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!


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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.

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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.

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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.

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