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.

1 comment:

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