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Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds -- Issues in Philosophy and Psychology

(Reviewed by Christopher Mole, Washington University in St. Louis)

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The guiding insights for our thinking about language learning in the twentieth century were insights into the difficulty of the task that the language-learning infant faces. Chomsky taught us that the grammatical side of language alone is too difficult to be learnt without a bit of help from one's innate endowment. And, as Quine, Wittgenstein, and many others realized, there are also huge difficulties that must be surmounted before the infant can work out what any given word refers to. These difficulties arise because there is always more than one candidate referent whenever a word is uttered, but also, and more fundamentally, because the infant must first realize that the sounds coming out of his mother's mouth are sounds that have referents.

Ingenious thinkers from various disciplines have struggled to produce a theory of how these difficulties are overcome, but it is, in practise, extremely easy for normal infants to pick up the meanings of words, and they seem to have no difficulty at all in realizing that words have meanings. In order to teach the meaning of the word 'radio' to a normal infant of the appropriate age you need only introduce the word in some context where you and the infant are jointly attending to a radio. The form of joint attention that characterises such episodes, and its role in the development of communication, has become a topic of research for several psychologists and philosophers, and a collection of their work, presented at two workshops at the University of Warwick, is now published in Oxford University Press's 'Consciousness and Self-Consciousness' series as Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds.

The book displays a wide range of approaches to expanding our understanding of joint attention and its role in the development of the infant's understanding of reference. Several of the contributors are concerned with the breakdown of this understanding in autistic children. Some are concerned with the reasons why apes seem to be unable to get beyond the rudiments of such understanding.

Although the methodological approaches that the volume brings together are widely various, its contributors have evidently learned a good deal from one another, and the result displays much more coherence than one might have expected from a book in which philosophy of various sorts shares space with primatology and with discussions of autism. This impressive coherence is heartening to the reader who has entertained fears about philosophy's ability to stay relevant when faced with psychology's unabating torrent of freshly gathered data. The volume provides every reason to suppose that joint attention is a topic on which philosophy and other disciplines can collaborate fruitfully. The book's one paper with interdisciplinary authorship is a clear highlight -- a provocative and sophisticated discussion of joint reminiscing by Christoph Hoerl and Teresa McCormack, both of whom are among the book's editors. Interdisciplinary work is rarely so well accomplished as theirs, and some of the other contributors to this volume can be seen to lose their footing when they move into the territory of neighbouring disciplines. This is a distraction, but is not greatly to the detriment of their contributions: Each achieves something on its own terms, and neither the contributions individually, nor the book as a whole, depends on their interdisciplinarity for their interest.

The philosophical reader will, in fact, find much to be interested by at those points where the various disciplines don't naturally converge. One such clash of approaches arises from the philosopher's desire to see the developing child as responding to reasons and as deploying concepts. This is not just a matter of the philosopher preferring things to look philosophical: He wants the infant's development to look like a piece of reasoning because he wants the resulting beliefs about language and about other minds to count as rational. But, as Jane Heal suggests in her eminently sensible and admittedly speculative essay, the role of joint attention may be distorted by the attempt to understand normal development (and its endpoint) on the model of scientific understanding. Although it may be natural enough for a philosopher to think of infant development on the model of scientific understanding, that way of thinking is clearly not shared by some of the psychologists whose work is represented here, and the psychologists who are most resistant to it -- Peter Hobson and Vasudevi Reddy -- contribute two of the book's most incisive papers. Hobson's work, drawing on extensive and sensitive observation of autistic children, makes the valuable contribution of emphasizing the immediate naturalness (to normal children) of involving others in their engagement with the world, and the emotional importance (to them and to their caregivers) of their doing so. Hobson is at his clearest when recounting the contrasting behaviours of autistic children and non-autistic children, but the clarity of his writing lapses somewhat when attempting to articulate his theoretical stance.

Vasudevi Reddy is concerned with reciprocated attention between child and caregiver, as contrasted with joint attention to a third item. After a rather frenzied critique of existing thinking, she argues for six conclusions concerning the importance of this reciprocated attention in providing the infant with an understanding of attention which is later deployed in episodes of joint attention. All of Reddy's conclusions seem to be important, and all are presented with clear and thorough evidence (although some readers would no doubt have benefited from some explanation when she mentions the 'still-face' and 'double video' procedures). Reddy's astute discussion of clowning and showing-off behaviour exhibits a distinctive and valuable form of insight that is hard to come by when we limit our observation of infants to observations of the presence or absence of responses permitted within controlled laboratory conditions.


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