborations of what happened compete for their acceptance as the dominant narrative by the jury. (Abbot 2002, Felder 2003).

Take for example the famous murder case of Lizzie Borden, where much hinged on the narrative exploration of Borden’s character in order to assess whether she was capable of killing her father and her step-mother in cold blood. It was essential how Borden’s character and her own story of how the events of the murder came about fitted with the various stories of witnesses and those created by material clues, which taken together construed the ‘masterplot’ which later formed the collectively accepted conclusion of the case. (Abbott 2002:139ff.) This example again underlines the importance of our capacity to negotiate competing propositions and establish a shared perspective in all kinds of social interactions.
As Peter Harder argues in this really cool presentation, our cognitive apparatus enables us to attach shared meanings to artifacts, be they words or linked to a material anchor, such as clocks or traffic lights, and, of course money. According to Tuomela (2007) medieval fins even used squirrel pelts as currency instead of coins.
By projecting mental concepts into the environment and attending jointly and collectively to them, we thus assign shared meaning to them. We construct a ‘symbolic niche’ (Cf. also Moll & Tomasello 2007, Tomasello 1999). As Harder points out: "We therefore respond to shared symbolic constructs […] such as ’hour’ and ’minute’ as if they were part of the environment - which means that effectively they ARE part of our environment."

These cognitive connections essentially depend on the fact of the conventionality of these sign-meaning-linkages, as Ferdinand de Saussure forcefully argued. As Harder points out, if no one would stop at red lights, anymore, we soon too would cease to think that they indicated the concept ‘stop’. What de Saussure didn’t consider (or maybe he did but we don’t know, given that the accepted version of his theories was compiled by some of his students after he died and was based on their lecture notes), is the fact that we too adapt to the symbolic niche we ourselves created.
Human cognitions is thus essentially shaped and transformed by the fact that we live in a world of shared symbolic artifacts and ‘institutional realities’ (Searle 1995) which only exist by right of the people who attend jointly to these artifacts, and jointly attach meaning to them, thereby giving them intersubjective reality and value, thereby enabling complex social interactions such as cooperation (Moll & Tomasello 2007).
Another example for this process can be found in "The Maltese Falcon", in which the mythical, incredibly valuable figure of a falcon, which only appears in the story at the very end and in fact is a *SPOILER* , gets all his significance and meaning from the fact that the characters think of it as valuable, treat it as such and act accordingly to get hold of it (interestingly, the concept ‘ownership’ in the novel again is part of a ‘semantic battle’). They thus turn the figure into a symbolic artifact.

It is of course incredibly difficult to untangle the components of this complex system, but in my next post I will try to do so for at least some parts by focusing on Shared Intentionality and Theory of Mind (really this time).


Abbot, H. Porter (2002): The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cassirer, Ernst (2006): An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. Hrsg. v. Maureen Lukay. Hamburg: Meiner (Gesammelte Werke. Hamburger Ausgabe. Band 23).

Deacon, Terrence William 1998. The Symbolic Species. The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, London: W.W. Norton.

Felder, Ekkehard, ed. (2006) Semantische Kämpfe: Macht und Sprache in den Wissenschaften. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter (Linguistik – Impulse & Tendenzen 19), 13-46.

Felder, Ekkehard (2003): Juristische Textarbeit im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter (Studia Linguistica Germanica 70).

Goody, Elizabeth N. (1997) Social Intelligence and Language: Another Rubicon. In: Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne (eds.): Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 365-296

Herman, David (2007): Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind: Cognitive Narratology, Discursive Psychology, and Narratives in Face-to-Face Interaction. Narrative 15.3: 306-334.

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

Palmer, Alan. Fictional Minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Searle, John R. (1995): The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press.
Tomasello, Michael (1999): The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, and Henrike Moll (2005): Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:5, 675–691

Tuomela, Raimo (2007): The Philosophy of Sociality: From A Shared Point of View. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Theory and
Interpretation of Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Sorry for not having posted anything in such a long time, but currently I’m still home, without access to the internet, and working on my two term papers. The first, drawing on the issue of perspecitivy I’ve outlined here before, is nearly finished, the second I’ve nearly begun with.

Since both Themes fit into the general framework of inquiries into the nature and evolution of human perspectival cognition, I’ll try to give short summaries of these projects.

My first term paper, is on the cognitive preconditions/foundations of linguistic perspectivity (As I am writing it in German, the original title is “Die kognitiven Voraussetzungen der sprachlichen Perspektivität”) and tries to integrate various strands of research into the framework of Wilhem Köller’s systemic space and Karl Bühler’s notion of linguistic communication establishing and taking place in a “coordinate system of subjective orientation.”

Due to objections of my professor, my paper is mainly focussed on how these preconditions manifest themselves and are expressed in linguistic utterances, which forced me to discard most of the really cool experiments on the pragmatic and perspectival development of pre-verbal infants done by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues, as they seem to belong to the realm of psychology, not linguistics. But here in a nutshell, are the key ideas of my paper:

Language allows us to establish joint attentional frames and shared spaces of meaning. In Discourse we create mutual mental representations of discourse referents, and establish a basic perspective on states of events. These mental representations are shared ‘systemic spaces’ (Köller 2004), which overlap to such a degree that we can communicate and interact (relatively) successfully. This common level of a basic understanding of a state of events relies in the existence of preconditional cognitive systems, such as a shared ontology of how thing work (Metzinger & Gallese 2003), our knowledge of linguistic structures and words, our conceptual knowledge about the world (Barsalou 1999), our perceptual knowledge (Zwaan & Madden 2006), our pragmatic knowledge of how the principles underlying and guiding linguistic and non-linguistic interaction, our knowledge of emotional states as well as our ability to categorize objects and events based on pattern recognition (cf. Scherner 1994).

The fact that our “minds have bodies that are situated in environments” (Poirier et al. 2005: 741) is another preconditional a priori of all linguistic interactions. It defines our point-of-view and demarcates what we can and cannot perceive (Köller 2004: 133).

Embodiment thus not only also plays a crucial part in how we see and conceptualize the world (Gibbs et al. 2004: 1192), but also in how we talk about it (e.g. Lakoff & Johnson 1980).

Each written or spoken text, for example, always refers back to its Origin, the Origo-Point (also called here-now-I-Origo, due to the deictic nature of these words, which are directly linked to the speaker and the communicate situation.) (Bühler 1934).

Language and Cognition are thus essentially of a perspectival nature.

The ability to live in the ‘we-mode’ and establish a shared ‘we-perspective’, or a ‘shared point of view’ on things (Tuomela 2007), is the foundation of all cultures and one of the basic things that make us human (Mead 1934, Tomasello et al. 2005).

This view is supported by this awesomely cool data:

Mental and communication verbs belong to the ten most frequent verbs in:

  • English (say / know, think, want; Biber et al. 1999: 375)
  • Early Modern English (say, tell / know, think; Nevalainen 2006: 48)
  • Middle-English and Probably Old English (say / know, see, think; Lieberman et al. 2007: 714f.).
  • German (sagen (=say) / wollen (=want), wissen (=know), müssen (=to have to); Jones & Tschirner (2006: 10-14).
  • and Middle-High German (sagen (=say), sprechen(=speak) / mügen (=want/is able to), wellen (=want); Singer 2001: 19-30)

The mental predicates “think”, “know”, “want”, “feel”, “see”, “hear” belong to the lexicon of every known culture (Goddard 2006: 4).

In their Examination 95 Bantu languages 65 indo-European languages and 330 Austronesian languages, Atkinson et al. (2008) found that the words for “see”, “hear”, “know”, “think”, and “say” belong to the basic cognates which, as frequently used anthropological constants, are much more resistant to historical change than other words (see also Pagel et al. 2007: 719)

If we want to look at the subsystems, or distinct qualities of cognitive perspectivity, which as a whole allows us to consider overlapping, and often inconsistent frames of reference and ways of looking at a situation (Perner et al. 2003, Bischof-Köhler 2000), we can, for example, make out the following: Shared Intentionality (Tomasello et al. 2005), Theory of Mind (Premack & Woodruff 1978), and visual as well as conceptual perspective taking.

I will write about these a bit more when I find the time (which hopefully, will be soon)


Barsalou, Lawrence W. (1999): Perceptual Symbol Systems. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22.4, 577-609

Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad and Edward Finegan (1999): Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman.

Bischof-Köhler, Doris (2000): Kinder auf Zeitreise: Theory of Mind, Zeitverständnis und Handlungsorganisation. Bern [u.a].: Hans Huber.

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

Goddard, Cliff (2006): Ethnopragmatics: A New Paradigm. In: Cliff Goddard (Hg.): Ethnopragmatics: Understanding Discourse in Cultural Context. Berlin et al.: Mouton de Gruyter, 1-30.

Jones, Randall L. und Erwin Tschirner (2006): A Frequency Dictionary of German: Core

Vocabulary for Learners. Oxon, New York: Routledge. (Routledge Frequency Dictionaries)

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

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Nevalainen, Terttu (2006): An Introduction to Early Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Pagel, Mark Quentin D. Atkinson und Andrew Meade (2007): Frequency of Word-use Predicts Rates of Lexical Evolution Throughout Indo-European History. In: Nature 449, 717-720.

Perner, Josef, Johannes L. Brandl und Alan Garnham (2003): What is a Perspective Problem? Developmental Issues in Understanding Belief and Dual Identity. In: Facta Philosophica 5, 355–378.

Poirier, Pierre, Benoit Hardy-Vallée and Jean-Frédéric Depasquale (2005): Embodied Categorization. In: Henri Cohen und Claire Lefebvre (Hgg.): Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 739-765.

Premack, David und Guy Woodruff (1978): Does the Chimpanzee have a Theory of Mind? In: Behavioral and Bran Sciences 1: 515-526.

Scherner, Maximilian (1994): Textverstehen als „Spurenlesen“ – Zur Texttheoretischen Tragweite dieser Metapher. In: Peter Canisius, Clemens-Peter Herbermann, Gerhard Tschauder (Hgg.): Text und Grammatik: Festschrift für Roland Harweg zum 60. Geburtstag. Bochum: Brockmeyer, 317-340.

Singer, Johannes (2001): Mittelhochdeutscher Grundwortschatz. 3. völlig neu bearbeitete und erweiterte Auflage Paderborn u.a.: Ferdinand Schöningh. (UTB 2253)

Tomasello, Michael Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, und Henrike Moll (2005a): Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:5, 675–691

Tuomela, Raimo (2007): The Philosophy of Sociality: From A Shared Point of View. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Zwaan, Rolf A. und Carol J. Madden (2006): Embodied Sentence Comprehension. In: Diane Pecher Rolf A. Zwaan (Hgg), The Grounding of Cognition: The Role of Perception and Action in Memory, Language, and Thinking. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,