Models of Joint Attention
It is sometimes said that ordinary linguistic exchange, in ordinary conversation, is a matter of securing and sustaining joint attention. The minimal condition for the success of the conversation is that the participants should be attending to the same things. So the psychologist Michael Tomasello writes, ‘I take it as axiomatic that when humans use language to communicate referentially they are attempting to manipulate the attention of another person or persons.’ I think that this is an extremely fertile approach to philosophical problems about meaning and reference, and in this paper I want to apply it to the case of the first person. So I want to look at the case in which you tell me something about yourself, using the first person, and we achieve joint attention to the same object. But I begin with some remarks about how this approach applies to proper names and to perceptual demonstratives.
Suppose, for example, that you are explaining to me the role that a particular person plays on a particular committee. You may be presupposing an enormous amount of knowledge on my part about the other people on the committee and the work that it does. You are focusing on the history of the committee, how it was set up and who the founding members were, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the current members. We are achieving joint attention here, as you manage to highlight the way this individual fits into the structure.