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Geometry of Meaning

Updated: May 31, 2020

I've been reading recently the "Geometry of Meaning" book by Peter Gardenfors, and every time I read it I discover something else that is fascinating to learn about ourselves.

Obviously, some of the people who may read this blog right now are already well familiar with those concepts, but since I have no idea who you are (and whether you exists, maybe I will be the only one reading it ;-)) I will share the things I find new to me. At least this could be a way for me to recall my takeaways.

If you think differently on some aspects, let me know, because then we could learn from each other, and get to know another person who shares interest to this broad topic. So, you are welcome reach out! I will refer you to the book at times, because I'd like to keep it lighter here.


Joint Attention


Before really getting to any talk about joint attention, we should recognize that joint attention starts prior to (or in a very early stage of) our language skills development. A main way by which it is conducted is by pointing. Any speech language pathologist (SLP) knows that sometime at the age of around two years old a child is expected to point for the purpose of grabbing the attention of his mom, and also be able to learn to understand the meaning of pointing by someone else, which is to look at the pointer, and look at what they are pointing at and by that create a shared attention towards a particular thing. In case this phenomenon is not taking place around that age this may be concerning, as it may alarm for developmental hurdles.

(difficulties in pointing for intentional communication may indicate possible Autism, not necessarily though)





There are four different reasons for pointing a child may exhibit


  1. Imperative Pointing

  2. Declarative Pointing

  3. Emotive Declarative Pointing

  4. Information Requesting Pointing

  5. Goal-directed Declarative Pointing


1. The Imperative pointing may express a communication need. The child may be pointing imperatively as they learn this new technique. This is probably the earliest pointing learned. At times, however, the intention by pointing at an object is to have the attendant bringing the object to the child's vicinity. No joint attention required.


2. The Declarative pointing is more like a dance. First, the pointer points at an object, and then checks out the attendant's gaze to ensure it is towards the object, while this happens the attendant's sight should initially be at the pointer, and then at object of interest. This is actually pointing for the purpose of joint attention. To examine the presence of this communicative act, in situations in which there is doubt with regard to joint attention skills, Tomasello describes an experiment in which an interlocutor (SLP probably) is looking into the reaction of the child after trying to grab an object the child was grasping. If this described conflict is resolved by a direct eye gaze to the interlocutor, it may signal that shared attention is presented. I see it as if the child is expected to face a confrontation over the object they want and having the child looking at the interlocutor would be an attempt to negotiate the terms, understanding that there are needs on the other side. My interpretation may be stretching it, but I hope you understand what I meant.


3. Emotive Declarative Pointing. This type of interaction is based not only about shared attention, but also sharing one's emotion regarding an object. Therefore, this mental alignment on two aspects. Studies show (by Tomasello) after the attendant identified the object at hand, if the attendant showed no interest (not addressing the emotional need), the child reduced their pointing act over time. I think this may happen in our mature life as well. The way I interpret it is that if I share with a friend my feelings about something, if my accumulated experience is that I can't get validation, I would stop sharing these types of experiences with them. (Validation does not imply sharing the same feelings, rather more of an acknowledgment of my feelings)


4. Information Requesting Pointing. This happens when the pointer hears a new word describing an object in her surroundings it may not be familiar with yet. Followed by a trigger word such as 'da' (language sensitive though ;-)) and a pointing towards the object in space, this process, will consequently invoke an explanation about the object, that may grow the object category space she learned thus far. There is intentional communication in this act.


5. Goal-directed Declarative Pointing. This, to my mind, should be the most looked up to pointing skill and is the basis for the human ability of mental alignment and understanding of intentions. This describes the ability of the child to understand what is the goal of the attendant and helping them reach their goal by pointing them to their solution (which is a physical object, at this stage). My mom told me that she recalled one day in which she came to the kindergarten to pick up my niece who was about 8 months old, and there was another child who cried and was helped by the kindergarten worker, then my mom asked the worker what does this child cry over, and in return, my niece pointed on the child's shoes, and the worker confirmed that the child lost one shoe. I found it fascinating!!!


Every one of these traits is useful for us in are adult life, but being able to understand the goals of the other, is what time and again, was shown to occur in humans and much less with other species. In general joint attention is the fastest way to having mental alignment between two conversers. I haven't defined, mental alignment and intersubjectivity yet, but we have just started the ride :-)


Main sources:

The Geometry of Meaning book (pointing as meeting of minds chapter)

Becoming Human talk (the book is better I'm told)


medium version #exams #finals #testperiod

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