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Joint AttentionReview - Joint Attention
Communication and Other Minds: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology
by Naomi Eilan, Christoph Hoerl, Teresa McCormack and Johannes Roessler (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2005
Review by Jennifer Booth
Oct 23rd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 42)

Edited collections can always run the risk of becoming a series of independent chapters loosely grouped by a 'common theme'. This book could not be more different. Not only do the majority of contributors make crucial contextualizing references to work in other chapters, the collection itself is the upshot of a series of AHRB workshops that clearly provided opportunity for extensive communication and collaboration. As a result, the collection is well integrated and informed, affording the reader a much easier task of interpreting the empirical and conceptual space inhabited by each of the contributors. Moreover, one suspects that prior collaboration and careful editing have worked wonders in bringing together a volume in which the contributions of psychologists and philosophers are not centrifuged to opposite poles of the book. On the contrary, I would suggest the interrelation of these disciplines as a whole stands in good stead if this collection provides an illustration of how psychologists and philosophers can work together on a particular issue.

On beginning this book my aim was to learn about what I suspected to be the relatively specific phenomenon of joint attention.

In each chapter I have encountered questions of subjectivity, consciousness, awareness, mutual knowledge, language development, visual attention, propositional attitude states (beliefs, desires), emotion, the causal structure of development, the relation of psychological states to behavioral states, the nature and extent of infant awareness, and intention recognition and formation.

Chances are that if you think you aren't working on joint attention, after reading this collection you'll realize you probably are.

Naomi Eilan: Joint Attention, Communication, and Mind.

 In a rich and admirable chapter Eilan is concerned with how we should answer what she diagnoses to be three central questions about how infants (1-2yrs) experience joint attention. First, there is an 'epistemological question' about what kind of mutual awareness is present in episodes of joint attention. Secondly there is a 'concept question', regarding what notion of attention infants needs to possess in order to engage in joint attention. Lastly there is a 'social question', about how we should conceive of the social interaction involved in generating joint attention.

Eilan considers two prominent approaches to this 'three faced' problem, and suggests that where they differ is both in what they take to be the link between engagement in joint attention and the ability to grasp the idea of an objective truth, and the way in which they explain the sense of 'openness' or sharing of minds that we find in joint attention.

Before doing so however, she characterizes what exactly we might mean by joint attention. For two people attending to an object to count as joint attention Eilan suggests that both their perceptions need to be caused by the same object, that each attendee have an awareness of that object, and that there be some causal connection between the two subject's acts of attention. She presses that two further conditions might be said to be necessary but are not universally accepted as being available to infants: that the two subjects exploit their understanding of the concept of attention in order to have this experience, and that each is aware of the object as being present to both of them. From this last condition the subjects can be said to reach some kind of mutual openness. In the face of differing opinion in the psychological literature as to what children need and actually have in order to engage in joint attention episodes, Eilan embarks on asking just how joint attention might be said to provide for or be related to an infants conceptual development, enjoyment of mutual awareness, and sense of objective truth. 

She makes inviting appeal to the work of Davidson in order to provide one type of answer to her 'three faced' problem; that joint attention interactions are the origin of a subject's objectivity of thought. Not just any joint attention interaction however, but one that crucially involves language. Prior to an infant's linguistic development, Davidson suggests that joint attention triangles are merely forums where pragmatic concerns are played out, and no idea of a world independent of the interacting subjects is entertained. So thought and reference are essentially social for Davidson, existing in a primitive way in the pragmatic triangle, but the 'objectivity' of thought depends upon linguistic development. What the interacting subjects need is a sense of objective truth, a consideration of the way objects in the world are from a stance of sheer contemplation. What the linguistically able subject does is formulate and interpret communicative intentions; success in which makes essential appeal to the concept of objective truth as she comes to understand false declarations or failed actions.

After introducing the Davidsonian stance, Eilan progresses to flag some central concerns with the approach, and from there goes on to introduce the two approaches to the 'three faced' problem found in developmental psychology.

 To illustrate, one concern she expresses over Davidson's account is the lack of continuum between the two types of triangle: the pragmatic and the linguistic-contemplative. Davidson ties together the notions of representational content and conceptual content in such a way that a one-year-old child cannot be said to have perceptual content that is representational. This, Eilan finds to be wrong on the basis of psychological and philosophical evidence that one year olds do in fact grasp some kind of intuitive physics about the world; they can have a perceptual representation that is non-conceptual. At its strongest, this claims that the infant grasps empirical content of the physical world without engaging in any kind of triangulation whatsoever, never mind an essentially linguistic form. 

 Instead of straightforwardly rejecting the Davidsonian picture Eilan sees his two-tier account as a challenge to those who want to claim there is a middle ground both developmentally and theoretically. She expresses the need to meet this challenge by providing a half way house for the infant's joint attention interactions. That is, by finding a way to characterize them that doesn't appeal to the production and recognition of full blown (Gricean) communicative intentions but neither is restricted to the kind of early precognitive, prelinguistic interaction that is not thought to be able to confer objective thought. She claims that 1-2 year olds joint attention interactions deliver a kind of cognitively watered down version of Davidson's linguistic triangle, and therefore provide for something less than full-blooded objectivity and mutual awareness. Although the infant's need skills to participate in such interactions, they don't need advanced conceptual skills.

The question Eilan now asks is what exactly these skills might be, and in doing so marks out the two opposing approaches on which she will focus.

The first is inspired by the work of Tomasello; the second by work from Werner and Kaplan. Her interest is in how the two accounts characterize the pointing and gaze following behavior in infants, in particular whether and if so how they provide for the infant's conception of objectivity and sense of mutual awareness.

On Tomasello's approach, in joint attention children respond to and produce something like simplistic communicative intentions, using an agency-based, not belief-based, notion of intention. As Eilan puts it, they are interpreting 'attention' as an object directed action. So by 12 months when the infant begins to manipulate another's attention by pointing and using simple utterances she is said to have her own intentions, and is able to realize such intentions in others, but using the language of action and not belief. As to the infant's conception of objectivity, it seems they have a kind of analogue of the traditional grasp of truth and falsity. For infants on this account "one might then say that for them 'true' just means 'conducive to successful action'".

The Werner and Kaplan inspired approach characterizes the infant's skills differently. In joint attention, the infant enters into a contemplative state regarding an object; she is doing more than simply engaging with it. This contemplative state is brought about socially, by use of the pointing gesture. Pointing is not the upshot of wanting to manipulate someone's (agency based notion of) intention. For this account, joint attention is part of a continued development that begins in dyadic interaction with the infant's perception of objects and engagement in mutual affect regulation with caregivers. What joint attention announces is the child's ability to 'show' the objects she sees to the caregivers she has been dyadically interacting with. In order to do, she must take into account the caregiver's perspective, and so must distance herself from her own perception of the object. It is to achieve this appreciation of the difference in perspective that requires her to view objects in terms other than the pragmatics of what they afford her. In other words she must get a grip on their objectivity.

Eilan suggests that one reason for the difference between these two accounts is their difference in focus: Tomasello's explanatory priority is in accounting for how the child is able to interpret, explain and predict the behavior of others, whereas the Werner and Kaplan type accounts place the onus on explaining how joint attention episodes allow the child a grasp of the idea of an objective truth.

She then moves on to consider how the models account for the sense of mutuality or openness characteristic of joint attention episodes.

On Tomasello's approach, the kinds of interaction that provide for this 'mutuality' depend upon a simple kind of perceptual input being fed into a relatively sophisticated mechanism. On the intersubjectivity (Werner and Kaplan inspired) approach the situation is quite the opposite: the perceptual input is considered to be complex, whereas the mechanism that produces joint attention is thought to be relatively simple.

According to Eilan, Tomasello suggests that joint attention interactions depend on a kind of personal level rational co-operation whereas for the intersubjectivity account, what is required is a kind of personal level but non-rational co-operation; one that can operate without reflective concept grasp. So, the choice is between intentional co-ordination versus a kind of mutual affect regulation. Although the latter may seem attractive, Eilan highlights that a hard question remains for this account over how in fact the mutuality 'opens up' beyond that found in dyadic episodes to encompass a 'third' object out there in the world.

The model Eilan seems attracted to rests on meeting this hard question, by claiming that children learn to make their interactive emotional expressions whilst interpreting and manifesting proto-declarative gestures. In this way, they begin to expand their affective interactions with the caregiver to "the beginnings of a commentary on the world", a commentary which they are concerned of as meeting a certain normative standard; one set by how the world really is (see Roessler, ch.11).

  Eilan concludes that these two models differ in their essential approach to the question of whether first and second person explanation are to be thought of as primordial to third person conceptual explanations in cashing out infants' experience of joint attention interactions. As she rightly suggests on Tomasello's account the answer is no, whereas on the intersubjective account the answer is most certainly, yes.

Jane Heal: Joint Attention and Understanding the Mind

With an arguably trademark clarity Heal promotes an alternative to traditional theory of mind approaches in understanding the role that joint attention plays in an infants coming to grasp psychological concepts. This alternative approach finds its roots in communicative and social abilities the child demonstrates from an early age, and it views the child as knowingly inhabiting a social world rather than as a scientific theorist who must infer and rationalize the existence of like minded others.

Heal claims that predictions and 'quasi scientific' understanding have been overemphasized in explaining how infants grasp the psychological, whilst cooperation and communication have been underemphasized. Such an imbalance she claims has been owing to the (philosophically and psychologically endorsed) view that children need to use conceptual tools for working out the inner causal structure of human beings. In short, that:

"grasp of psychological concepts equips a child to do vis-à-vis people what grasp of scientific or proto-scientific concepts equips it to do vis-à-vis the inanimate world: namely, predict, explain, and control." (p.37)

As Heal rightly states such a view attributes only a contingent role to joint attention episodes in enabling the child to understand other minds. In particular, joint attention episodes are only important in so far as they may, owing to their experiential intensity or motivating sense of enjoyment, encourage the 'child theorist' to analyze their attentive partners psychological states more than they might have done in pure observation of that partner.

The alternative view Heal encourages denies this contingency of the role for joint attention episodes in children's understanding of other minds and instead awards such episodes a conceptually, and not just causally, important role in fostering children's psychological development. Her view denies that children rely on scientific or third person theories, and instead claims that it is through non-inferential participation in second person relations that children come to appreciate the presence of other minds.  The conceptual repertoire needed to understand other minds, and which later forms the basis of linguistic communication, is founded in embryonic form in these earliest of dyadic interactions. Episodes of joint attention do not announce the child's scientific stance; they are a continuous developmental step from the sharing of mutual attention, to the sharing of attention over a common object.

Call & Tomasello: What Chimpanzees Know about Seeing, Revisited: An Explanation of the Third Kind

Call and Tomasello begin this intriguing chapter with the question of whether chimpanzees can grasp that another subject can see or attend to things: a necessary precondition for the ability to jointly attend. The structure of their investigation is invitingly clear, as they take you through a series of empirical studies providing evidence both that chimpanzees do not understand seeing on the one hand, and yet on the other, that in some situations, they do. They conclude with what they see to be one explanation of these conflicting findings.

Although the chimpanzees are able to follow human gaze patterns, the gazes of a conspecifics to find food (a robust 80% performance rate) and are able to use awareness of what a conspecific rival can or cannot see in a food foraging task, they are at the same time unable to take 'directed gaze hints' by humans as to the location of hidden food, or demonstrate any awareness of the role of the eyes in seeing.

What the authors propose is an explanatory middle ground to account for the chimpanzee's partial understanding of visual attention, one that is situated between cognitively heavy theory of mind and basic behavioral conditioning. They present evidence to deny simple conditioning effects -- the chimpanzees didn't simply follow the human's gaze merely because they were conditioned to do so by the reward of an interesting stimulus. On the contrary, they were able to selectively ignore the presence of 'something interesting' at a general location of the human's gaze in order to maintain focus on its precise intended location. 

Correspondingly they reject a cognitively heavy mentalist explanation of the chimpanzees understanding of visual activity, claiming the correct account "concerns behavior and perception, not intentional or mental states".

So Call and Tomasello's 'third' position claims chimpanzees have a genuine understanding of what others can and cannot see, but this understanding is based on visual behavior alone. Moreover, the understanding is context sensitive. They claim that when chimpanzees fail to respond to visual 'clues' of human directed gaze upon the location of hidden food, it is because such clues are simply unnatural for the chimpanzees. Their understanding is being taken out of context. Precisely, they cannot use gaze cues in co-operative tasks, but they can use gaze cues in competitive tasks. At least one interesting question that arises is whether the chimpanzees are having a cognitive difficulty with the notion of a communicative intention, or whether the co-operative scenario is just unfamiliar to them; and therefore their performance deficit contingent. Interestingly, the authors seem to favor the latter type of explanation, which would be an excellent arena for further experimentation.

Juan-Carlos Gomez: Joint attention and the Notion of Subject: Insights from Apes, Normal Children, and Children with Autism.

Gomez isolates two phenomena within the concept of joint attention: attention following and attention contact. The former occurs when I attend to the same target you are attending to as a result of your attention to that target. The latter occurs when we mutually attend to each other's attention. In both cases one can be passive or active, either following or recruiting attention. 

What is crucial for his later claim is that 'attention following' involves the use of third person representations, whilst 'attention contact' involves second person representations. That is, in following your attention I first represent what you are attending to. In sharing or meeting your attention, I represent only a special attentional link between us.

So achievement of joint attention involves both types of representation: together they give a 'new' type of representation in which the attention of you and I to a particular object is "fused in an overlapping loop where (we) attend to each other's attention to X".

What Gomez is concerned to deny is that these two representational processes involve meta-representational abilities on the part of the subject; for non-human primates and human infants there is a non-cognitively demanding alternative. Infants do not necessarily represent an adult as having their own internal representations that are separate from their observable behavior. On the contrary, the representations infants have are practical or first order representations of intentionality:

"These practical representations of intentionality represent subjects as being connected to targets by relying upon external cues such as the directionality of body orientation and gaze."

He goes on to compare the emergence of these representational abilities in human children, autistic children and non-human primates. Overall, he seems to claim that attention is a kind of 'external' mental state, and not an internal mental state that can only be recognized in another via use of second order representations on the part of the interpreter. The main difference the author illustrates between the human subjects and the non-human subjects is that the former have the ability to appreciate attention as an end in itself; that is, when it has no obvious link to actions that can be performed.

What is perhaps strange is his emphasis on attention as a mental state that can be attributed independently of seeing, given that we are supposedly relying on observable cues. If a full account of 'observable attention' were to make room for the possible absence of 'observable seeing behavior' this would need spelling out.

Gomez's chapter generates welcome implications for the notion of what subjectivity is, and how subjects of experience and action should be recognized and understood. At one point for instance, Gomez claims the following:

"as there is a sensorimotor notion of object with associated notions of space and mechanical causality, so too there is a sensorimotor notion of subject with associated notions of social relations and social causality".

These sensorimotor understandings of a subject warrant exploration but for Gomez's purpose they provide an enlightened alternative to a cognitively complex meta-representational understanding of subjects.

Vasudevi Reddy: Before the 'Third Element': Understanding attention to Self

Reddy's claim is that infants can have an understanding or awareness of attention as from engaging in episodes of dyadic or mutual attention engagements. Moreover, she argues that this early appreciation of attention is crucial to the development of triadic attention. Developmentally, they learn what the 'third element' or object of attention can be by first having mutual attention episodes directed as themselves; they experience being the object of attention. 

Before framing her positive case, Reddy gives a useful exegesis of the recent literature that motivates her claim, demonstrating what she claims to be a common lack of regard for mutual attention episodes in explaining the infant's developing understanding of attention.

As with other chapters in this volume, at the heart of her claim is an appeal to re-think the concept of attention. In particular, that we should see attention as action involving, as 'attending' (see Hobson's chapter). Similarly, she claims that 'knowing' is not essentially a detached or mentalist concept; that there is a type of knowing which is primordial to detached reflection. 

For the infant, Reddy claims, dyadic attentional engagements are not just a useful source of experience of attentional behavior. They are not simply providing a foundation for the infant's later awareness of what attention actually is to emerge. On the contrary, she claims that an analysis of dyadic engagements shows the infant already has awareness of attention itself. What is yet to develop in the infants understanding at this point is simply a notion of attending to objects. In dyadic mutual attention there is no spatial isolation of the object (the third element); either the self or acts by the self are the objects of attention. 

Although Reddy claims the self is the 'object of the attention' in the mutual attention episode, she does not attribute the infant any kind of reflective self-consciousness. On the contrary, the infant can have emotional responses to or seek out and control a variety of mutual attention interactions just by being the object to whom the mutual attention is directed; they need not conceptualize themselves as being that object (consider Roessler's important distinction between the infant's engagement in sharing and their ability to possess the concept of sharing)

However this is not to settle the rather difficult question of how exactly the infant does (if at all) conceive of herself in such interactions. Admittedly this is not Reddy's focus, but it remains of considerable intrigue given quotes such as the following:

"What is evident also is that the Gestalt is sought by the infant to be directed not to specific features of the environment, nor to specific features of the self, not even to the self as a conceptual entity, but to the self-as-a-whole-in-engagement." (3months) (italics added)

Reddy is certainly careful to illustrate that the dyadic interactions to which she appeals are more than biological or innate activities for the infant. Similarly, she claims an infant responding to a caregiver's attention to his actions is doing more than toying with a (fully non-cognitive) learned association between what he does and how the caregiver responds.

So for Reddy, the infant's developmental trajectory from dyadic and triadic attentional engagements does not involve the development of an understanding of attention in the latter case. Attentional awareness and understanding are present in the dyadic interaction; what changes is the nature of the object to which such attention can be directed. Attention is first understood to be directed to the self, and to acts of the self, and then to (more complex) external objects. Although Reddy's claim is clearly in the right direction, it is perhaps a little too strong. To be fair, there remains more to be said about just how it is that the infant's responding to attention as part of a dyadic pair commits him to an understanding of the notion of attention.

Amanda L. Woodward: Infants' Understanding of the Actions Involved in Joint Attention.

Woodward is concerned with children's understanding of the intentional nature of another's gazing, pointing, and grasping kinds of behavior; all of which can serve as composites of joint attention interactions. In particular, her question is whether infants see the object directed attention and action of another person as being object directed, or whether they simply orient their gaze through instinct or habit say, to the location of the other person's grasp or gaze.

  She presents a series of lucid and thought provoking empirical studies concerning the nature of infant awareness of these three kinds of intentional behavior: two of which are 'attentional' actions -- gazing and pointing, whilst the other, grasping, is a physical action. The paradigm she introduces for the studies is one that tests whether infants pay greater attention to a change in the physical parameters of a scene (i.e. previously moving components traveling in a novel trajectory) or to a change in an actor-object relation (i.e. person reaches for or looks to a novel object). Only greater attention to the latter kind of change will "serve as a measure of their understanding of the object-directed nature of an action."

 So for example the infant habituates to an actor grasping one of two objects. On the test trial, the two objects change places. The actor now reaches either for the same toy (in a new place), or for the same place (new toy). Only attending for longer when the actor reaches for the new toy would show that the infant is sensitive to the actor-object relation. Precisely, that the infant encoded the habituation events as intentional, and so recognizes the 'change' of object in the action during testing.

Using the same set up for gazing and pointing actions, Woodward concludes the following: developmentally, infants first see grasping actions as intentional (6/9 months) then they see gazing as intentional (9/12 months) and lastly pointing (12 months).

Woodward suggests that prior to reaching the developmental stage needed to encode or represent the actions, infants are simply orienting to the object of the adults attention without representing the intentional nature of the relation between the adult and the object. So for Woodward, infants don't begin life with a propensity to construe all human actions as object-directed. As she notes, this stands in conflict with the claim that infants do, from an early age, harbor abstracted or generalized notions of intentionality. The role of learning is central to her account of how intentional understanding develops. In particular, by learning from particular cases, say, that "people tend to move toward and act on objects that are the targets of their gaze rather than objects that have not been the targets of their gaze." Later, in adulthood, the infant can also hope to understand that "these behavioral regularities provide evidence of underlying psychological states, such as intentions, interests, or desires."

As developmental progression is dependent upon the infant learning such behavioral associations, this may explain why infants are slower to see acts of looking as intentional than acts of grasping, i.e. there is a distance between the object and the actor, and there are no physical consequences of the action to be observed. As Woodward puts it "gaze itself has no effect on the object, and the consequences of gaze for the actor are not always obvious". Furthermore, they can observe and therefore learn from their own grasps, but not their own gazes. Similarly, she (carefully) hypothesizes infants learn from their own pointing experiences in coming to interpret those of others as intentional. Whether or not one supports these or other interpretations of the findings, the studies are impeccably clear and invitingly presented.

Sue Leekam: Why do children with autism have a joint attention impairment?

Leekam is interested in why it is that impairment in the ability to jointly attend with another to an aspect of the world is able to serve as a robust indicator of autism in children. Her claim is that autistic children have a deficit in the early development of attention, and this is what manifests itself in problems with later joint attention. Specifically, she claims that a relative poverty of gaze following, pointing and showing objects to others in autistic children is due to a basic low-level attentional impairment. In framing her hypothesis, she considers and rejects two other hypotheses that attempt to account for the joint attention deficit in autism.

The first of these she dubs the familiar 'meta-representational account', which claims the absence of joint attention forms of behavior is the result of a representational deficit in autistic children. Specifically, that they cannot represent another's inner state of 'attention', and so cannot form triadic representations of themselves and another as 'attending' to a single object in the world

The second approach she calls the 'interpersonal-affective' hypothesis, which claims that poverty of gaze following and pointing is rooted in an affective problem. There is no 'failure to represent someone's attention'; it is the shared nature of the affective experience that is lacking -- the 'jointness' of joint attention. Furthermore, this is what also accounts for dyadic deficits such as lack of eye contact. Without the ability to intersubjectively engage with another's affective state, the autistic child cannot perceive or share in the directedness of the other's attitude.

Leekam focuses on deficient gaze following in autistic children in order to defeat both of these models as explanations of the joint attention deficit. She claims that gaze following presents a problem for both of these accounts, in so far as the autistic child should still be able to follow gaze even if they are both right. Specifically, the child should be able to simply track the head or eye orientation of another person to interesting places without (a) needing to form representations of the other's mental states, or (b) without needing to 'engage' with the other -- after all, gaze following is about looking away from, not engaging with, another.

Her first move is to clarify that in fact it is not that autistic children can't gaze follow, it's that they just don't. In particular, they will do it when asked or instructed to as part of an experiment. So to be sure, what they are deficient in is spontaneous gaze following, not gaze following per se. This indeed is Leekam's hypothesis, that what autistic children exhibit is a problem of spontaneous orienting of attention that manifests itself in later joint attentional problems.

Leekam is careful to distinguish this hypothesis from alternative claims that what autistic children are exhibiting is a deficit in using cues to predict events, or the inability to disengage from attention grabbing stimuli.

 She suggests the social cues of head turns and name calls do not hold the same significance for autistic children as they do for non-autistic children; the majority of whom orient spontaneously to social cues. Although some older autistic children are able to follow such cues she claims this was due to their having learnt an association of "repeated and predictable links between cue and target."

One very interesting question that arises from Leekam's chapter is what exactly the phenomenology of the autistic child's response to a social cue is like. That is, when an older or more able child responds, perhaps associatively, to the cue of a head turn, what exactly are they experiencing? Leekam indicates her stand on this question by claiming that "the quality of sharing might still be missing". If this is right, it is a question as to what exactly the phenomenology of joint attention in fact contributes to its definition (Campbell's account below gives one way to tackle this question)

Johannes Roessler: Joint Attention and the Problem of Other Minds

Roessler provides a welcome development of the claim that infants gain an appreciation and understanding of other minds through episodes of shared experience, and not by means of conscious inference. He argues against the suggestion that infants need to infer the existence of other minds, claiming that it misrepresents infants as being in a position of doubt as to the existence of those minds. Such a position thereby leaves the infant in need of a means to cross a daunting (and unnecessary) epistemological gulf.

He asks the question of why it is that sharing attention with someone might be thought to be fundamental to one's coming to understand them; especially poignant given that we can gain a rich understanding of that person's behavior and mental states simply via third person observation. He then examines two approaches to this question.

The first claims that in order to understand another person the infant has to recreate the world from that person's viewpoint. She has to see it from where the other is, both conceptually and spatially. Now in joint attention the infant and his attending partner are attending to the same thing, so they are sharing very similar perspectives. Such a context therefore provides an initial training ground for the simulative enterprise; the infant can practice simulating similar viewpoints before moving on to ones that substantially differ.

 The second approach claims that joint attention episodes are precisely what remove the need for such imaginative simulation. When the infant and her attending partner are engaged in joint attention, the nature of each other's experience is just "transparent" to each of them. The infant doesn't need to simulate the world from the other's perspective; in episodes of joint attention what she sees is something of which the other is aware as well.

These two approaches Roessler introduces capture the essence of the dichotomy proposed by Heal, that joint attention episodes are either contingently useful for infants developing psychological understanding, or that they play a unique and non-contingent role in such development. However Roessler moves on to develop the latter of these approaches in a way that diverges from Heal, in particular with an eye to expounding the reliance of the approach on the observability of mental, intentional states. 

In an excellent move, he begins with a paradox. Developmental data suggests that one year olds display some psychological understanding when engaging in joint attention interactions. It also claims that they are not developed enough to possess such psychological understanding.

At the roots of this paradox, Roessler claims, lies the assumption that psychological understanding is equivalent to the grasp of a theory of mind. It is the postulation of such reflective and conceptual abilities in a one year old that theorists then find disconcerting. What he suggests is that if we can give a model of the child's psychological understanding and its relation to joint attention episodes without recourse to such conceptual and cognitively heavy materials then we might be able to explain this 'psychological understanding' of one year olds.

Roessler focuses on what is arguably robust evidence of one-year olds psychological understanding: engagement in proto-declarative pointing. He claims that this act is intentional in so far as the infant points to achieve a goal -- say, that the adult looks where the infant points, and she checks the adults gaze to ensure the goal has been accomplished. The explanatory contention lies in how exactly we explain the infant's understanding of what is being accomplished. On a rich interpretation, the infant's pointing is manifesting the belief that pointing is way of getting someone to attend to something. This would involve the infant conceiving of the other as a subject of attention, which is quite an advanced feat. Such an interpretation appeals to the infants possessing of a theory of mind, such that they can explain and predict a person's behavior in terms of the psychological states of that person. According to this approach, infants only get sensory experience of the movements of people and not their mental states. Active interpretative effort is needed in order to reveal the existence of other minds; the infant needs to learn to explain behavior in the language of psychological properties.

If one rejects this approach, as Roessler and other authors in this volume do, there is the alternative model that joint attention interactions are just a form of developed dyadic intersubjective engagement which has come to include the world:

"Thus while the first camp tends to think of joint attention as something of a revolution in infants' interpersonal relations, the second camp emphasizes the continuity between dyadic and triadic modes of intersubjective engagement."

So according to the intersubjectivity theory, the very fact that people are subjects of experience is given to the infant perceptually. All the infant needs to do is keep exercising her natural disposition to respond "practically and affectively" to adult attention. Recall that this response mechanism, and the infants own production of the corresponding emotion is what 'being aware of someone's attention' then amounts to (see Hobson).

What Roessler claims is that neither of these approaches as they stand gives a satisfactory account of infants' understanding of other minds. The theory of mind approach over conceptualizes the infant's abilities, whilst the intersubjectivity approach is too cognitively simple. Joint attention episodes may develop from dyadic interrelations, but unlike such interrelations they require the infant to be able to give reasons for what she is doing, reasons which appeal to her understanding of the adult's focus of attention. The solution Roessler proposes lies in clarifying the role that 'sharing' is actually playing for the infant in the intersubjective account, and in turn providing a middle ground between the two approaches.

So first Roessler makes moves to suggest that we need not overconceptualize the infant in order to talk of that infant engaging voluntarily in shared experience. That although an infant might follow an adult's attention to part of the world owing to a natural propensity for them to do so, the infant is also actively choosing to share the experience with the adult. This choice is then not the work of rational deliberation; the child does not need the concept of sharing in order to desire an episode of sharing with the adult:

"They may have an experience of sharing before they understand what it is to share experiences, just as they have an experience of others' attention, as a certain kind of affordance for social interaction, before they begin to understand the concept of attention."

His next move is to tackle the risk of 'under' mentalistic readings of the infant's behavior. In particular, he claims more needs to be said about how the mutual affect regulation of joint attention is different from earlier dyadic, mutual affect regulation. Appeal to a sense of pre-reflective shared experience alone is, he claims, insufficient for explaining the kind of knowledge producing, intentional communication present in triadic interactions. He argues that one year olds can be said to register the presence of an adults 'object directed' affective attitude in a way that is beyond simple pre-reflectively sharing of emotion. What they experience is an emotion that is predicative of an object in the world. In experiencing such a predicative emotion, they are experiencing a shared property, but not as a shared property. In sum, they can share affective opinions on objects in the world without needing to conceptualize that act of sharing.

Similarly, when the infant responds to the adults predicative attitude it is not a reflective or reason driven response, but neither is it a habitual or passive one. Even by simply registering the adult's emotion, the infant can be aware that her own psychological stance changes in response to the adult

Roessler claims that as it stands this picture still needs a crucial modification. It is not obvious why the sheer 'object directedness' of the adult's affective attitude should call for the infant to treat that attitude any differently to those they experience in dyadic interaction. He suggests the difference lies in what exactly proto-declarative pointing is intended to achieve: a goal that goes beyond simple "reciprocal responding to expressions of emotion". In particular, such pointing is concerned with giving and receiving a commentary on the world; with sharing what the world is like. The predicative emotion is important to the infant because it tells her about a third party: something 'out there'. This third element is contemplated as the object of the others emotional expression. Although this does not require the infant to possess a theory of mind, Roessler does concede some conceptual repertoire must be open to the infant. She need not reflectively analyze the scenes around her; her application of concepts might be a purely spontaneous activity in which she is immersed. Nevertheless in contemplating objects the child is using concepts to recognize and communicate, and reach agreement regarding the perceived aspects or features of the objects.

Although the infant is employing psychological notions they are not in the service of predicting and explaining the behavior of another person. What is more they are not in the service of any kind of inference beyond what can be perceived. The infant perceives the adults responses to perceivable aspects of the world, and can understand whether or not the adults response looks to be the right one in light of the way that feature appears. It is "in the pursuit of truth and knowledge" about the world she perceives that the infant applies her psychological notions, not in the service of uncovering a world beyond perception.

Such pursuit of true knowledge of the world also does not entail the infant understands notions of assertion, entailment and belief. For a start there is no reason to think the affective comments they produce and respond to have any kind of linguistic sophistication. Moreover, just because the infant is seeing the affective attitude of the adult and responding accordingly (by production of the same attitude in regard to the target object) it does not mean she conceptualizes these as two different stages. She does not, that is, necessarily have an idea that 'being scary' entails the fact that 'one should be scared'. On the contrary, for her to grasp it as scary, as Roessler claims, just is for her to be frightened. In short, Roessler suggests, "it seems conceivable that infants' understanding of truth is essentially tied to the context of pursuing it". The infant can tell if an affective attitude is normatively right or wrong, but they don't have any way of explaining false beliefs.

Although adults' emotional responses often provide good indication for the infant as to the truth of the matter regarding an object, Roessler is careful to distinguish this from the claim that the infant blindly accepts every predication the adult makes. He suggests that although adults have a special authority in informing the infant about the world this does not override the normative standard that is set by the objects themselves. This is demonstrated by the fact that children begin to volunteer their own affective commentaries to novel objects, expecting the adult to then adopt their affective stance. What this shows is that the adults commentary isn't viewed as setting the normative standard for the infant.

So Roessler can be said to modify the intersubjective approach to joint attention with two kinds of conceptual activity on the part of the infant: first they learn to perceive objects as having evaluative features, and second they see people as having propositional attitudes directed at those objects and features. Unlike other accounts Roessler concludes his chapter by showing how this modified intersubjective model of psychological understanding in infancy might compliment explanation of full-blown adult communication and knowledge. In particular, drawing on work by McDowell, he presses the idea that in adult communication and sharing of knowledge we are often communicating with an immediacy or transparency that is quite unlike having to provide evidence for our beliefs, and more like a sharing of non-inferential commentaries on the world.

John Campbell: Joint Attention and Common Knowledge

  Campbell's chapter is concerned with the question of how episodes of joint attention might provide an answer to one version of the mutual knowledge problem; the question of how what is seen can serve as a basis for mutual knowledge and co-ordinated action. His suggestion is that only one type of model will do: what he calls an experiential model of joint attention. In order to introduce and motivate this model and discredit its peers, Campbell tackles the question of what it is in virtue of that episodes of joint attention differ from episodes of simultaneous attention. That is, what constitutes the difference between two people happening to look at the same thing but not sharing the experience, and two people having a shared perceptual experience?

For Campbell, episodes of joint attention stand in contrast to episodes of simultaneous attention in virtue of their phenomenological content. If in one case, you and I are standing side by side both attending to a dangerous snake in our path the phenomenology of your experience will be different to the case where we are standing in different fields and unbeknownst to you I'm watching the snake through a telescope. This phenomenological difference is not to be cashed in terms of representational content. When we are jointly attending to the snake, I will figure "as co-attender, in the periphery of your experience", but I will not be part of the representational content of that experience. The same goes for my experience, in which you will be present as non-represented co-attender.

When our experiences have this quality of each other being present as co-attender, there is a "shift in functional role" of our attentional states. What this means is that our attentional states now serve as a rational basis for our engaging in joint projects upon the snake. The experience of joint attention serves to rationalize engaging in joint action.

The alternative model of how joint attention differs from simultaneous attention makes appeal not to the experiential content itself, but to the accompanying psychological mechanisms that are in play; mechanisms that are external to the actual perceptual experience. On this account, your actual perceptual experience will be the same whether or not we are jointly attending to the snake. What tells episodes of joint attention apart from episodes of simultaneous attention is that in the former you are monitoring the direction of my attention, and that direction is in turn controlling your attention. Campbell agrees these 'monitoring and controlling' operations are crucial to establishing episodes of joint attention, but disagrees that it is such mechanisms that distinguish joint attention episodes at the personal or conscious level.

On Campbell's own view such monitoring and controlling operations are outside of consciousness; that you and I are able to co-ordinate our attention to the snake, and that my attending keeps you attending and vice-versa, is all the work of subpersonal mechanisms. We don't require 'explicit or personal level thoughts' about the fact that each other is attending or where the other is attending to, and we don't explicitly intend to attend to the same things. So for Campbell whether or not I figure in your experience of snake-gazing as 'co-attender' is subject to certain causal conditions: you have to be having an experience caused by the particular snake I am attending to, and the fact that I am still attending to the snake has to cause you to keep attending to it.

What Campbell suggests is that this 'inferential' model, which relies on extensive iterations of 'perceiving that you perceive I perceive' and so on and so forth, cannot account for the sense of experiential openness of joint attention episodes. It seems that what such accounts fall prey to is the setting up of an epistemological gap between you and I knowing what we are attending to individually, and our knowing what 'we' are attending to together. If this gap has to then be crossed by iterations it seems we will never reach a finite state of knowing what we are attending to.

It is this epistemological gap which Campbell's account avoids: I am in your experience from the start; I am there as co-attender to the snake, as you are in mine. In context with much of this book, it seems Campbell is giving an explanation of how 'we' or second person states can be thought of as primitive phenomena in a way that theory of mind accounts denies they can be. 

Campbell's chapter has an attractive style, and excels in depth and clarity. There are several points one is tempted to develop on the basis of Campbell's account of the openness of joint attention experiences, but I will restrict myself to the following consideration: the link between experiential content and the rationality of action.

We might ask what determines whether or not you experience me as 'co-attender'? If it is the work of subpersonal mechanisms, then presumably my standing next to you with my eyes pointing toward the snake would be enough to cause the experience that we are both attending to the snake. Say that in fact I am not attending to the snake, despite standing next to you and staring right at it. As Campbell himself suggests we do make mistakes in whether or not someone is in fact attending with us. What is interesting here is that your experience of me as co-attender comes apart from the objective truth of the matter. The causal conditions Campbell introduces would suggest that we are not in fact jointly attending, but does this help you as the mistaken attendee? It seems like the error you are making is based on something like a perceptual illusion. If this is the case, then one needs to press the question of what exactly the mistake is, if it is not a case of mis-representation.

Christopher Peacocke: Joint Attention: Its Nature, Reflexivity, and Relation to Common Knowledge.

Like Campbell, Peacocke is concerned with explicating the sense of openness or mutuality present in joint attention. In doing so however, Peacocke denies that the perceptual experience each of the participants has is characterized by the presence of a 'co-attender'. Peacocke argues that this notion of 'presence as co-attender' just embeds what is to be explained: the very sense of openness we experience.

Instead, he argues that a degree of reflection on the part of the participants is needed to get any kind of 'sharing' off the ground. Nevertheless, he is also skeptical about solutions involving multiple iterations of mental states. In particular, he suggests that although such multiple iterations might be of use in describing epistemological positions of interacting subjects (he knows I know, I know that she knows I know etc.) they will not suffice for describing perceptual states (I perceive he is perceiving my perceiving etc). His reasoning seems to turn on the idea that perceptual states are occurrent; that they cannot be reflectively considered at leisure -- they happen now. Although I might possess myriad items of knowledge that I need to actively reflect upon in order to turn them into claims, it is not the case that I need do any such reflection in order to experience perceptual content.

Peacocke's positive proposal of what openness consists in rests on the capacity we have to entertain thoughts that are indexical; that is, thoughts that refer to themselves. To begin with, he suggests that states can possess a certain "mutual open-ended perceptual availability", which as perceivers we access to various degrees dependent upon our cognitive and perceptual capabilities. As an adult, I may experience more or different degrees of openness than an infant does. In a state of full joint attention, we must both be able to experience a strong degree of the mutual open-ended perceptual availability of the state we are in. When we achieve joint attention, we are indexically experiencing total awareness: our being totally aware makes us aware of being totally aware:

 "Suppose you are a participant in a situation of full joint awareness. Concerning the total awareness which is involved in your joint attention, you are aware of the following: that both you and the other person are aware that this total awareness exists."
"On this view, the total awareness has an indexical intentional content which makes reference to the total awareness itself."

To be sure though, to have full reflexive awareness of this kind in joint attention the participants must have ways of representing attention and other mental states, and the ability to exploit indexical reference. So an infant might not fully enter into the joint attentional state before a certain age, whilst certain primates may be prevented from ever grasping such mutual open-ended perceptual availability. In the case of both groups they might act co-ordinately and even compete with each other quite successfully (see Call & Tomasello) but for Peacocke they can do so without reaching the 'representational sophistication' needed to secure joint attention.

  Peacocke goes on to relate his model of joint attention to the traditional philosophical Lewis-Schiffer account of mutual knowledge in a way that further illustrates his positive account. He sees joint attention episodes as primordial and perhaps a necessary precursor to, the participants' achievement of advanced mutual knowledge. This chapter certainly follows well, and is admirably precise in its explanatory maneuvers. 


Link: Description of Joint Attention at Oxford University Press website


© 2005 Jennifer Booth


Jennifer Booth, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, UK

Editor's Note: This is an edited version of Jennifer Booth's longer review. For the full review, please contact Jennifer Booth.


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