I started this blog almost nine years ago, not being sure I had enough for nine days' worth of posting. To get myself started I prepared about 15 posts in advance of launch. As I began my research, almost immediately I came across the notion of "joint attention," two or more individuals paying attention to the same thing and knowing they are sharing their attention. Joint attention turns two individuals into a self-conscious unit, and supports cooperation by enabling members of the unit to think of themselves as an us. Linguistic interactions depend upon joint attention. In an early post I reported where this research had led me: "If you are ever pressed to state the difference between humans and the rest of the world's fauna in 10 words or less, try this one: We alone pay attention to the thoughts of others." I ended the post, "Once the world had creatures who paid joint attention to each other's subjective ideas, people had appeared. It may have been a long time before they could pronounce things clearly, and organize their speech into recursive sentences, but they were already people."
So, I see, that the critical work on this blog was done in the week before I opened for business. That was when I learned the phrase joint attention and became an immediate convert to the idea that language works by enabling the speaker to direct the listener's attention. When the listener is conscious of the interaction it is called communication; when unconscious, hypnosis.
Then, before the blog was two months old, I ran across a paper ("A Presentation of Intentional Semantics") by a philosopher named Giorgio Marchetti. It enlarged my starting idea about communication as joint attention by adding that meaning itself comes from attention. Words, Marchetti reported, are tools for piloting attention. In my first post on Marchetti's work I spoke of the confusions that "arise from thinking of words as representatives of something else." Ever since then I have understood words as go-betweens that link the internal, subjective world of consciousness with the objective, external world. A speaker can be paying attention to something real or imaginary, and a listener's attention can follow right along because physically there is a flow of words out there that keeps the two in harmony. After reading Marchetti and thinking about its implications for this blog, I said, "Speech arose as part of general evolution from joint attention on the ape level to joint attention on the human level."
It is a little shocking to me to see that right at the blog's beginning I was pronouncing statements that now seem to me so hard won. I have been testing a position and gaining details, but I was converted to the general doctrines in the autumn of 2006. Details matter, however, and it has been important to understand opposing arguments. For example, my first post on Marchetti drew a response in a blog called The Lame and the Blind in which the author posted four traits that linguists would generally agree were innate to a special, language building function of the brain: hierarchical structure, displacement/movement, recursion, and minimality. I confess to being intimidated by all those smart people and their many sharp, technical ideas. This morning when I re-read the defense of innateness post, I laughed at my easy ability to recognize where the arguments go off. I feel like a student of Galileo's listening to very learned, very confident Aristotelians who are blind to their assumptions.
The attention-revolution has been continuing, promoted most of all by Marchetti who encourages others and maintains a web site where articles and other writings are available. Just now he and two collaborators, Giulio Benedetti and Ahlam Alharbi, have brought out a book of peer-reviewed chapters that surveys the inquiry into the relationship between attention and meaning. Since it costs $250, I cannot urge people to run out and buy a copy, but research libraries should get one. Marchetti honored me with a request for a chapter, and the book includes a report I wrote on humans and the evolution of attentional powers. I plan to provide a number of posts about individual chapters in this book.
Their introductory essay puts the first "systematic attempt at analyzing meaning construction in attentional terms" [p. vii] to Silvio Ceccato, who wrote his most important books in Italian. Even though the works have not been translated, the idea has spread by scholars who were, at first, unaware of what was happening in Italy. The independent recurrence of the attention/meaning hypothesis suggests that the idea is "a fruitful, scientific and empirically investigable matter of study" [viii]. The fact that people have come to the idea from different approaches means they have different terms, assumptions, and ambitions. Yet they are zeroing in on an idea. The attention revolution looks here to stay. My next posts will discuss what they have to say.