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What is a communicative action?

What is a communicative action?

What is a communicative action?
Why are we asking this question?
Let me try to explain it like this ...
Recall what we said about comprehending and producing pointing gestures ...

Informative pointing

To comprehend:

  1. know that this person is pointing to location L;
  2. know that by so pointing she is attempting to communicate; and
  3. know that what she is attempting to communicate is that object X it at L.

To produce:

  1. know how to point to location L;
  2. know that by pointing to location L you can communicate with this audience;
  3. know that what you can communicate is that object X is at L.
Both comprehending and producing require knowing things about communication.
To know something about communication you have to understand something about what it is, I suppose.
So to know what is involved in being able to produce and comprehend pointing gestures, we have to know something about what it is to communicate.
(This will also tell us what apes 6-month-old humans lack that prevents them from communicating with pointing gestures.)
Reminder of the question.

What is a communicative action?

Let’s start with some simple examples of non-communicative actions.
  1. Ayesha hits Ben intending to bruise him.
  2. Purely physical interaction.
  3. Ayesha fakes a yawn intending to cause Ben to yawn.
  4. Ayesha lays a trail of false footprints intended to deceive Ben.
  5. Ayesha waves at Ben with the intention that he will recognise that she intends him to come over.
Why are these actions non-communicative? Ayesha intends her fake yawn to have an effect on Ben, but the effect is a physiological one. The response she wants from him is mechanical.
But there are also non-communicative actions which require a rational response from the people they’re directed at. For example:
Note here that although Ayesha intends to provide Ben with misinformation, her action isn’t communicative.
Intuitively, there’s a difference between deliberately providing information or misinformation to someone and communicating with her (Grice 1989: 218).
So what makes an action communicative?
Paul Grice has a neat answer to this question.
He notes that we sometimes achieve things merely by letting other people know that we intend to achieve them.
Waving is one of the simplest examples:
In this example, Ayesha’s goal is to get Ben to come over. Her means of achieving this is to get Ben to recognise that this is what she intends. So when she waves, her intention is that waving will let Ben know that she intends him to come over.

Goal: get Ben to come over

Means: get Ben to recognise that I intend to get Ben to come over

Intention: to get Ben to come over by means of getting Ben to recognise that I intend to get Ben to come over.

You can achieve some things just by letting people know that you intend to achieve them. To achieve things in this way is to perform an act of communication.
Note that, on this Gricean view, communicating involves having intentions about intentions.m
\subsection{A Gricean view}

First approximation: To communicate is to provide someone with evidence of an intention with the further intention of thereby fulfilling that intention.

(compare Grice 1989: chapter 14)

\citep[compare][chapter 14]{Grice:1989ha}.
To communicate, then, is to attempt to fulfil an intention by making it manifest to someone else that you have this intention. If you’ve studied Grice you’ll know that his analysis of meaning led to a long and boring series of counterexamples and refinements, most of which shed no light on the nature of linguistic communication (Schiffer 1987). But what’s really important about Grice isn’t the attempt to analyse meaning: it’s his insight
Recall the comprehension of pointing case; what is the confederate doing if she's pointing to inform?

The confederate means something in pointing at the left box if she intends:

  1. \item that you open the left box;
  2. \item that you recognize that she intends (1), that you open the left box; and
  3. \item that your recognition that she intends (1) will be among your reasons for opening the left box.

(Compare Grice 1967 p. 151; Neale 1992 p. 544)

(compare \citealp[p.\ 151]{Grice:1969pv}; \citealp[p.\ 544]{Neale:1992uw})
So to mean something by pointing, you have to have to have an intention about my recognition of an intention of yours concerning my reasons.


Pointing (and non-linguistic communication) involves intentions about recognizing intentions

One consequence of this would be that we can't appeal to non-linguistic communication in explaining the emergence of sophisticated forms of mindreading.
Why not? [Explain.]
Another consequence is an amazing discrepancy between knowledge of the mind and knowledge of the physical ...
2.5-year-olds look longer when experimenter removes the ball from behind the wrong door, but don't reach to the correct door
That barriers stop solid objects is not reflected in children's practical reasoning until they are about two years earlier.
If we suppose that children who can point have an understanding of communication as Grice understands it, then we are saying that they have a fabulously sophisticated model of the mental around two years before they understand the first thing about physical causation. They don't seem able to knowledgably identify causal interactions among unseen physical objects. Can we really be confident that it's easier for them to think knowledgably about intereactions involving mental states? (Maybe it is; we just don't have evidence, I think.)
Now this isn't an argument against the view that children have a Gricean understanding of communication.
But it does motivate looking for alternatives.


Pointing (and non-linguistic communication) involves intentions about recognizing intentions

But why are we even considering this idea, the idea that children have a Gricean understanding of communication?
Because it seems to be the view favoured by Tomasello, Carpenter, Liszkowski et al, who are leading experts on pointing ...
Tomasello takes infants' pointing to be based on what he calls shared intentionality.

shared intentionality

‘infant pointing is best understood---on many levels and in many ways---as depending on uniquely human skills and motivations for cooperation and shared intentionality, which enable such things as joint intentions and joint attention in truly collaborative interactions with others (Bratman, 1992; Searle, 1995).’

Tomasello et al (2007, p. 706)

\citep[p.\ 706]{Tomasello:2007fi}
It's hard to argue with the claim about cooperation; this is important.
But Tomasello doesn't stick with the notion of cooperation. Instead ...
There is this additional element, shared intentionality. I don't understand what it is, but Tomasello and his colleagues are extraordinay scientsits so I think it's worth exploring.
This (shared intentionality) is also the notion that gets us into trouble.
Here's what I take to be the view of Tomasello and colleagues.

Theory of communicative action (Tomasello et al?):

Theory of communicative action \citep[compare][]{Tomasello:2007fi}:
  1. Producing and understanding declarative pointing gestures constitutively involves embodying (?) shared intentionality.
  2. \item
  3. Embodying shared intentionality involves having knowledge about knowledge of your intentions about my intentions.
No, I don't know what shared intentionality is either. I've asked you to find out in the last essay for this course.

Claims about development:

  1. 11- or 12-month-old infants produce and understand declarative pointing gestures.
  2. Abilities to communicate play a role in explaning the emergence of knowledge of minds (among other things).
  3. If the theory of communicative action is correct, then the claims about development are incompatible.

(Also, α rules out a conjecture about minimal theory of mind.)

So, apparently, if Tomasello et al are right, I'm wrong about two things:
First, I'm wrong that knowlegde of others' minds first emerges around three or four years of age and that one-year-old infants have only core knowledge of mental states.
And, seccond, I'm probably also wrong to think that abilities to communicate (whether by language or not) could explain the emergence of knowledge of others' minds.
This is one reason for asking, What is a communicative action?


Pointing (and non-linguistic communication) involves intentions about recognizing intentions

What are the alternatives?
I want to mention two alternatives ...

first alternative

\subsection{First alternative view}
One alternative is inspired by opponents of the claim, inspired by Grice, that communication by language involves identifying utterer's intentions.
Inspired by Grice, you might think that this is fundamental to linguistic communication.
But philosophers like Dummett and (for different reasons) Millikan reject this view.


‘No speaker needs to form any express intention … in order to mean by a word what it means in the language’

Dummett 1986, 473

\citep[p.\ 473]{Dummett:1986mq}

‘Interpreting speech does not require making any inferences or having any beliefs about words, let alone about speaker intentions’

Millikan 1984, p. 62

\citep[p.\ 62]{Millikan:1984ib}
We might try to provide an account of pointing in which it's not fundamentally a matter of intention at all.
This would be a radical departure from the Gricean view about pointing. But there is another alternative, one which is less radical.

second alternative

\subsection{Davidsonian view}
Like Grice:

‘meaning of whatever sort ultimately rests on intention’

Davidson 1992, p. 298

\citep[p.\ 298]{Davidson:1992pl}
We need to distinguish ulterior intentions from semantic intentions.
  • ulterior intentions
  • ulterior intentions: ‘intentions which lie as it were beyond the production of words … [such as] the intention of being elected mayor, of amusing a child, of warning a pilot of ice on the wings’ \citep[p.\ 298]{Davidson:1992pl}.
  • semantic intentions
  • semantic intentions: intentions concerning the meaning of one’s utterance.
Why does this distinction matter?
Grice’s explicates meaning and communication in terms of ulterior intentions.
His project is to give a reductive analysis of these notions, meaning and communication.
Ulterior intentions are precisely what is needed for such an analysis of meaning.
This is because ulterior intentions ‘do not involve language, in the sense that their description does not have to mention language’ or any semantic concepts like meaning \citep[p.\ 298]{Davidson:1992pl}.
But, Davidson points out, we don’t have to attempt an analysis of meaning and communication.
After all, Grice’s analysis has been subject to plenty of counterexamples and objections \citep{Schiffer:1987zb}.
(Davidson objects that ‘it is not clear that these principles [Grice’s] are designed to handle the gamut of examples we find in literature’ \citep[p.\ 300]{Davidson:1992pl}.
\citet{Davidson:1991ic} discusses one literary example at length. He argues that ‘Joyce takes us back to the foundations and origins of communication; he puts us in the situation of the jungle linguist trying to get the hand of a new language and a novel culture, to assume the perspective of someone who is an alien or an exile’ \citep[p.\ 11]{Davidson:1991ic}.)

‘The intention to be taken to mean what one wants to be taken to mean is, it seems to me, so clearly the only aim that is common to all verbal behaviour that it is hard for me to see how anyone can deny it.’

Davidson 1994, p. 11

\citep[p.\ 11]{Davidson:1994ol}
This aim ‘assumes the notion of meaning’, but it is important because ‘it provides a purpose which any speaker must have in speaking, and thus constitutes a norm against which speakers and others can measure the success of their verbal behavior.’ \citep[p.\ 11]{Davidson:1994ol}
*todo: this is linked to how Davidson distinguishes first meaning from pragmatic bits; see 'meaning is a psychological concept v2' (for Martin Davies)
But how does this idea translate into a claim about what a pointing action is?
First consider the wave from earlier ...
An example contrasting Grice and Davidson on the wave.


Goal: get Ben to come over

Means: get Ben to recognise that I intend to get Ben to come over

Intention: to get Ben to come over by means of getting Ben to recognise that I intend to get Ben to come over.


Goal: get Ben to come over

Semantic Intention: that Ben take this wave to mean that he should come over.

Ulterior intention: that Ben come over.

These intentions have a means-end ordering; the ulterior intention is further down the means-end chain.
Strictly speaking, that Ben should come over might not be the first meaning of the wave (so there are other options here).
As mentioned before, Grice's view involves intentions about recognising intentions.
By contrast, Davidson's view requires an intention about meaning.
What this involves depends, of course, on how we understand meaning.
But maybe there is a way of understanding meaning on which this is not too demanding. (I'm really not sure.)
Now contrast Grice and Davidson on the pointing action from the Hare et al study, where you're supposed to take one of two containers.


Goal: get Ayesha to select the left container

Means: get Ayesha to recognise that I intend Ayesha to select the left container

Intention: to get Ayesha to selet the left container by means of getting Ayesha to recognisethat I am pointing to the left container with the intention that she select the left container.


Goal: get Ayesha to select the left container

Semantic Intention: that Ayesha take this pointing gesture to refer to the left container

Ulterior Intention: that Ayesha select the left container

Strictly speaking, that Ben should come over might not be the first meaning of the wave (so there are other options here).
As before, there's a contrast in what must be intended and so what we're committing ourselves to in saying that infants can produce and comprehend informative pointing.
Can we do anything with this?
I haven't shown that we can.
It all depends on what an intention to refer is.
This is a really hard problem, and not one that I'm going to help you with directly (although I will come back to it in discussing action [analogy between principle of rationality: we need a comparable 'principle of reference'])
So I'm suggesting a possible direction but not providing any answers.


intention to refer

Conclusion for What is a communicative action?

The question was, Should we accept that pointing (and linguistic communication) involves intentions about intentions?

Should we accept that pointing (and linguistic communication) involves intentions about intentions?

  1. If Grice (and Tomasello et al) are right about communication, then infant pointing involves sophisticated insights into others’ minds.
  2. But there are alternatives to the Gricean story.
  3. If Davidson’s* alternative is right, communication requires understanding intentions about meaning or reference but not necessarily sophisticated insights into others’ minds.
  4. Is this enough to save the view about development I wanted to offer. Maybe, maybe not …
    (*Davidson himself thinks all communication involves sophisticated insights into others’ minds …)
    We have to say what meaning or reference is such that infants understand it. I want to leave this as an open problem. When we talk about action next time I'll provide a model for dealing with this sort of problem.

Conclusion for Pointing

  1. 11- and 12-month-old infants can point to (i) request, (ii) inform and (iii) initiate joint engagement.
  2. ... and they can understand these kinds of pointing gesture.
  3. Understanding pointing requires more than associating gestures with their referents and understanding goal-directed action (see: why don’t apes & 6-month-olds point)
  4. But what more is required?

    Is it shared intentionality?

    And what is that anyway? Is that something inspired by, and adapted from, Grice?