Language and intentionality

Michael Tomasello has a new book out titled ” The origins of human communication” and the book seems to be promising, though has been a bit harshly reviewed at the Babel’s Dawn. In it Tomasello proposes that a pre-requisite for language is ‘a psychological infrastructure of shared intentionality’. It is based on Jean Nicod lectures and you can read a review here too.
What I am most interested is in this intentionality business. I have commented on orders of intentionality previously and this shared intentionality seems to fit the third order of intentionality that I proposed was necessary for communication.

But first for the premise of the book:

Tomasello opens his book with a consideration of the “infrastructure” that enables people to tell one another things. Apes do not have this infrastructure and the absence leads to scenes like this one:

A “whimpering chimpanzee child” is searching for its mother; the other chimps in the area are smart enough and social enough to recognize why the chimpanzee is whimpering; sometimes one of the chimps present will know where the mother is, and of course chimps have the physical ability to raise an arm point out the mother; even so, chimpanzees never help forlorn infants by pointing to the mother.

Why not?

There is a straightforward, Darwinian explanation for the ape’s mum’s-the-word behavior. Individuals don’t help non-kin. There is nothing in it for the informed adults to help the whimpering child of another. But Tomasello comes at the question from another perspective. Humans typically do help out whimpering children, even if the child is a stranger. An adult, happening upon a solitary, unknown, whimpering child is very likely to stop and ask what is wrong, take charge, and stick around until the problem is resolved. This activity strikes us as perfectly natural, normal behavior, even though it is contrary to so many of the rules in Darwin’s book. What, Tomasello wonders, is there about humans that makes such behavior easy and routine? His answer: “a psychological infrastructure of shared intentionality” [p. 12].

Thus, the premise is that pro-social behaviour and the shared intentionality underlying it are the pre-requisites for any meaningful language to evolve. And for this some tools are required.

The psychological tools Tomasello refers to are cognitive and emotional. The cognitive tools give us the understanding to engage in joint purposes and joint attention. The emotional tools provide us with the motivation for helping and sharing with others. These tools enable people to act together on a “common ground.”

Ebolles goes on further to speculate that this could be tied to Autistics’ difficulty with language and I concur that the cognitive deficits related to intentionality as opposed to affective deficits empathy or mindblindness may be the roots of Autistics’ language and communicative difficulties. We already know that they lack ToM to an extent and they also have communicative and social difficulties; might lack of shared intentionality, or intentionality at all or the lack of feeling of one has an intentional agent,  lie at the heart of the autism issue?

Immediately one can imagine all sorts of peculiarities that would arise in people who lack some part of these needs. Some people might have the prosocial motivation but not the cognitive ability to form a bird’s eye view. Perhaps autistic-spectrum disorder includes this difficulty. Others might have the cognitive ability, but not the prosocial motivation. There’s your sociopath, in a nutshell.

I think this common ground and ‘infrastructure of shared intentionality’ concept is awesome and I intend to read the book and review it soon on this blog. 

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