Monday, April 28, 2008

Perspectives on "Perspective" – Part II

This post continues my fragmentary list of disciplines in which the phenomenon of “perspective” plays a crucial role. So far, I’ve discussed the importance of perspective from a developmental/ ontogenetic point of view, an evolutionary/ comparative point of view and, more generally, from a cognitive point of view.

In this post I’ll write a bit about some aspects of perspective from a philosophical point of view as well as from the perspective of cognitive linguistics.

4. Perspective from a philosophical point of view

Perspective also plays an important role in all conscious processes, as

“consciousnesses can be defined as being conscious of perspectivally selected aspects of some phenomenon.” (Allwood 2006).
This perspectival nature of consciousness can largely be attributed to our embodiment, as discussed in the previous post.

On the other hand, we have to be careful in equating all the interesting properties of consciousness with embodiment. There are quite radical theories out there that pose that consciousness is only a function of our embodied and situated interaction with the world. Consciousness in this way is not only an essential part of, but is in fact constituted by the interaction of mind, body, and world.

The “cognition is for action”-hypothesis seems to be more plausible in this respect. It poses that consciousness is a precondition for being in and navigating our everyday world. (Prinz in press). A central function of consciousness is that it is part of a system that “decouples” representations from their direct linkage to action chains, processes and analyzes these representations, generalizes them to schemas, and makes these newly formed multifaceted representations available to various action systems.

A conscious intentional system able to pre-select among various options by analyzing decoupled representations thereby extends the response breadth of an organism. (Sterelny 2003). Consciousness is thus fundamentally linked to our bodies and the world, but not necessarily constituted by it (Prinz in press).

What this tells us is that is useful to look at the phenomenon of perspective from a functional point of view, i.e. what it means for cognition and mental processes to be perspectival, body based and action-oriented. One application of this form of inquiry would be to ask what we actually need information for:

“Viewpoint-specific information is needed to determine how your goal can best be realized: it’s information that provides a means to the end.” (Prinz in press).

We should of course also consider that all information we acquire is perspectivally mediated, either through our embodiment, or through the perspectival nature of the medium itself. This holds for the many potential perspectives intrinsic to language (Köller 2004) as well as for “the media” in a broader sense, which make accessible to us information that we otherwise never would’ve known about.

The structure and organization of our knowledge is thus always deeply rooted in and influenced by the perspectival nature of the information transmitters. Metaphorically we could almost go as far as saying that we form an integrated circuitry, an interface with our environment, including electronic devices (Jean Baudrillard 1988). Tools and artifacts, including information transmission devices such as book, the internet, TV, etc. can in general be seen as “the extensions of man” (McLuhan 1964), with which we interface with basically from birth, thus creating some kind of feedback loop

“where we shape our tools and therefore our tools shape us” (McLuhan 1964)
making us “natural-born cyborgs” (Clark 2003). This creates

“the problem of understanding how human thought and reason is born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, and complex cultural and technological environments. We create these supportive environments, but they create us too. We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding. Understanding this evolutionarily novel arrangement is crucial for our science, our morals, and our self-image both as persons and as a species.” (Clark 2003)

Although this all may sound a bit esoteric and we should definitely remember Jesse Prinz’s caveat, what seems clear is that perspective is a phenomenon born out of

1.the development of perspectival mental representations during childhood which arose from the interaction with others and through the integration of perspectival concepts and perspectives mediated by language (Tomasello 1999, Clark 1997)

2. The perspectival sense of selfhood that came out of shared attention and intentions, cooperative interactions, and the unification and evaluation of conflicting perspectives on self and others, enabling the child to integrate various perspectives and life episodes into a single, unified concept of self (Moll 2007)

3. The fact that not only our own view of the world is linked to a certain point of view, but that the same holds true for the information we get from all kinds of sources, which thus creates a kind of dialogue between our own perspective and the various perspectives embodied in the information coming from the outside world.

5. Perspective from a linguistic perspective

There are a lot of linguists, especially cognitive linguists who treat the phenomenon of perspective as central to language. On this view, language can be seen as inherently embodying the manifold perspectives of all language users of the past who used it to allocate attention, and ‘perspectivize’ certain salient and relevant features of a situation or event (for such a view, see e.g. Köller 2004, Tomasello 1999).

Cognitive linguists assume that language reflects “at least partially, the nature and organisation of the conceptual system” (Evans & Wood 2006: 170), thus giving us important insights into how the mind works. If linguistic organization is partially illustrative of the way we conceptualize things, it follows that if perspective is an important aspect of linguistic structure, it is also a fundamental property of cognition:

“The perspectival nature of linguistic meaning implies that the world is not objectively reflected in the language: the categorization function of the language imposes a structure on the world rather than just mirroring objective reality (Geeraerts and Cuyckens 2007: 5).”

To make this clearer, consider the following examples (taken from Evans & Wood 2006: 41ff.):

a. The boy kicks over the vase.

b. The vase is kicked over.

c. The vase smashes into bits.

d. The vase is in bits.

In each of this sentences another aspect of the scene is made salient.

(a) can be seen as the unmarked case in which the event as a whole is represented, and is thus the main focus of the description.

In (b) the main focus lies on the action itself and its PATIENT (i.e. the receiving end of the action), whereas the AGENT, is only weakly represented, i.e. in the background.

In (c) the action chain of the object, its internal change and the resulting state (b = in bits) are ‘profiled’, i.e. made the center of attention.

(d), on the other hand focuses on the end state of the object.

We can thus say that each sentence embodies a different perspective on the state of events.

This observation is a major hallmark of cognitive linguistics and the notion of “perspective” or something related to it can thus be found in the terminology of many cognitive linguists. This holds, for example, for the domain of metaphor, where “a recurrent characteristic determining the nature of metaphor has been that it presents its target from a particular point of view.” (Dirven et al. 2007: 1226). Max Black (1993) explicitly calls this phenomenon “perspective”, whereas Lakoff & Johnson (1980) call it ”highlighting and hiding” (see Dirven et al. 2007: 1226).

Ronald Langacker (e.g. 2007) also describes perspective, i.e. “the linguistic manifestations of the position from which a situation is viewed” (see Verhagen 2007: 53) as a central dimension of the construal operations that we employ when using and comprehending language. This phenomenon is also deeply intertwined with the phenomenon of “profiling”, where one aspect of a scene appears salient and constitutes the figure which is positioned against a background. In Rubin’s famous face/vase-figure, for example, you can see either the face as figure and the vase as ground, or vice versa:

Leonard Talmy (2000) also proposes that the “Perspectival System” is one of the four schematic systems that structure scenes expressed by language. In his view this system:

“includes schematic categories that relate to the spatial or temporal perspective point from which a scene is viewed, the distance of the perspective point from the entity viewed, the change of perspective point over time and so on” (Evans & Wood 2006: 194).

Consider the following two examples where the main difference between the sentences is the ‘perspective point’:

(Talmy 2000: 69, see also Evans & Wood 2006: 197):

The door slowly opened and two men walked in. (Interior perspective point)

Exterior perspective point (Two men slowly opened the door and walked in.)

A perspective point seems to be exactly the same as what Karl Bühler (1934) called an origo point located on a ‘coordinate system of subjective orientation’, and I prefer Bühler’s terminology over that of Talmy. Still Talmy’s work seems to very insightful and fundamental and I will try to write a bit more about it in a subsequent post.

Similary, and as I described in an earlier post, Brian MacWhinney argues that perspective taking is a fundamental cognitive process that enables language to bind together the five imagery subsystems of direct experience, space/time deixis, plans, social roles, and mental acts (MacWhinney 2005). MacWhinney also makes the observation that the expression and recognition of the deictic center of an utterance and/or a mental representation is an important linguistic and cognitive operation, and, just as Talmy, doesn’t refer to Bühler. Following Duchan et al. (1995) MacWhinney differentiates between three deictic frameworks: egocentric, allocentric and geocentric.:

Egocentric deixis directly encodes the perspective of the speaker. The spatial position of the speaker becomes the deictic center or “here.”” (MacWhinney 2005: 203). This would be what following Bühler is called the Here-Now-I-Origo.

The allocentric frame projects

“the deictic center onto an external object”, and makes us assume “the perspective of another object and then [judge] locations from the viewpoint of that object”(MacWhinney 2005: 203).
One example would be “the pool in front of the house,” where the pool’s position is defined relative to the location of the house. Other, more mundane examples of the allocentric frame are “under the table”, “behind the desk”, “next to the zombie” etc.

The geocentric frame

"enforces a perspective based on fixed external landmarks, such as the position of a mountain range, the sun, the North Star, the North Pole, or a river.” (MacWhinney 2005: 203).
According to MacWhinney there are languages that make excessive use of this kind of perspective taking:

In Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal language, for example, “rather than asking someone to “move back from the table,” one might say, “move a bit to the mountain.” (MacWhinney 2005: 203)

MacWhinney argues that linguistic perspective taking is based on the construction of a “full-blown Cartesian coordinate system” and that it involves the construction of “a temporary Cartesian grid” based on the conceptual construal of a given linguistic event and the dominant integrated propositional objects therein (MacWhinney 2005: 203f.)

This proposal seems perfectly congruent with Karl Bühler’s description and of mental representations involving a “coordinate system of subjective orientation”. It also squares well with my own clumsy extrapolation of this system following Wilhlem Köller’s (2004) notion of a ‘systemic space’/’coordinate system’ into which propositional objects and concepts can be transferred, imported, which then can be blended and manipulated.

I really find it exciting that MacWhinney’s approach is so similar to that taken by Karl Bühler, and more generally, that a lot of approaches to perspective and cognition converge on the metaphor of a coordinate system. This metaphor may prove to have great integrative power in the cognitive sciences and I’m looking forward what will come of it.

That’s it for now. In the future I will try to address some of the proposals outlined here in more detail. For the time being, I hope to have shown that studying the various forms of perspective can be a rewarding and cool enterprise.

Somewhere in the distant future, the phenomenon of perspective may prove an important aspect of many inquiries into all cognitive phenomena, and studying the perspectivity intrinsic to cognitive systems and their various emanations and expressions may be a useful overarching paradigm able to combine and integrate various areas of research.


Allwood, Jens (2006): 'Consciousness, Thought and Language' In K. Brown (ed.) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition. Oxford: Elsevier, 44-53.

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

Clark, Andy (2003): Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and. the Future of Human Intelligence, Oxford: Oxoford University Press-

Clark, Eve V. (1997): Conceptual Perspective and Lexical Choice in Acquisition. In: Cognition 64:1–37.

Dirven, René, Frank Polzenhagen, and Hans-Georg Wolf Cognitive Linguistics, Ideology, and Critical Discourse Analysis. In: Dirk Geeraerts and Herbert Cuyckens (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Duchan, J. F., Bruder, G. A., & Hewitt, L. E. (1995). Deixis in Narrative: A Cognitive Science Perspective. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Evans, Vyvyan and Rachel Wood (2006): Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Geeraerts, Dirk and Herbert Cuyckens (2007): Introducing Cognitive Linguistics. In: Dirk Geeraerts and Herbert Cuyckens (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. (2007): Cognitive Grammar. In: Dirk Geeraerts and Herbert Cuyckens (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Kannetzky, Frank (2007): Weder Bewußtseinsimmanenz noch Schnittpunktexistenz. Überlegungen zum Begriff der Person. In: F. Kannetzky/H. Tegtmeyer (Hrsg.): Personalität. Leipzig: Universitätsverlag

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

MacWhinney, Brian (2005): The Emergence of Grammar from Perspective. In: Diane Pecher und Rolf A. Zwaan (Eds.), The Grounding of Cognition: The Role of Perception and Action in Memory, Language, and Thinking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 199-223.

McLuhan, Herbert Marshall (1964): Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Moll, Henrike (2007). Person und Perspektivität – Kooperation und soziale Kognition beim Menschen. In F. Kannetzky & H. Tegtmeyer (Eds.), Leipziger Schriften zur Philosophie. Personalität – Studien zu einem Schlüsselbegriff der Philosophie, 37-56. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag.

Sterelny, Kim (2003): Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition. Malden: Blackwell.

Talmy, Leonard (2000) Toward a Cognitive Semantics (2 vols). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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

Verhagen, Arie (2007): Construal and Perspectivization. In: Dirk Geeraerts and Herbert Cuyckens (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Perspectives on “Perspective” – Part I

Since in my previous posts on the phenomenon of perspective - i.e. the fact that we tend to view and (re)present thoughts and states of facts in the world in highly specifiy, perspectival ways, - I have mainly focused on the work of German linguist Wilhelm Köller and his (2004) book “Perspektivität und Sprache” (Perspectivity and Language) and how his thoughts relate to those of other linguists, developmental psychologists, cognitive scientists, etc., I wanted to represent more fully the work of some scholars whose work also focuses on the notion of perspective.

Scholars who make important contributions under the heading of perspective or perspectivity include, for example.:

- developmental and comparative psychologists Michael Tomasello and Henrike Moll from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology,

- psychologist Carl F. Graumann, former Professor of Psychology at Heidelberg University, who died in 2007

- linguist Brian MacWhinney, Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

- developmental psychologist Josef Perner of the University of Salzburg, Austria

- cognitive linguist Ronald Langacker, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego.

- cognitive linguist Leonard Talmy, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York

But in order to get a more comprehensive view of the phenomenon of perspective in general, let’s first untangle the various forms of inquiry into the whole range of phenomena that can be subsumed under the heading of perspective.

Basically, we can look at perspective from various points of views, which of course, have to be integrated for a full grasp of the notion of perspective. For example:

1. Perspective from a developmental/ontogenetic point of view

From a developmental perspective we can ask when and how children come to be able to take the viewpoint of another person, first visually (Level 1, perspective taking, e.g. Flavell 1988, Moll & Tomasello 2006), then on a mental level of “putting oneself in the cognitive shoes of someone else” (Tomasello 1999). More generally we can ask, how Children become able to grasp not only that an object looks different from a different point of view, but also how the object might look like from a certain perspective (Level 2, perspective-taking, Flavell 1988).

In this regard it’s of special interest that perspective taking is a social-cognitive skill, and thus to look at children’s perspective taking and setting in cooperative and interactive situations. On a later stage of development, it’s a major research issue how children come to construe a “Theory of Mind” which allows them to attribute mental states to others, and to include these attributions in their predictions and thus also their interactions with other people.

This ability may reflect a full understanding of the concept of perspective, allowing children to compare differing perspectives on a phenomenon and to select amongst competing perspectives (Perner et al. 2002).

It is also likely that the development of an concept of self crucially depends on our interactions with others (Mead 1934), and especially on the child’s developing ability to understand perspectives. This allows her to contrast various views of the world and to understand herself by adopting other people’s perspective on herself, thus learning to see herself through the eyes of others. She also learns to see herself from different temporal perspectives and episodes, and to integrate these different perspectives into a unified view of herself as a person (Moll 2007)

2. Perspective from an Evolutionary/Comparative point of view

From an evolutionary perspective, we can look at how the ability to take and set perspective arose in the phylogenetic history of our species, and on which evolutionary foundations this ability was built. We can thus pose the same questions we asked in regard to children for the role-taking abilities of chimpanzees and other non-human primates (for a review see Tomasello et al. 2005).

Another key issue is the question which role cooperative behaviors with shared goals and intentions, which essentially depend on the notion of perspective, played in the cultural as well as evolutionary history .

Blending this area of research with the former one, we can also assess whether the unique perspectival qualities of human cognition and human interaction lead to special forms of perspectival cognitive representation in ontogenetic development (Moll & Tomasello 2007)

This is of course deeply related to the question how our lineage came to display this diverse set of modern human behaviors, symbolic and otherwise, such as language and especially the ability to understand others as intentional mental agents, which is the foundation of “cumulative” cultural evolution, innovation and shared artifacts, symbols, and institutions (Tomasello et al. 2005, Sterelny 2003). Tomasello et al.(2005) propose that it is the evolution of “shared intentionality”, i.e. the ability to jointly attend to a situation and to

"participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions.” (Tomasello et al. 2005: 675),
was the major stepping stone in the evolution of behaviorally modern humans.

In accordance with th Tomasello et al’s (2005) and Moll & Tomasello’s (2007) hypothesis that this ability is linked to the evolution of uniquely human forms of perspectival mental representations, Benoît Dubreuil (2008) also challenges the role of language as being the driving force behind behavioral modernity, and instead proposes that the key “

"cognitive mechanism behind modern sapiens behavior is one of the general mechanisms underlying the higher form of ToM: the ability to hold in mind a stable representation of conflicting perspectives on objects”
and that this change is especially salient in human evolution by 85,000BP. His main argument is that there is no evidence that the production of the archaeological artefacts that appear around that time, for example, engraved ochres or marine shell beads, presupposes any symbolic abilities of their producers.This is because
"from an archaeological perspective, there is no real way to tell aesthetic and symbolic functions apart.“
But what they definitely entail is that their makers knew that the object they are making looks good from various viewpoints, and especially, in the case of self-decoration, that it makes the wearer look good from someone else’s perspective.

3. Perspective from a cognitive point of view

Perspective is implicated in all forms of cognition in various ways. For starters, there is the fact of embodiment, i.e. the fact that “minds have bodies that are situated in environments” (Poirier et al. 2005: 741). This means, that all perception is essentially of a perspectival nature dependent on how our minds are ‘grounded’ in various kinds of interactions with other physical processes (e.g. Barsalou 2008). Perspective thus refers to the way we categorize and represent the world. All cognition is therefore point of view dependent, or to be more precise, dependent on the frame of reference in which we transport “the parts of an object or the elements of a complex state of affairs and their interrelations” (Graumann 2002: 25). We can thus unify diverging perspectives, construe various perspectives simultaneously, and mentally manipulate them in the domain of our frame of reference, or cognitive coordinate system (see for example Bischof-Köhler & Köhler 2007) We can thus “project” ourselves into various frames of reference. Essentially these perspectives can also be “decoupled” (Sterelny 2003) from our immediate surroundings, and we can mentally travel through time and imagine ourselves in past, future, and hypothetical situations.

Interestingly, neuroscientific evidence points toward the assumption that Thinking about the future, episodic remembering, conceiving the perspective of others (theory of mind) and navigation” engage the same cortical network, “which suggests that they share similar reliance on internal modes of cognition and on brain systems that enable perception of alternative vantage points.” (Buckner & Carrol 2007). Although the authors of this study prefer the term ‘self-projection’, we could also construe these abilities as drawing on the core principle of understanding and taking perspectives.

These observations lend support to the idea that to understand perspectives, we make use of a single representational format, namely a basic frame of reference, as systemic space or coordinate system in which we construe and into which we transport conceptual representations. This idea is further supported by the neuroscientific evidence that

“simulated actions in the first and in the third person perspectives share common representations” (Anquetil & Jeannerod 2007)
i.e. that they work on the same representation, which can be used from different perspectives via a changing Origo- or Viewpoint (Bühler 1934) within the frame of reference.

Another question is the nature of the concepts employed in categorizing and cognizing the world around us. There are indicators that concepts, just like linguistic symbols, are of an essentially perspectival nature, with a specific ‘highlighting-and-hiding pattern’ (Lakoff & Johnson 1980). If we take Lawrence W. Barsalou’s view of concepts as internally simulated perceptual traces, with abstract concepts “grounded in complex simulations of combined physical and introspective events. (Barsalou 1999), perspective also plays a central role in the constitution and online activation of concepts and, as we will see, also the interpretation of complex events via metaphorical mappings.

That’s it for now. In my next post I will write a bit about perspective from the viewpoint of cognitive linguistics and philosophy.

On a related note, the latest edition of the Four Stone Hearth is out. Go have a look!


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

Barsalou, Lawrence W (2008): Grounded Cognition. In: Annual Review of Psychology 59, 617-645.

Bischof-Köhler, Doris & [My paper]Norbert Bischof (2007): Is mental time travel a frame-of-reference issue? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30 (3):316-7

Buckner, RL & DC Carroll (2007): Self-projection and the brain. In: Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11.2Bühler, Karl (1934): Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: Gustav Fischer.

Dubreuil, Benoît (2008): What do modern behaviours in Homo sapiens imply for the evolution of language, in A. D. M. Smith, K. Smith, and R. Ferrer i Cancho (eds.), The Evolution of Language. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference (Evolang 7), World Scientific, 99-106.

Flavell, John H. (1988): The Development of Children’s Knowledge about the Mind: From Cognitive Connections to Mental Representations. In: Janet W. Astington, Paul L. Harris und David R. Olson (eds.): Developing Theories of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 141-172.

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.

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.

Mead, George Herbert. (1934) Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moll, Henrike (2007): Person und Perspektivität – Kooperation und soziale Kognition beim Menschen. In F. Kannetzky & H. Tegtmeyer (Eds.), Leipziger Schriften zur Philosophie. Personalität – Studien zu einem Schlüsselbegriff der Philosophie, 37-56. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag.

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

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

Perner, J., Stummer, S., Sprung, M., & Doherty, M. (2002). Theory of mind finds its Piagetian perspective: Why alternative naming comes with understanding belief. Cognitive Development, 17, 1451-1472.

Poirier, Pierre, Benoit Hardy-Vallée and Jean-Frédéric Depasquale.2005. “Embodied Categorization.” In: Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science. Eds. Henri Cohen and Claire Lefebvre. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005.

Sterelny, Kim (2003): Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition. Malden: Blackwell.

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

Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: the origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 675– 735.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Derek Bickerton, Noam Chomsky, Jabba The Hutt, and Universal Grammar

Phew. Right now there’s so much stuff to do studying-wise that I have a hard time finding any time to blog. Fortunately there are other people in the blogosphere who are posting as regularly and as reliable as a Swiss watch.

Edmund Blair Bolles, for example, has a nice post on Derek Bickerton’s autobiography “Bastard Tongues: A trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world’s lowliest languages.”

Bickerton, who is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, is well-known for his work on creoles and pidgins as well as on the evolution of language. I have to admit that when I started reading Bickerton’s book I thought It would be more about the biological evolution of language, but as it turns out, this will be the focus of his next book. Still, I hadn’t expected that there is almost no discussion of the evolution of language, and that there would be a more extensive bibliography instead of a small “suggested reading” section, so in this regard I’m a bit disappointed. But, leaving my personal biases and prejudices aside, all in all the book’s really fun to read and Bickerton has a energetic, decidedly anti-scholarly style with a lot of entertaining digressions and ramblings on various topics, garnered with witty humor, biting sarcasm, and a good bit of polemic statements.

Bickerton is a proponent of the necessity of children having Universal Grammar (UG) which enables them to learn language. This “bioprogram”, as Bickerton calls it, can be seen as the language-specific toolkit, or grammatical mental template a child brings to the task of acquiring a language. Bickerton argues that the existence of a language bioprogram is the only explanation for the fact that children exposed to agrammatical, rule-less pidgins still produce and create a full human language, a creole. These creoles have a fully intact grammatical system and possess grammatical rules that aren’t present in the native language of their parents, nor in the language the pidgin is based on. Therefore, these rules must have come from the “language bioprogram” of the child acting on the pidgin data.

EBB holds that Bickerton’s evidence for the existence for a UG is far more persuasive than Chomsky’s arguments. Bickerton even writes that philosopher John Searle once told him that his arguments even convinced Willard Van Orman Quine, one of the most important philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century and an outspoken behaviorist.

Chomsky’s main argument on the other hand is the so called “Poverty of Stimulus” argument, i.e. that the linguistic data a child receives is not sufficient to learn a language without the child possessing innate biases to structure, organize and attend to it in certain ways. There are, for example, some mistakes children never make:

Take the sentence:

Zombies are gruesome.

How do you derive the question form of this sentence from the declarative? One possible explanation is that you take the first auxiliary (such as “am”, “is”, “are”, “do”, “does”) in the sentence and put in front :

Are zombies gruesome?

The rule “to form a question move the first auxiliary verb in front of sentence” works perfectly well for a lot of sentences. However, there are sentences that disprove this rule:

The gruesome zombie that was chasing the man was losing speed.

If we applied the rule, we would get:

*was the gruesome zombie that chasing the man was losing speed?

Therefore, the rule is wrong. Now take a three-year-old child, who to this date, has heard abut 2.5 million sentences. As it seems, double auxiliary sentences like the one above, which could disprove the “move the auxiliary” rule, simply do not to appear in utterances directed to young children. Searching through a database of 100,000 sentences directed to children, Legate & Yang (2002) didn’t find a single instance of double auxiliary question. According to the most comprehensive counts, there is probably about one double auxiliary sentence in 3,000,000 sentences directed to a child (MacWhinney 2004).

What then, is the right rule? As it appears, if we think of a sentence as not only consisting of words, but of larger chunks called phrases, we can find a way to explain how to form questions of English. If we see the sentence “Zombies are gruesome” as consisting of a noun phrase (zombies) and a verb phrase (are nimble), the rule for forming a question would be the follwing: “move the auxiliary that follows the noun phrase to the front.”

In the example

“The gruesome zombie that was chasing the man was losing speed”

the noun phrase would be “The gruesome zombie that was chasing the man” and the verb phrase would be “was losing speed.” Applying our new rule, we would correctly get

Was the gruesome zombie that was chasing the man losing speed?”

Now, given that children haven’t come across any examples that would refute the first rule, and indeed only have come into contact with sentences which would make it the more logical one, which of the two rules do they employ?

Crain & Nakayama (1987) designed a clever experiment to test this. They had children from age 3 on talk to a puppet of Jabba the Hutt, who was visiting from another planet and saw pictures of various things, like, for example, a cute dog sitting on a bench.

The children then had to “ask Jabba if the dog that is happy is sitting on the bench.”

Did the children use the sensible and logical “move first auxiliary” rule?. No. Not even the youngest children constructed questions like

*Is the dog that happy is sitting on the bench?

Chomsky’s argument is that children never use the first rule, but instead learn the second rule because the Universal Grammar they possess by nature of their genetic endowment

“includes a principle called structure dependence, which states that sentence formation operates around linear relations not among words but among chunkier units of phrases.” (Yang 2006: 22).

EBB also states that Bickerton’s proposal for a bioprogram is

"less dogmatic, forr it carries no implications on just how that universal grammar work
” than that of Chomsky, but I’m not so sure. It may well be that Chomsky proposes
“a separate, syntactical module in the brain that generates its output to other areas.” (or in Chomskyan terminology a conceptual-intentional system, a sensori-motor /articulatory-pholological system and a syntactic system connected by interface rules),
but at least judging from some of his writings, he isn’t really dogmatic about it. For example in his raging and polemic (2007) response to Margaret Bodens history of cognitive science “Mind as Machine”, he states that by Universal Grammar (UG) he means the

genetic factor that played a role in my granddaughter's having reflexively identified some part of the data to which she was exposed as language-related, and then proceeding to acquire knowledge of a language, while her pet kitten (chimp, songbird, etc.), with exactly the same experience, can never even take the first step, let alone the following ones.”
He also proposes that the Minimalist Programm basically
“is a research program, which can be undertaken whatever theory one favors, [emphasis mine - MP] seeking to determine to what extent the nature of language and its acquisition follows from more general principles.”
Doesn’t really sound dogmatic to me, I must admit.

A similar argument can be found in his 2002 "The Architecture of Language". Here he also posits a very weak form of “innatism”:

"To say 'language is innate' is to express the belief that some crucial and relevant internal nature differentiates my granddaughter from rocks, bees, cats and chimpanzees. We want to find out what this internal nature is.[...]

Now a question that could be asked is whether whatever is innate about language is specific to the language faculty or whether it is just some combination of the other aspects of the mind. That is an empirical question and there is no reason to be dogmatic about it;[emphasis mine - MP] you look and you see. What we seem to find is that it is specific. There are properties of the language faculty, which are not found elsewhere, not only in the human mind, but in other biological organisms as far as we know.”

Of course, this is not to say that Chomsky’s influence on cognitive science and linguistics is always benign. He surely has seriously hindered many disciplines (e.g. language evolution) or phenomena (e.g. performance) in becoming areas of further research just by dismissing them as unimportant. Furthermore it is unfortunate that many linguistic departments unquestioningly adopt whatever Chomsky deems the best framework at the time, a development which he surely isn’t completely innocent of.

But I’m not sure why others approaches to language shouldn’t in principle be able to find some common ground with Chomskian generativism. Surely we don’t have to go so far as computer linguist Gerald Gazdar did in an interview with Ted Briscoe:

“EJB […] Why do think linguistics is in such a bad state?

GG I've no real idea. The field has clearly been damaged by the presence of a charismatic leader [Guess who…] who has led it badly. But that, by itself, isn't sufficient to explain the situation.

EJB Is it going to get better? Is it getting better now or do you think it's going to stay in the same state, or you just don't have an opinion because you have given up?

GG I see no reason to expect it to get better. There might be a temporary improvement when [Chomsky’s] death occurs. However, if the field is such that it can be taken over by a charismatic leader and be led by him for over forty years, then why shouldn't that happen again?

EJB So, to somebody coming into the field, offered a job in a linguistics department, what would you say?

GG Learn how to use a computer and change department."


Crain, S. & M. Nakayama (1987): Structure Dependency in grammar formation. Language 63: 522-43.

Legate, J.A. & Yang, C. (2002). Empirical reassessments of poverty of stimulus arguments. Linguistic Review, 151-162.

MacWhinney, B. (2004). A multiple process solution to the logical problem of language acquisition. Journal of Child Language 31: 883-914.

Yang, Charles. 2006. The infinite Gift. How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the world. New York et al.: Scribner.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Our Imperfect Categorizing Minds

There's a cool talk over at featuring Carl Zimmer and linguist/cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, who talks about his new bookKluge: The Haphazard Construction of The Human Mind.” The talk features some really cool insights into the short-comings of the human mind that are due to the fact that evolution is a tinkerer without foresight who always builds on the foundation of old things. One of the subsections is titled: "Noam Chomsky meets the genome" and you learn why college students respond differently if they are first asked how they see their life in general and then are asked how many dates they had in the last year than if they are asked the other way around.

Also, Larry Barsalou and three of his colleagues have an opinion piece in the latest Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Glushko et al. 2008) called "Categorization in the Wild" (you can find the draft here), in which they argue that individual and insitutional catgeorization should be a new focus of research into the cognitive phenomonon of categorization in general.

Glushko et al. argue that until now most scientists have focuse on cultural categorization, that is
"categories shared by a culture and associated with language"
Such cultural categories are the shared storage of categories that we acquire by growing up in a culture and interacting with other people. They exist for basicall all kinds and components of experience and shared imagination, such as objects, events, mental states, properties, funerals, games, zombies, "
parks, serenity, blue and above".

How cool their proposal to set a new focus on two other modes of categorization actually is only becomes apparent when they reveal what they mean by these two terms:
Individual categorization: " occurs when someone creates an idiosyncratic classification system primarily for his or her own use, for example, when creating categories to organize locations where food can be gathered, objects in a garage, CDs in a music collection, websites in the favorites list of a browser, etc."

This means that the way I organize my bookmarks, label my posts, categorizes my CDs (by Genres and then in alphabetical order) books, tagging, or anytings else is about to become a research area of the cognitive sciences. How cool is that? But they even go further:
"Institutions engineer classification systems explicitly to serve institutional goals, typically requiring considerable time and resources to develop, maintain and apply."
In their view, institutional categorization consists of things like taxonomies, e.g. the Manual of Mental Disorders, the Period Table, or the Human Genome. But where it gets really interesting is where the three modes of categorization intersect. For example, Glushko et al. look a the photo-sharing website, which as they argue shows "how individual classification systems can evolve beyond a single individual to a group," because people can join groups, tag their photos with common labels, interlink them, thus creating a new category system through the interaction of multiple agents. They even compare this process to that of pidginization and creolization, which means that lolcats are within the reach of cognitive science. Yay!

humorous pictures
see more crazy cat pics

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Relevance Theory (II): Mutuality

So here’s the second part of my summary of Chapter 1 of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilsons (1987) book on Relevance Theory. The Semester has just begun and there’s already so much stuff I have to do which keeps me from posting more on this blog. I am still planning on writing a bit more on Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, as well as on perspective and cognitive development, but I’m still stuck with my term paper on The Maltese Falcon, having to read Nietzsche and other things.

As I wrote in my last post, Sperber and Wilson (S&W) want to go beyond the “dualistic code model” which treats communication as the encoding and decoding of a meaningful signal. They stress that there are other parts of the communicative process also important for the interpretation of meaning which are less obvious and not directly encoded in the signal, but which have to be inferred from other contextual sources.

S & W define context as the premises that I use when interpreting an utterance, i.e. my assumptions on how communication and the world in general work. (15)

But there is a problem: although we may generally share the same implicit standards on how to communicate, how to infer the meaning of an utterance, this may not be so if we come to our knowledge about the world, our conceptual knowledge. Although there is a lot of basic knowledge and experience that we share, “beyond this common framework, individuals tend to be highly idiosyncratic.” (16).

S & W take the example of eyewitness testimonies of car accidents, which can differ enormously, although all witnesses have seen the same events, not only on the level interpretation, but sometimes even on the level of the basic physical fact. (see e.g. Wells & olson 2003)

All in all, as cognitive science has shown in the last decades, remembering and ‘recalling’ something is much more a process of active (re)construction, than of actually ‘remembering’ it, which means that basically every time I remember a specific instance of my life history, ie. my first kiss, it deviates from what the event really was like and gets more and more laden with my current interpretations of it. This means that memories are unstable, unreliable, that you recreate, rebuilt them every time you think of them. The more you think of a memory, the more you are likely to change it. The more I think of something, the more these memories become about me, the less they become about what actually happened.

Also, subjective experience does not reflect sensory input directly, but draws heavily on the construct of an internal dynamic “world model” (Cruse 2003: 138, see also Metzinger 2004: 37f.)).

In general this means that although the rule system of language, as well as the rule system for pragmatic inferences may stabilizes sometime during ontogeny, the context we perceive changes constantly, and is different for everyone.

If this is, so then “A central problem for pragmatic theory is to describe how, for any given utterance, the hearer finds a context which enables him to understand it adequately.” (16)

What we have to realize first is that there isn’t a failsafe mechanism which guarantees understanding, but there the array of mechanism we employ to communicate make successful communication probable, without ever guaranteeing it. (17)

Consider a host who asks his guest whether he’d like a cup of coffee. If the guest says something like:

“Coffee would keep me awake”

it would be subject to two interpretations, depending on whether we think the guest wants to stay awake or not. In this example, it would be easy to check for whether the guest wants to stay awake or not, but as complexity rises there are more and more variables for which we have to assume whether someone knows them, or has the same interpretation of them.

Given that we have a lot of different assumptions on various things, there must be a way to ensure that we are talking about the same thing. But how do we do that?

Basically, in order to communicate perfectly, we would have to know everything the other knows, and also that he knows that we know, and vice versa. But ultimately, this leads to an infinite regress, because we would have to check for every possible assumption someone could have. (A knows that o, B knows that A knows that p, A knows that B knows that A knows that p, and so on)

Knowledge of this infinitely regressive sort was first identified by Lewis (1969) as common knowledge, and by Schiffer (1972) as mutual knowledge.' The argument is that if the hearer is to be sure of recovering the correct interpretation, the one intended by the speaker, every item of contextual information used in interpreting the utterance must be not only known by the speaker and hearer, but mutually known.” (18)

Because we can’t check for every single assumption implicit in an utterance there is never any guarantee that we might understand each other. To cut a long story short, basically this means that there must be some other way of understanding each other, which doesn’t presuppose that we assume that the others has knowledge of this and that sort, and that the other assumes that we have certain knowledge of some sort or other. The question would be which principles we actually use in understanding each other.

We can get insight into this phenomenon by looking at cognitive development.

Consider the following experiment. Two experimenters an infant and their mother sit in a room together. Experimenter 1 (E1), and the infant play with two objects that were in a box, then E1 leaves the room. E2 then shows the infant a third object, and they play with it. Then E1 returns, points in the general direction of the three objects, and says something like. “Oh, Look! can you give it to me?” Now which of the object does the infant hand to E1? Impressively, by 12 Months of age, infants already hand E1 the third object, the one they haven’t seen. But they do this only if E1 and the infant both manipulated the object manually in a joint attentional scene. Only by 14 months of age is joint visual engagement sufficient for infants to make out which item she and E1 have experienced together (see, e.g. Tomasello & Haberl 2003, Moll et al. 2006, Moll et al. 2007).

The question directly relates to what I’ve written before. Because children of course face the same problem as adults when it comes to knowing (in the sense of ‘being familiar with’ or being ‘acquainted with’ (Moll et al. 2007) what the other intends to express with his utterance.

As Henrike Moll and her colleagues remark:

“Somehow the other’s knowledge state becomes ‘transparent’ in joint engagement (Eilan, 2005); but how?” (Moll et al. 2007: 834)

One key of this process seems to be that at some time in development, infants have to understand others as intentional agents with goals. (Tomasello 1999) It’s also necessary that they be able to realizes that the intentions and goals of the other, and therefore also certain perspectives on things, can be shared (Moll et al. 2007, Tomasello et al. 2005). In a joint attentional scene with implicit shared intentions (like, playing with a toy together) mutual knowledge and mutually shared intentions thus become ‘mutually manifest’ in the immediate situation, as S & W call it in a later chapter of their book.

Although S & W don’t address this point, it seems highly compatible with their approach, given that their major starting point is the H.P. Grice’s definition of meaning, which he describes as as:

'[S] meant something by x' is (roughly) equivalent to '[S] intended the utterance of x to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of this intention'. (Grice 1957/1971: 58)

I’ll return to this point in my next post.


Cruse, Holk. (2003)“The Evolution of Cognition – A Hypothesis.” Cognitive Science 27 : 135–155

Eilan, N. (2005). Joint attention, communication, and mind. In N. Eilan, C. Hoerl, T. McCormack, & J. Roessler (Eds.), Joint attention: Communication and other minds Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Grice, H. P. (1957), 'Meaning'. Philosophical Review 66: 377-88.
Reprinted in Steinberg and Jakobovits 1971: 53-9 and Grice 1989: 213-23.

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

Moll, Henrike., Cornelia Koring, Malinda Carpenter, und Michael Tomasello (2006): Infants Determine Others’ Focus of Attention by Pragmatics and Exclusion. In: Journal of Cognition and Development 7.3, 411-430.

Moll, Henrike, Malinda Carpenter und Michael Tomasello (2007): Fourteen-month olds Know What Others Experience only in Joint Engagement. In: Developmental Science 10.6, 826-835.

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre, Wilson (1995): Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Second Edition. Malden et al.: Blackwell.

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

Tomasello, M., & Haberl, K. (2003). Understanding attention: 12- and 18-month-olds know what’s new for other persons. Developmental Psychology, 39, 906 – 912.

Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: the origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 675– 735.

Wells, G. L. and E. A. Olson (2003). Eyewitness testimony. Annual Review of Psychology 54, 277–295.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Posthumous Publication

I just realized that the latest edition of the Behavioral and Brain Sciences is out. One of the two main articles is by Susan Hurley, professor of philosophy at Bristol University, who died of breast cancer last year.

The article, which is called, "The Shared Circuits Model: How Control, Mirroring, and Simulation Can Enable Imitation, Deliberation, and Mindreading", is preceded by the following editorial note:

"The following article by Susan Hurley, “The Shared Circuits Model: How Control, Mirroring, and Simulation Can Enable Imitation, Deliberation, and Mindreading,” with its commentaries and response was produced under unusual and sad circumstances. Susan Hurley passed away in August 2007 following a long struggle with cancer after her target article had been completed, and the list of those invited to comment had been assembled. Because she had foreseen the need for help in producing her response to the commentaries, she enlisted Andy Clark, Professor at Edinburgh University, for this purpose, with BBS’s full encouragement. Julian Kiverstein, another colleague at the University of Edinburgh with particular interest in the shared circuits model, volunteered to help as well in the composition of the response to commentators.

Commentators were specifically enjoined from writing eulogies and asked to produce the lively intellectual dialogue that Susan Hurley certainly had sought in sending her work to BBS. Kiverstein and Clark undertook not to emulate a response from Susan Hurley, but rather to clarify misunderstandings, organize the commentaries thematically, and show where the research might lead. We are grateful to all commentators, and particularly Kiverstein and Clark, for their graceful execution of what even in the normal case is a challenging task."

On a related (albeit happier) note, there's n interesting little essay in today's Nature by Mark Pagel, who belongs to a new current of scholars applying methods of evolutionary theory and statistics to historical language evolution (see, e.g. here and here). Pagel argues that "Genomes and language suggest that biological and social complexity emerge from how information is used"
He also gives his two cents on the biological evolution of language, arguing that
"it evolved to allow precise and varied regulation of self-interested social behaviour. The exchange of sophisticated verbal information arose to convey accounts of our own and others’ acts, reputations, alliances and dues."

Also, Edmund Blair Bolles has postes his concluding remark on the results of evolang 08, and on the language evolution blog there is another post on the conference.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Our Inner Ape

I just hit upon a fascinating episode of the great australian podcast All in The Mind, called our inner ape, which deals with the nature and evolution of of social cognition in primates, and also has interesting tidbits on the evolution of language. Here's the heading:

"Apes are our closest relatives -- nearly 99% of our genes are identical -- but how do our inner lives compare? Culture, empathy, language, learning -- do chimps have the smarts to pull these off? Channel your 'inner ape' with the world's top primatologists as they unearth surprising results."

The podcast features short interviews withj a lot of the big names in the field, such as Michael Tomasello, Joan Silk, Dorothy Cheney (co-author of Baboon Metaphysics) and Andrew Whiten (co-inaugaurator of the Macchiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis).

I just listened to it and think it really worthwile to be checked out (be warned, though, the podcasts' main host for this episode, Volkarth Wildemuth, has a very noticeable german accent)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Relevance Theory

This semester I’m attending a course on Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson's (1987) Relevance Theory, a major theory of how communicative understanding arises in the pragmatic satiation of face to face discourse. I think I’ll write a bit about it time and again, and especially look at how their proposals relate to the stuff I usually write about on this blog.

In the first Chapter, on Communication, Sperber and Wilson pose the basic question:

“How do human beings communicate with one another?” (1)

But to answer this question, we first need to know what exactly is meant by the fuzzy term ‘communication’. Sperber and Wilson define it as a process that involves two “information-processing devices” (i.e. people, their mind/brains or what have you) in which one of the devices ‘modifies’ the others physical environment in some way or other. Taking the example of speech, If I talk to you, I modify your acoustic environment by sending acoustic speech signals out into your surroundings.

If you read this blog (Hi dad!), I modify your visual environment by presenting colored marks against a white background which you have to decipher. What happens as a result is that you (given that your are the second, receiving “information-processing device”) construct a (mental) representation which bears resemblance to the representation that is stored in my head (or in the “first device”).

It is difficult to say how similar our mental representation of what I’ve said or written are exactly, but we’ll come to that again, and presumably, there is to be some overlapping of representations, given that we both speak English, live in the same physical world, have basically the same general neural architecture, a similar genetic makeup, and similar basic cognitive skills (that is, we at least both know how to sit down, how to switch on a computer, how to type and how to read, for otherwise how would you’ve gotten her in the first place? (Yes I know, you wouldn’t necessarily need to be able to type if you bookmarked my blog or read it via a newsfeed (I know that there are thirty of you somewhere out there…) but that would be nitpicking)

Coming back to the theory, the basic questions now are:

  1. What exactly it is that is communicated? Sperber and Wilson postpone an elaborate answer to a later chapter, and suffice it to say that what is transmitted are thoughts, i.e. “conceptual representations", and assumptions, i.e. claims about a factual state in the real world, or information, which isn’t really defined at that point.
  1. How is communication, i.e. the establishment of functionally overlapping mental representations, achieved exactly?

To answer this question, Sperber and Wilson first draw our attention to the paradigm of semantics they are opposed to, namely the “dualistic code model.” This model proposes that

communication is achieved by encoding and decoding messages.” (2)

Sperber and Wilson champion another approach, developed by philosophers such as Paul Grice and David Lewis, called the inferential model, according to which,

“communication is achieved by producing and interpreting evidence.” (2)

Both models aren’t totally opposed to each other, but lay different emphasis on which parts of understanding are really important. What Sperber and Wilson argue is that these two ways of understanding are independent of each other.

But first, let’s look a bit closer at the code model. Sperber and Wilsin define the three key elements of the model as such:

Code: “a system which pairs message with signals, enabling two information-processing devices (organisms or machines) to communicate.” (3f.)

Message: “a representation internal to the communicating devices.” (4)

Signal: “a modification of the external environment which can be produced by one device and recognised by the other.“ (4)

A classical example of such a way of information transmission would be the morse code. Sperber and Wilson also give the example of honeybees, who have been shown to be able to communicate the location of nectar they’ve found by ‘dancing’. To be able to do so, a honeybee, seen as an information-processing device, has to possess the following properties: a) some kind of memory, from which the relevant information about where the nectar is and how to get there can be taken or put b) some kind of “encoder-decoder device“ which can pair the message of the flight plan with the signal of ‘dancing’. (5)

The ‘semiotic’ code model goes way back to the ancient greeks, and is also endorsed by Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of modern linguistics:

“Language is a system of signs that express ideas” (Saussure 1974: 16)

But Sperber and Wilson claim that there is the model is deficient, especially when it comes to complex devices (i.e. us) processing and transmitting information. If we interpret a linguistic signal, we do indeed encode a message, but the information that we get as a whole, our representation of it, doesn’t only come from the encoding of the message alone. In some situations there needn’t be a ‘coded message’ at all. As the authors argue

“What a better understanding of myth, literature, ritual, etc., has shown is that these cultural phenomena do not, in general, serve to convey precise and predictable messages.”. (8)

But how then can we explain this apparent

“gap between the semantic representations of sentences and the thoughts actually communicated by utterances” (9) ?

First, Sperber and Wilson differentiate between ‘sentence’ and ‘utterance’. An utterance is the actual communicative act in a given situation with all its linguistic and non-linguistic (e.g. situational) properties, whereas a sentence is meant to describe the more abstract general semantic of a content.

Consider the following examples:

(1) I write a lot about Zombies

(2) George likes brains

(3) Michael is glad that the members of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology haven’t been eaten by zombies

if we ask what the content of these ‘sentences’ is, i.e. what their general semantic representation is we only get that (1) An agent writes a lot about Zombies. The same holds for (2). In (3) without any situational, pragmatic content, we just don’t know who this Michael guy is. Therefore, for the interpretations of these ‘utterances’ to be successful, they need to

“involve an interaction between linguistic structure and non-linguistic information.” (10)

Moreover, "utterances are used not only to convey thoughts but to reveal the speaker's attitude to, or relation to, the thought expressed” (10f.)

In fact in a lot of utterances there is a lot of ambiguity judging from the linguistic material alone. Consider for example, irony (which of course can be partly interpreted due to prosodic features of an utterance such as tone of voice, stress, etc.), or Chomsky’s famous example that

“flying planes can be dangerous.”
In general, it can be said that there is an amount of semantic flexibility in the signal for which the hearer must compensate by non-linguistic considerations such as situational/pragmatic cues. Often, a linguistic signals' meaning isn’t exhausted by its semantic content, but has to be combined with a lot of contextual information they carry implicitly, such as “Do you know what time it is?”, by which we of course mean, ‘Please tell me what time it is if you know”.

If we want to delve even deeper, we can now ask what exactly the mechanisms are that allow us to successfully draw inferences as to the full representational content of an utterance. However, most rules aren’t as simple as

(4) “Substitute for 'I' a reference to the speaker.”

(5) “Substitute for 'tomorrow' a reference to the day after the utterance.” (12)

This of course would work for sentences such as 'I write a lot about Zombies', so that we would get that it is me, Michael Pleyer, who writes a lot about Zombies (well, in fact I think, my amount of Zombie references is moderate).

But according to Sperber and Wilson, it is hard to think of an exhaustive list of such ‘decoding principles’, and then it still seems dubious that such an endless process of feature checking and decoding would be psychologically plausible.

As most pragmatists, Sperber and Wilson advertise the view that comprehension is in fact an inferential process.

To get a clear view for the differences between the inferential model and the code model, they give the following definitions:

“An inferential process starts from a set of premises and results in a set of conclusions which follow logically from, or are at least warranted by, the premises” (12f.)[1]

A decoding process starts from a signal and results in the recovery of a message which is associated to the signal by an underlying code” (13) [2]

To achieve successful communication(i.e. partly overlapping mental representations), then, two people need to have the same basic premises and use the same inferential mechanism. How exactly this comes about is addressed in later sections, but to hint at the basic principle, Sperber and Wilson think that one of the most basic premises of interactions is that of relevance, i.e. that we only try to draw attention to propositions, thoughts, assumption, information. etc. that wee deem relevant, i.e. of interest to you and me.

I’ll post a bit more on the book some time in the future.


Saussure, Ferdinand de (1974): Course in general linguistics. Translated from the French (1916) by Wade Baskin. London: Peter Owen.

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre, Wilson (1995): Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Second Edition. Malden et al.: Blackwell.

[1] The most classic inference process is the following:

All men are mortal

Socrates is a man

Therefore Socrates is mortal.

[2] Sperber and Wilson’s discussion of the relation between inferential models and the code model is actually quite complicated, because in their view, inferential models can be used to decode messages, but not vice versa, as you will see in this example