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Joint Attention and Successful Conversation

The basic ingredients of successful communication rely on joint attention.

Source: Pixabay

As we noted in our previous article, many forms of communication that bring art, culture, and humor to our lives depend on more fundamental truth-directed forms of communication to make them possible. ‘Conversation’ is often the form that communication takes when there is a serious epistemic undertaking afoot, but we need a narrower focus to locate the epistemically fundamental forms of communication, as many linguistic exchanges will count as conversations but manifest no serious commitment to finding the truth. To this end we follow the work of Paul Grice on “talk exchanges”, and rely on Jerome Bruner’s work on joint attention and the psychology of successful conversation.

Talk exchanges are a foundational form of truth-directed conversation. As such, successful talk exchanges are akin to “the fire” that linguistic norms seek to protect. While Grice’s famous “conversational maxims” provide an illuminating way to understand the nature and value of truth directed communication (more about these maxims in our next post), his work is less illuminating when it comes to explaining the psychological mechanisms that sustain successful talk exchanges. We argue that forms of joint attention, as understood in recent psychological research by Jerome Bruner (2015) and others, provide an adequate psychological explanation of this important form of linguistic exchange. In the process, we should have an improved understanding of ‘the fire’ that linguistic norms seek to protect, and the ways in which those essential norms break down. Two questions will fundamentally concern us:

1. What forms do successful talk exchanges take and what is the best psychological explanation of this form of conversational success?

2. What forms do failed talk exchanges take and what is the best psychological explanation of this form of conversational failure?

These are complex issues and our focus here is on the contributions of psychology to these fundamental questions in philosophy of language and epistemology. As Bruner says, psychological theories about joint attention and the assumptions involved in interpreting other minds masked “the sheer mystery of mutual knowledge” (2015, p. 1). He writes: “Epistemological questions never entered the discussion. How, for example, do infants get from early and simple dyadic eye-to-eye joint attention to more complex interaction entailed in sharing attentional focus on a common object?”

The sheer mystery of mutual linguistic knowledge is indeed an intriguing one. Mutual knowledge of syntax might best be described in terms of innate epistemic capacities (Chomsky, 1965). But as Bruner points out, a lot more needs to be filled in to account for successful coordination in linguistic communication and the role of mutually understood, publicly specified information. Social encounters require publicly available information, filtered through joint attention, commitments and interests. As Bruner notes in commenting about the innate approach, “What such a theory would need is some process for getting the young infant from a crude and general grasp of “otherness” and “other-mindedness” to a childhood in which he can grasp such particulars as referring, requesting, and the like” (2015, p. 3).

These are crucial terms in philosophy of language and linguistics. Fixing the reference of a term (determining what a word or phrase refer to) is presumably the most essential task of a linguistic community. If fixing the reference of terms becomes a lucky or accidental affair, genuine communication becomes impossible. Moreover, as emphasized by Bruner, knowledge of other people’s communicative intentions must also be essentially involved. So requesting information, the other critical activity involved in successful communication, also becomes impossible without mutual reference fixing. If we lacked the cognitive capacities to fix references and request information, we would be trapped in our heads, unable to communicate with others.

The cognitive processes underlying communication cannot be understood simply in terms of formal rules and inferences because these rules and inferences need to be acquired, understood, and somehow followed by the participants of a conversation, and it is precisely the capacities of these participants to successfully acquire, understand, and follow inferences that must be explained. Accordingly, Bruner questions the plausibility of a strictly Piagetian approach: “If we abandoned the formal logical assumption of Piaget’s genetic epistemology and characterized the foundational process of joint attention as substantive processes, could we then come up with a coherent account? What would these foundational processes be like?” He responds:

"Surely a good beginning is to ask what role any possible process, like joint visual attention or pointing, might play in fostering the development of the child’s mind. This has the great virtue, at least, of establishing a comprehensive conceptual context within which to impose constraints on how isolated phenomena are to be interpreted." (Bruner, 2015, p. 4)

The scaffolding required for successful reference fixing begins with an innate formal structure, but this structure must be informed by concrete social interactions, irreducibly public, through joint attention. Bruner mentions two key foundational constraints, based on the work of Michael Tomasello and C. S. Peirce. The first is “the child’s very early construal of people as agents—that is to say, the notion that human actions are dedicated to attaining ends.” This first constraint is associated with developing a “theory of mind” during childhood development. The second is that “young children grasp that there is a “standing for” relationship between arbitrary signs and things in the world of experience.” (2015, pp. 4-5). Joint attention enriches and bolsters reference fixing through the acquisition of concepts and the assumption that agents act for concrete reasons that can be interpreted and relied upon. This is the basis for successful talk exchanges. The process through which successful talk exchanges occur is, therefore, essentially public and, to use an expression introduced by Donald Davidson, triangular (see Myers and Verheggen, 2016). This process is also one that involves pragmatics. Bruner (1983) showed that young children interpret the acts of adults as “requestive” and that these reciprocal exchanges provide the “early entry into the conduct of speech acts, particularly to a grasp of the felicity conditions on such speech acts” (p. 5).

What happens when the communicative intentions of speakers are ignored or manipulated? In such conditions, reference fixing and truth-based exchanges become more accidental and less central in our communication. Talk exchanges are replaced with manipulative or entertaining speech. This eventually becomes a process of truth corrosion, which is perhaps more “aesthetically” pleasing, but it ultimately endangers the very purpose of communication, as emphasized by the shattering of the conch in Lord of the Flies. Truth degradation is, ultimately, the degradation of joint attention for successful talk exchanges. When truth corrosion occurs it is worse than the prevalence of injustice, of an epistemic kind (when one ignores a reliable witness or source of information because of unjustified bias) because it precludes the distinction between justice and injustice: everything goes in our communication. Joint attention of the most basic kind, publicly performed and guided towards reference-fixing, is the main mechanism for successful talk exchanges and the prevention of truth corrosion.

Abrol Fairweather, Carlos Montemayor, and Harry H. Haladjian


Jerome Bruner. (1983). Child’s talk: Learning to use language. New York: Norton.

Jerome Bruner. (2015). “From Joint Attention to the Meeting of the Minds: An Introduction.” In Chris Moore and Philip J. Dunham (Eds.) Joint Attention: Its Origins and Role in Development. Routledge (pp. 1-13).

Noam Chomsky. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Robert H. Myers and Claudine Verheggen. (2016). Donald Davidson's Triangulation Argument, A Philosophical Inquiry, Routledge.