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

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