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From Joint Action to Communication

Grasping and orienting are object-directed actions. Now referring is not an action in this sense. But it might be that infants understand if it were an action.

grasping / orienting vs referring

Consider grasping as our model. You can grasp an object with your hand, mouth or foot. You can use a precision grip or a power grip or grip it in many other ways. In each case you are grasping the object.
Note that grasping is basic in the sense that the ability to produce or recognise grasping is (arguably) not a matter of being able to produce or recognise more basic actions.

individual vs joint

These things can also be joint actions --- we can collectively orient to, and grasp an object (at least we can if it’s large enough).
(Here I mean joint action in a minimal sense: our actions have the collective goal that we grasp, or orient to, the object. And we each expect this collective goal to occur as a common effect of our actions, yours and mine.)
Why not think of referring as an action too?
You might object that referring is not an action. I agree---properly understood, reference is something that words do in the context of sentences. But we can also allow that there is a kind of act type of which pointing and verbally labelling are both instances.
We might suppose that infants similarly think of pointing and verbally labelling objects as related much as different ways of grasping. There is one action kind---call it referring---which all these are species of. This is what they understand of communication.
So their early understanding of communication with language and of non-linguistic referential communication is a matter of how they categorise actions.
*todo: Contrast both the pure use (block-slab) view, the Gricean view advocated by Tomasello et al view (they have to understand an intention that the action be interpreted in a certain way).

From pointing to one-word utterances ...

Tincoff and Jusczyk showed 6 month old infants two videos (not pictures: what you see here are stills from their videos) simultaneously.
While the videos were playing, the infants heard a word spoken. The word was either 'hand' or 'foot'.
Which video did they look at more?

Tincoff and Jusczyk 2011, figure 1

Here are Tincoff and Jusczyk's results.
They suggest that 6-month-olds can already associate some words with their referents.
But 6-month-old infants don't communicate, neither with words nor by pointing.

Tincoff and Jusczyk 2011, figure 1

Recall the idea of referring as a joint action: if we accept this, then we can see a continuity between the use of pointing and the use of single-word utterances.
In the case of pointing, the tendancy of a pointing action to cause someone to follow it enables the use of pointing to refer; in the case of a one-word utterance, the association creates a tendancy for utterances of the word to result in orienting to the object and this enables the use of that utterance to refer.
(Careful: the mere fact that association exists is not sufficient for communication; nor is the mere fact that an association exists sufficient to make it obvious that the word could be used to refer--this must be a discovery.)

grasping / orienting vs referring

individual vs joint

understanding action

R(a,G) defined with intention

R(a,G) defined non-psychologically

joint action

R(a1, a2, ..., G) defined with shared intention

R(a1, a2, ..., G) defined with expectations about collective goals


Refers(gesture,object) defined with communicative intention

R(gesture,object) defined non-psychologically

Inconsistent tetrad

1. 11- or 12-month-old infants produce and understand declarative pointing gestures.

This is what we have evidence for

2. Producing or understanding pointing gestures involves understanding communicative actions.

This is the rejection of the ‘block-slab’ model of communication

3. A communicative action is an action done with an intention to provide someone with evidence of an intention with the further intention of thereby fulfilling that intention.

This is the theory I take Tomasello & Moll to endorse (although they are not very explicit about it, it’s based on their use of the term ‘shared intentionality’).

4. Pointing facilitates the developmental emergence of sophisticated cognitive abilities including mindreading.

I’ve just argued that we can reject (3). I’ve supplied an alternative account of what a communicative action is, one that doesn’t involve appeal to intention.