Saturday, July 07, 2007

Infant Pointing

Chris points to the latest from Michael Tomasello et al., A New Look at Infant Pointing (pdf). The nub of the claim being made is this:

Pointing is a special gesture functionally in that directing someone's attention to something does not convey a specific meaning in the manner of most conventionalized, symbolic gestures. Rather, pointing can convey an almost infinite variety of meanings by saying, in effect, "If you look over there, you'll know what I mean". To recover the intended meaning of a pointing gesture, therefore, requires some fairly serious "mindreading".

(p. 3)

Tomasello et al. call their perspective the cognitively rich interpretation of infant pointing, in contrast to the cognitively lean interpretation which they criticize. I haven't yet decided whether they make the case.

One idea that jumps out at me is the notion that infant pointing is "prelinguistic." Is infant pointing prelinguistic in the same way that babble is prelinguistic? Perhaps that depends on one's interpretation of babble. Is babble destined toward speech? Is pointing? Yet surely infancy has some meaning, i.e. an inability to speak. In either case, there is some evidence that social awareness and noesis are displayed in human infancy prior to the acquisition of language.

Maybe I'm jumping the gun. What can we really know about the noetic faculty of infants? And so how clear then is the idea of social awareness? Does it involve something like mindreading? For Tomasello et al. we need to know why somebody is pointing to something in order to genuinely communicate with the pointer (p. 7). Assuming this is true, how do we gain this knowledge? Is it simply by looking and suddenly realizing what is meant? Do we need something like a "theory" of other minds, a theory of mental agency, or is it enough to have an understanding of a person, an agency? The question here is whether mind-body dualism is a natural aspect of communication, or whether it is a bias introduced by investigators. Would a nondualistic interpretation of infant pointing resemble a cognitively lean interpretation, or is it really neither here nor there? (Am I missing the point?) In any event I think it's fascinating that we can know something about the cognitive abilities of infants, even if it's not settled in my mind how exactly we can interpret the facts of infant pointing.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:17 AM.


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