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.

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