Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tomasello - The Origins of Human Communication

I just noticed that Michael Tomasello’s new book „The Origins of Human Communication” is out. The book is based on his Jean Nicod Lectures, which were delivered in Paris in the Spring of 2006 (you can watch the videos here. although the quality isn’t great, the talks are still fun to watch because they feature a lot of videos of the experiments with non-human primates and human children done by Tomasello and his colleagues).

“The Jean Nicod Lectures are delivered annually in Paris by a leading philosopher of mind or philosophically oriented cognitive scientist” and have featured, among others, Jerry Fodor, Donald Davidson, John Searle, Dan Dennett, and Ray Jackendoff.

(It’s interesting to see that the prizes were often given to people who are known to have the exact opposite stance than a previous prize winner. There have been controversies, for example, between Searle and Davidson, and between Dennett and Fodor – see for example here. So one could say that there seems to be some kind of attempt of establishing an equilibrium in regards of who is awarded the prize. So after someone from the nativist/generativist/formalist camp has received the prize a couple of years ago, it was time for an enemy of this position.
But there are various reasons to doubt this line of reasoning: firstly, my argument was intended mostly as a joke, secondly there are a lot of prize winners who cannot be clearly be put into camps that are diametrically opposed to one another (of course, in fact almost nobody can), and my controversy-examples are very bad, given that Davidson and Fodor seem to have a gripe with about practically everyone in the cognitive sciences, philosophy of mind, and other related disciplines.

But most importantly, Michael Tomasello is a great scientist whose works is absolutely fantastic, and he definitely deserves all the prizes he can get. /end of rambling)

Here’s the description over at The MIT Press site:

„Human communication is grounded in fundamentally cooperative, even shared, intentions. In this original and provocative account of the evolutionary origins of human communication, Michael Tomasello connects the fundamentally cooperative structure of human communication (initially discovered by Paul Grice) to the especially cooperative structure of human (as opposed to other primate) social interaction.

Tomasello argues that human cooperative communication rests on a psychological infrastructure of shared intentionality (joint attention, common ground), evolved originally for collaboration and culture more generally. The basic motives of the infrastructure are helping and sharing: humans communicate to request help, inform others of things helpfully, and share attitudes as a way of bonding within the cultural group. These cooperative motives each
created different functional pressures for conventionalizing grammatical constructions. Requesting help in the immediate you-and-me and here-and-now, for example, required very little grammar, but informing and sharing required increasingly complex grammatical devices.

Drawing on empirical research into gestural and vocal communication by great apes and human infants (much of it conducted by his own research team), Tomasello argues further that humans' cooperative communication emerged first in the natural gestures of pointing and pantomiming. Conventional communication, first gestural and then vocal, evolved only after humans already possessed these natural gestures and their shared intentionality infrastructure along with skills of cultural learning for creating and passing along jointly understood communicative conventions. Challenging the Chomskian view that linguistic knowledge is innate, Tomasello proposes instead that the most fundamental aspects of uniquely human communication are biological adaptations for cooperative social interaction in general and that the purely linguistic dimensions of human communication are cultural conventions and constructions created by and passed along within particular cultural groups.“
I’m really looking forward to read his book. At the MIT Press site you can download the first chapter (here). I’ll have a look at it and maybe I’ll post about it later.


Laughing Man said...

Your "pseudo" argument for the selection was funny. I instantly thought of the literature Nobel price. ^^

Laughing Man said...

A point I don't get: How does this argument (Gricean maxims of cooperation evolved from general cooperative human structure) criticise Chomsky's innateness theory? I don't think he assumes that language was innate from the very beginning but evolved to "innateness" in a early biological state of manhood?

Btw, sorry for the choppy style but I'm at work right now.

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