One of the consistently best sites on the Internet for thoughtful reviews of worthwhile books is Metapsychology Online Reviews, edited by Christian Perring. A standout in the current issue is George Tudorie’s review of Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Thinking.
Tomasello is co-director of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the author of several influential books on the evolutionary origins of human cognition, language use, and cooperation. Tudorie explains the problem being addressed in A Natural History like this:
From early on, human children are quite different from the progeny of even closely related animals, like chimps. They are, for example, much more inclined to cooperate (manifesting the rudiments of ‘prosocial’ behavior), and seem driven to understand what goes on in others’ minds way before they could master anything like the mature repertoire of concepts applicable to a thinking being. What makes human babies and infants unique in this way?
And the solution Tomasello proposes is to borrow an idea from philosophy: specifically, the notion of collective intentionality. The issue at stake,as Tudorie explains it:
Philosophers were interested in demystifying the apparent ‘merging’ of minds involved in such impressive coordination as that exhibited by a symphonic orchestra, but also in more prosaic events such as jump starting a car by dividing labor between pushing the vehicle and working its clutch. In philosophy, this was perceived as a problem only in the context of a more general challenge, that of linking intention, supposedly an instance of the ‘inner’, and action, which is overt. The problem of collective action seemed harder, since it involved a certain ‘meshing’ . . . of intentions in separate individuals. If I act alone, my intentions control, or are reflected by, my actions; but when we act together there seems to be a need for my intentions to inform your actions and vice versa. How could that be, since presumably I can only intend what I myself could attempt?
Versions of solutions to this problem have been proposed by Michael Bratman and John Searle, among others. (Bratman explains his solution in this lecture.) Tomasello’s adaptation of the “shared intentionality hypothesis” into evolutionary psychology includes elements of both.
Tudorie refers to above-described problem as a “somewhat marginal philosophical conundrum,” and suggests that it may be “a badly formulated problem to begin with.” His more important critique of Tomasello, though, is that this borrowing represents a misuse of a philosophical analysis:
These changes are described, as in previous works by the Max Planck group, on the lines of the criteria suggested by Michael Bratman for ‘joint cooperative action’ — this is the basis for what Tomasello calls ‘joint intentionality’. However, while Bratman was asking what defines genuine cooperation, Tomasello reifies the defining criteria and reads them as specific adaptations.
. . .
The heavily psychologized theory of early cooperation [Tomasello’s account] is based on — effectively forcing Bratman’s functional description of familiar interactions of competent contemporary adults into the role of evolutionary psychological speculation about (at best) protolinguistic hominids — remains a weakness. One can hardly begin to ask questions of plausibility regarding the emergence of ‘joint intentionality’ if this very concept is ill-suited for describing adaptive transformations driven by natural selection. As things stand, this seems to be the case. Any intelligible notion of sharing thoughts already requires such a sophisticated understanding of mental life that to posit it as the root of human thinking — and not as its culmination — begs the question.
Other works under review in the current issue of Metapsychology include
Philosophy of Biology (Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy)(Peter Godfrey-Smith)
Foucault Now (Current Perspectives in Foucault Studies) (James Faubion, ed.)
Evolved Morality: The Biology and Philosophy of Human Conscience
(Frans B.M. de Waal, Patricia Smith Churchland, et al., eds.)
The Aesthetic Mind: Philosophy and Psychology (Elisabeth Schellekens and Peter Goldie, eds.)
Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
(Daniel K. Gardner)
And finally, one of the books that Tudorie cites in his review of Tomasello gets the prize for Book Title of the Week:
Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition