How do children come to learn their first words? One key term in answering this question is ostension: lacking linguistic resources, language speakers recur to ostensive acts or movements –such as gestures and pointing– to teach someone the name of an object. This is the phenomenon that concerns Chad Engelland in his book Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind. For Engelland, the question regarding first-word acquisition involves several other matters: how are the intentions of the language speaker available for the infant? (i.e. the phenomenological problem); if intentions are available through animate movement, what is the concept of the mind that allows such availability? (i.e. the intersubjective problem); how can infants understand an ambiguous movement such as an ostensive act? (i.e. the epistemological problem); and, finally, what is the place of animate movement in nature and its relationship with language? (i.e. the metaphysical problem).
Engelland focuses on the phenomenological question, a matter he takes to be prior to other issues. For him, phenomenology is necessary to make sense of ostension because it is a matter of availability. He claims that the question of ostension “asks how the intentionality of the other is intersubjectively available in a prelinguistic way (…) ostension concerns how specific items in the public world can be mutually manifest as the target of joint attention” (xxvii). Only when we have an adequate grasp of the phenomenon we can answer the epistemological question and advance into the metaphysical problems of the nature of the mind, and language. According to Engelland, phenomenology is an adequate method to tackle the problem of first-word acquisition because it is concerned with making explicit the way something is manifested in our everyday experience. Phenomenology grasps the interplay between presence and absence, manifestation and hiddenness, an interplay that lies at the heart of Engelland’s account of ostension. Ostension is, for him, the prelinguistic means by which infants enter the public game of language, a character that necessitates a phenomenological account.
This understanding of phenomenology allows Engelland to engage with philosophers within the phenomenological tradition such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Robert Sokolowski, but it also allows him to read Wittgenstein, Aristotle and Augustine on this basis. Besides recurring to historical figures, he engages with contemporary thinkers, within both philosophy and psychology, such as W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Paul Bloom, and Michael Tomasello. The dialogue with philosophers that belong to different traditions and times is part of Engelland’s strategy. Philosophy is, for him, a conversation that inevitably ends up facing questions regarding human nature. In that respect, he claims that: “The restlessness of conversation, its incessant movement back and forth, is rooted in the natural aims of human like. To reflect on language in terms of conversation is to reflect on those who desire to converse with one another, with those who wish to share a life with one another. The turn to conversation necessarily involves the question concerning human nature” (216).
Part I. Contemporary Resources
Engelland begins this philosophical dialogue conversing with contemporary thinkers and scientists. In the first chapter, he starts by looking into the theory of language acquisition of Quine and Davidson. Quine gave a central role to behaviour in his explanation of language learning. He takes behaviour to be intrinsically ambiguous, an ambiguity that can only be (partially) remedied through repetition. However, Engelland considers that Quine’s external account of behaviour results in an artificial reconstruction of ostension and fails to see that, in an ostensive act, an item of the world is jointly disclosed but from different embodied perspectives: “[o]stension makes something jointly present to each, and presence involves people for whom it is present, people who together experience the world but from different points of view. In this way, there is an ineluctably ‘inward’ dimension to ostension, and there is more to behaviour than the behaviorist can see” (5).
Donald Davidson follows Quine in his account of ostension, but he emphasizes an important relational feature of the phenomenon. Language learning is the result of triangulation, that is, of the interaction between two agents, and other items in the world. The language learner associates the intention underlying the behaviour of the other agent with changes occurring in their surroundings.
Quine and Davidson are clear in that ostension is the prelinguistic means that allows first word acquisition. But, as mentioned earlier, for Engelland, ostension can only be properly unpacked phenomenologically. Phenomenology can answer “how the intentions of others are on display” in our actions (11). The movement Engelland is concerned with is not mere behavior, rather he is interested in intentional actions, actions in which one’s affective engagement is advertised. Even perception is among this kind of actions: it is not a passive process. He follows Ava Noë and Kevin O’Regan in their enactive account of perception, according to which perception is an embodied activity. Perception advertises intentionality and affectivity just like any other action; and just like any other action, perception takes place in the world and not just in our heads. Engelland also draws on the enactivist movement to account for the intersubjectivity that is constitutive of experience. Finally, Engelland draws on Gadamer’s concept of “play”, a concept that bring action and manifestation together. Play involves turn-taking and mirrored actions; players are interacting between each other, they are presenting their actions to themselves, to other players, and to spectators; it displays actions that are directed to the world and which are structured with a distinction between means and ends. This will turn out to be important features of ostensive actions.
In the second chapter, Engelland turns to scientific accounts of first-word acquisition, a matter he qualifies to be “a burning issue” in contemporary psychology. He draws mainly, on the one hand, on the work of Paul Bloom, who recovers an Augustinian proposal of language learning; and on the other, on the work of Michael Tomasello, who offers, in turn, a Wittgensteinian account. The psychological studies recovered by Engelland show that infants do not learn new words unless both the language speaker and the named item are present. For language learning, presence and intersubjective interaction is crucial. Ostension presupposes what Colwyn Trevarten identifies as the first and second stages of intersubjective development: (1) first, an understanding of others as “fellow animate beings” to whom a newborn child pays attention and with whom she interacts by imitating and by taking turns in their interactions; (2) second, an understanding of others as “intentional agents” with whom an infant engages in joint situations. It is not only that the infant can understand gestures and follow gazes, she recognizes “that these actions have reciprocal possibilities” (28). To explain the phenomenon of mirroring, Engelland recurs to the mechanism of mirror neurons, which fire when seeing the actions of another agent.
At the end of this chapter, Engelland reaches the following definition of ostension: it is “[a]n unintentionally communicative bodily movement, arising from a pattern of meaningful human action, that makes an item in the world jointly present and affords the opportunity for an eavesdropper to identify a certain kind of item in the world and/or to learn the articulate sound used to present the identified item” (36). It differs from ostensive definition in that (a) it does not necessarily have communicative intentions; and (b) it arises from a meaningful pattern of action.
Part II. Historical Resources
The historical conversation held throughout the second part of this book sets the stage for the final philosophical discussion. Although Engelland chooses four thinkers that come from different backgrounds and contexts, the way he guides the discussion enables a productive intertwining that enlightens the problem of ostension. While Augustine, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty explicitly deal with the problem of language acquisition, Aristotle does not. This is one of the virtues of the text. Engelland shows that Aristotle has the conceptual resources to deal with the issue of world learning; furthermore, Aristotelian philosophy allows the clarification of problems that arise within the other views, such as the nature of movement, and of animal life.
In the third chapter, Engelland starts this historical journey analysing Wittgenstein’s position which he reads in a phenomenological manner: the task of philosophy is not to raise scepticism, but to clarify the phenomena that appear in our everyday experience. Wittgenstein develops his account in opposition to Augustine’s. Firstly, he regards Augustine’s theory to apply only to naming; secondly, he takes it not to involve ostension, but ostensive definition which supposes the infant to have some kind of mental language; finally, he emphasizes the ambiguity of ostension as a central aspect of ostension, one that Wittgenstein considers to be missing in Augustine’s account.
Engelland argues that these objections are due to a misconstruction of Augustine’s position which, without realizing, is a lot closer to Wittgenstein’s own account in the following aspects: (1) firstly, ostensive acts (i.e. gestures) enable infants “to follow intentional cues and, when coupled with training, find their way into a language game” (52); (2) secondly, there are some human voluntary movements that are universal and which reveal our intentions; (3) gestures reveal the consciousness of another, (4) facial expressions betray our attention, (5) and the tone of voice and its modulation reveal emotions; (6) finally, all of these reveal affections, they “serve to make manifest one’s affections in the pursuit or avoidance of things” (53). Given that our body manifests our intentions, one can perceive the other’s affective life. Per Wittgenstein, minds are not private, they rather seem hidden when we are facing an ambiguous behavior. Despite the similarities of Wittgenstein’s account with Augustine, there is one central difference. For the former, ostension is disambiguated thanks to training, because the infant cannot surpass ambiguity without the help of a teacher. Engelland rejects this picture of the passive child and instead takes Augustine’s perspective of a ripe infant who desires to participate in the language game.
In the next chapter, Engelland revisits Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s position regarding language learning. The phenomenological perspective of Merleau-Ponty allows Engelland to account for the intersubjective interplay that lies at the basis of ostension. For Merleau-Ponty it is not so much that the child acquires language, rather she gets habituated to the language game. In learning to speak, the infant is learning to play a role and, thus, is acquiring not language but a whole world of meaning. In that sense, Engelland claims with Merleau-Ponty that “the body gains a ‘figurative significance’” (71).
To understand the communicative powers of the body, Merleau-Ponty abandons the opposition between a material world governed by causal relations, and consciousness. The body “must become the intention” if it is to account for our communicative interplay. The reciprocity of communication is possible in virtue of a common world to which both the language speaker and the infant belong. Engelland follows Merleau-Ponty in claiming that intersubjectivity is constitutive of the body. The flesh, a term that the French philosopher coined to refer to the basis of this embodied intersubjectivity, brings together the activity of the lived body and the passivity of the perceived body. Engelland claims that “the twofold or chiasm of flesh places each of us in a world together, enabling gesturing and joint attention” (81). For Engelland, Merleau-Ponty captures in a brilliant way “how the body is the best picture of the mind” (82). However, he fails to account just how it is that the body is twofold, a task that can be accomplish by two classical programs.
In the fifth chapter, Engelland addresses the first of these programs: Augustine’s account of word learning. With Jean-Luc Marion, Engelland takes Augustine to be concerned with the phenomenological question regarding ostension. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine notices that there are signs that are instituted or conventional, and, therefore, are arbitrary. However, that poses a problem for word acquisition: if these signs are arbitrary, how can they be acquired? To explain this, it is necessary to account for the joint attention that precedes language learning. Augustine recalls the context in which he acquired language: “a context of interpersonal affection nourished by expressive bodily movements” (93). In that context, the infant fails to disclose her needs, affections, and desires, and “discovers the ability to do so by understanding the bodily movement of language speakers” (94). Unlike the passive infant in Wittgenstein’s account, Augustine’s infant wishes to participate in the language game. This infant learns in an important sense by eavesdropping the conversations that take place in daily routines. Context controls ambiguity in an important way.
But, what happens when the context is not enough to disambiguate? For Augustine, the infant possesses some kind of perception or receptivity that allows disambiguation. The child conjectures that “bodily movement signifies soul” (101). But this conjecture is not an inference, it is rather an awareness we share with other animals and that is rooted in our inner sense. The infant develops this awareness when developing motor control. Nonetheless, interanimal awareness is not enough to make sense of this phenomenon. The child requires understanding as well to grasp bodily movement as an intentional action. Engelland intends to show, contra Wittgenstein, that Augustine does consider ambiguity as a problem. Not only that, Augustine realizes that ambiguity is a central feature of language learning, and that it is an obstacle that is not easy to surpass.
The last stop in Engelland’s historical route is Aristotle. As mentioned earlier, Aristotle does not have an account of word acquisition, however, Engelland reconstructs what would be the Aristotelian account of language learning, an account that offers some important concepts that were lacking in Augustine’s view. Engelland begins his reconstruction with the argument against the denier of PNC (the Principle of Non-Contradiction). For Engelland, this refutation shows that the PNC accounts for the possibility of intelligibility. But, what accounts for the possibility of joint intelligibility?
For Aristotle, animals communicate on the basis of natural significations: they express pleasure and pain. Humans, on the other hand, transcend this and institute conventional terms to express something other. However, these conventional terms are problematic in that they must communicate the way the world appears individually to each of us. This inward dimension of affectivity does not represent a problem, because it can be shared through our bodily movement. Aristotle’s account of movement differs from that of modern physics. For him, natural movement reveals the power to move. Animate movement, which is common to all animals, has a discriminatory character because it “targets a good or avoids a bad” (116). What is specific of deliberate human gestures is that they invite the other to look beyond them and to rest their attention in something else. Human joint activity goes beyond coordination, and turns into political cooperation (i.e. into a “share[d] belief about what makes for a good life” (124)). According to Engelland, the reciprocity of understanding in Aristotle’s description of friendship, sheds light to the meaning of cooperation: in friendship, we understand ourselves by understanding others.
Part III. Philosophical Investigations
These two conversations –the one with contemporary thinkers and the historical one– allow Engelland to set the stage for his philosophical investigations. In chapter seven, he gives a phenomenological account of ostension, according to which the intention of ostensive bodily movements is manifested, and not inferred. Engelland draws on the theory of the perception of emotion developed by J. L. Austin for whom: “one’s body advertises the movement of emotions to all those who have eyes to see” (p. 134). For Engelland, the advertisement of our affections is not reduced to emotion, but extends to action and perception in general.
Engelland rejects the inferential position because it assumes the “Cartesian bifurcation of internal and external evidence” (136). This bifurcation implies that, in order to go from behavior to internal intentions, the infant would need to experience such an internal realm. Inference requires the experience of internal intentions as evidence. Without it, the child has no basis for inference. He claims that: “[The inferential view] assumes a flawed framework in which the terms inside and outside, private and public, self and other, are mutually exclusive. The chasm separating these two domains cannot be bridged by endowing the infant with mindboggling powers of inference; it can be bridged only by uncovering the perception of animate movement. On this view, the infant appears more naturally as an understanding animal, not an inferring scientist” (138).
Per Engelland, ostension is not the coordination of the inner lives of two agents through behavior, it is rather joint perception. Joint perception requires spatial and temporal presence not only of the agents, but of the perceived item as well. Our individual perspective of the perceived object does not cancel joint perception because we perceive the public appearance or look of the item. Things have a public dimension and it is this dimension that we perceive and intend. In ostension, my bodily movement manifests the intended object, thus, bringing it to presence or making it an object of joint attention to anyone who is attentive to my movements.
In the following chapter, Engelland tackles the problem of other minds. The inferential view of ostension claims that, in analogy to ourselves, we take the other to be an agent. Wittgenstein notes that underlying this view is the notion of the body as a machine inhabited by a consciousness. However, for Engelland, this is an odd view: it would seem more natural to “perceive fellow animate minds at work” (155). He follows several phenomenologists, such as Edith Stein, Hans Jonas, and Evan Thompson, in claiming that our body is not properly understood as a machine, it is rather a lived body. We live among animate bodies, and our own animate movements “puts us into spontaneous communion with one another” (p. 155). Engelland takes one step forward from these phenomenological considerations in that, for him, although it is the case that we take the others to be animate beings because we understand ourselves as such, it is also that we are aware of our own life because we perceive it in the others.
The notion of mind that is at play in Engelland’s view is one that recovers an Aristotelian hylomorphism according to which “[p]oints of view are essentially embodied” (p. 170). Engelland enriches this position with the phenomenological account, thus, resulting in a view that takes the mind to be animate: “The mind is not incidentally attached to a body; the mind is essentially embodied and on display in animate action” (170).
And how does this account of ostension and of the animate mind deal with ambiguity? The ninth chapter of the book deals with the epistemological challenge regarding ambiguity. Although ostension recurs to similar resources to those of ostensive definition to control ambiguity –for instance, movement and novelty–, it also has “unique disambiguating cues”: (a) natural wants and desires, (b) daily routines and games, and (c) repetition across contexts. However, Engelland, inspired by Aristotle’s and John McDowell’s reflections on human nature, also argues that we are naturally inclined to the development of specific habits. To explain what he means by natural inclinations, Engelland draws on the concept of life-form developed by Michael Thompson. Life-forms are judgments that we use to “make sense of each other” (181), in that they afford ways of “generalizing or profiling” (183). Human inclinations are natural because they belong to our common nature, one that is available in the intersubjective realm of our perception. When learning a language, infants risk acts of identification and profiling. Engelland claims that “[t]he ostensive act affords the interlocutor or eavesdropper the opportunity to achieve something like a nominal definition, that is, an understanding that allows him or her to identify the spoken item and distinguish it from other sorts of similar things” (188).
In the final chapter of the book, Engelland focuses on the metaphysical problems concerning ostension. For him, what makes ostension logically possible is the structure of our experience. Given that experience is dominated by rest and sameness, movement and change call our attention. The relevance of movement and difference make ostension possible.
In this chapter, Engelland also discusses the relationship between phenomenological movement of disclosure and manifestation, and physical motion. For him, physical happenings are necessary for phenomenological movement, nonetheless, the latter does not identify with mere physical happenings. He claims that “[p]henomenological movement needs all this physics to happen, but it is something other than the physical happening” (198). Furthermore, we can only make sense of physical motion if it is immersed in our phenomenological experience.
This distinction leads Engelland to discuss the relation between scientific explanation and phenomenology. Although Engelland does not explicitly refer to this debate, I believe he engages with the problem of naturalization of phenomenology when dealing with the question about the relation between these two kinds of explanations. Engelland adopts Sokolowski’s notion of lensing to account for the role the brain, the nervous system, and our senses have in our experience. These do not appear in our everyday experience since they are transparent. These physical structures enable experience and “[make] the world available” (201).
Given their transparency, Engelland considers that a phenomenological account of consciousness is irrelevant for biological explanations. For him, there is an uncontroversial division of labor between phenomenology and science: biology is equipped to understand life, while philosophy is equipped to understand the manifestation of life. Philosophy, then, cannot contribute to biology as such, but it can make a non-biological contribution. In that vein, Engelland shows that joint presence is a condition of possibility of scientific discourse. Philosophy contributes in our understanding of the world, a world to which science belongs. Engelland would seem to claim that phenomenology cannot be naturalized in the sense that: “philosophers have no reason to adopt the scientific image as their point of departure or their point of return” (214). If that is so, why engage with science at all? Engelland is right in distinguishing the tasks of philosophy and science, but such a distinction should not amount to the claim that philosophy does not depart nor return to science. Claiming the latter inevitably leads to philosophical solipsism, something that Engelland himself avoids throughout his book by taking philosophy as conversation.
Ostension invites the reader into a dialogue that not only goes through different disciplines, but also through different philosophical traditions and problems. It offers a treatment of first-word acquisition that takes into account traditional and contemporary considerations, but goes beyond them by introducing a new perspective that is enriched by phenomenology and psychology. Its originality lies in the explicit formulation of the phenomenological question regarding first-word acquisition. This book will be valuable to anyone who is interested in theories of meaning, language acquisition, and the dialogue between phenomenology, analytic philosophy, and science.