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Is There Such a Thing as Joint Attention to the Past?

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Joint attention is recognised by many philosophers and psychologists as a fundamental cornerstone of our engagement with one another and the world around us. The most familiar paradigm of joint attention is joint perceptual—specifically visual—attention to an object in the present environment. However, some recent discussions have focused on a potentially different form of joint attention: namely, ‘joint reminiscing’ conversations in which two or more people discuss something in the past which they both remember. These exchanges are in some ways comparable to joint perceptual attention to something present, and have been characterised by some as a form of joint attention to the past. In this paper, I will assess the prospects for characterising joint reminiscing as a genuine form of joint attention to the past, as understood on the model of joint perceptual attention to something present. My conclusions will be tentative, and my primary aim will be to explore how different commitments regarding the nature of both joint attention and episodic memory give rise to different possibilities for characterising joint reminiscing as a distinctive form of collective engagement with the past. I will suggest that joint reminiscing is unlike ordinary joint attention at least insofar as joint reminiscing trades on the participants’ mutual recognition of one another as having been present at an earlier experience. This is connected with joint reminiscing’s social function, and its role in facilitating the special kind of relationship conveyed by the idea of knowing a person.

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  1. The notion of ‘visible normality’ features prominently in Schiffer’s 1972 discussion of common knowledge. The basic idea is that people assume that normal perceivers under normal conditions can see things which are right in front of them, and that ‘normality’ in this sense is a property that can be observed to hold of a person and a situation. Schiffer’s notion of normality is intended to be minimal, as just the correct functioning of a person’s sensory capacities. However, arguably, in many joint attentional situations, successful tracking of the other person’s attention means being sensitive to their idiosyncratic perceptual interests and expectations, which may be culturally coded, modified by personal experience and contextual factors, and so on. These factors would plausibly go beyond Schiffer’s very thin and putatively universal notion of perceptual normality. Thanks to a reviewer for raising these issues.

  2. A reviewer expressed scepticism at this point that the glance really establishes anything like shared attention to the recent argument, on the grounds that there is no way either can ‘non-descriptively highlight’ features of the situation in communicating about it. I think this point needs to be taken with care. On the one hand, it is true that the possibilities for non-verbal demonstrations of specific aspects of the situation are much more limited than when the object of attention is perceptually present. On the other hand, it is not obviously correct to say that any verbal highlighting is thereby descriptive. Suppose Priya later says, ‘It was your dismissive tone of voice that really touched a nerve,’ and Alice thereby comes to sympathise better with her point of view. Has this come about just through Priya producing an accurate description of the relevant feature of the situation—one which could in principle convey the same information to someone who was not actually present? It seems to me clearly not, and that the communicative force of such verbal descriptions depends essentially on the audience being able to latch onto the relevant features of the particular concrete situation being described.

  3. This is not to say that we have no way of knowing what other people are remembering, and indeed below I will suggest that the differences are not as radical as they seem. But there is an especially direct and systematic way in which direction of gaze can specify the object of visual attention, by indicating its spatial location, which has no clear analogue in recall.

  4. The basic materials of the approach go back to Schiffer (see n. 1 above). It is hard to find a completely explicit statement of a commitment to the mindreading approach in its pure form, although scattered statements can be found across Tomasello’s work. Ch. 7 of Tomasello (2008) gives a general defence of the centrality of recursive mindreading, while Tomasello (2019, p. 56) loosely characterises joint attention as having a recursive structure. A somewhat nonstandard version of the mindreading approach is also developed by Peacocke (see n. 7 below).

  5. This is the standard move in classic analyses of common knowledge along the lines of Schiffer (1972) and Lewis (2002 [orig. 1969]).

  6. The classic account of how communication trades on implicit cognition is Sperber and Wilson (1995 [1986]).

  7. Peacocke’s own sophisticated reductive analysis of joint attention attempts to steer a middle course between these two pitfalls, by positing a complex reflexive state of ‘occurrent awareness’ that makes reference to itself as well as to both participant’ states of attention. Yet a common reaction to his proposal is incredulity that the majority of cases of genuine joint attention involve anything like this level of cognitive complexity (Campbell 2011; Eilan, n.d.). I am sympathetic to this complaint, and will set Peacocke’s approach aside without further argument. However, it would also be an interesting project to see how a Peacocke-style approach might be adapted to give an account of joint reminiscing.

  8. This way of dividing up the options to some extent mirrors the standard options in explaining collective intentions. ‘Content’ views of collective intentionality appeal just to the contents of the individuals’ intentions, and perhaps their beliefs about their cooperators’ intentions. To this extent content views parallels reductive approaches to joint attention. By contrast, nonreductive approaches, such as Campbell’s perceptual approach and the communicative approach I discuss below, both appeal in some way to irreducible relations between subjects of joint attention, and to that extent resemble ‘subject’ approaches to collective intentionality on which joint intentions have an irreducibly plural subject. The correspondence is, however, imperfect, as neither nonreductive approach to joint attention is obviously committed to multi-subject experiential states, but only the irreducibility of the relations that constitute joint attention to individual states. (Compare: Campbell’s relational view of perceptual experience posits an irreducible experiential relation between the subject and object of awareness, but in no sense makes perception a state with a plural subject.) See Schweikard and Schmid (2012) for an overview of approaches to collective intentionality.

  9. Eilan suggests that this way of thinking of a person is individuated in terms of the condition that, for a ‘you’-thought to be successful, the target must similarly think of the thinker as ‘you.’ See also Martin (2014) and Salje (2016).

  10. See, for example, work on the ‘sharing looks’ of infants, which Carpenter and Liebal (2011) argue serves just this communicative function of acknowledgment and sharing.

  11. Arguably certain forms of mutual touch, such as hand squeezing, can also sustain joint attention. See Botero (2016).

  12. One question, raised by a reviewer, is to what extent being able to tell that the object is salient to the other person requires a sophisticated ‘mindreading’ inference. A short answer is that it does not, as the evidence from developmental and comparative psychology robustly suggests that the ability to tell what others can and cannot perceive is separable from, and more basic than, the kinds of inferences (such as classic false belief-task reasoning) typically grouped under the heading of mindreading (see, for example, the evidence reviewed in ch. 2 of Tomasello (2019), as well as Nagel (2017) and Seemann (2021) for some different accounts of how these levels of interpersonal cognition are related). A related but trickier question is whether, on the communicative approach, joint attention involves attributing a perceptual state to the other person by means of the concept of perception; or whether it merely requires some ability to detect and respond to conditions of perceptibility, not necessarily conceptualised as such (This is an aspect of the ‘Concept Question’ identified by Eilan in her 2005 review). The former of these might be thought to amount to a form of mindreading in a broader sense insofar as it involves applying general psychological concepts. However, note that, even if some kind of mindreading is involved in at least this sense, there is still clear daylight between the communicative approach and the mindreading approach. The standard mindreading approach holds not just that joint attention involves some form of mindreading, but that the presence of recursive mindreading (up to some level) is what makes the difference between joint attention and merely coincident solo attention.

  13. One might worry here, as a reviewer did, that this kind of communication can succeed only if the object is already not merely salient, but jointly attended to. To this I can only reply that this worry, if cogent, applies no less to other accounts of joint attention, such as Campbell-style accounts, which after all allow that some kind of communication is a necessary precursor to joint attention. Joint attention has to get off the ground somehow, so it cannot be that all communication presupposes joint attention. Perhaps there is a puzzle about how this is so much as possible, but it does not seem to me any more pressing for a communicative model than for other approaches.

  14. Semantically, such locutions appear to have the character of ‘complex demonstratives’ rather than descriptions: expressions like ‘that book,’ used to indicate a particular salient book. For discussion, see Borg (2000).

  15. For a classic discussion of recognition and its significance, see ch. 8 of Evans (1982). Note that the notion of recognition here is somewhat technical in that it implies the successful identification of the object rather than just a feeling of familiarity. This contrasts with ordinary usages such as: “I recognise that face, but I can’t think where from”.

  16. One question this raises—parallel to the question whether joint perceptual attention requires the participants to deploy the general concept of perception—is whether it is necessary for either participant to possess the concept of memory, and to apply that concept in attributing to the other person a memory of the earlier occurrence, or whether some more minimal strategy might suffice, such as keeping an ‘experiential record’ of what the other person has experienced (Perner and Roessler 2012). Even given the more conceptually demanding answer to this question, though, it by no means follows that the only way we can become aware of another person’s memories in the manner required for joint reminiscing is by inference.

  17. It is important that, as De Brigard is using the term ‘intentional content’, this is not the same as the remembered thing, which he calls the ‘intentional object’ of the remembering. As I emphasise, it is an essential aspect of De Brigard’s account that what one attends to in recall is distinct from what one would normally be said to remember.

  18. In other work, Seemann develops a framework on which the possibility of joint reference in general is dependent on subjects’ abilities to locate their reference in a shared spatial framework (Seemann 2019b, 2021). There are difficulties for this proposal which are not fully addressed by Seemann—for example, it is not clear how it generalises to joint attention in modalities other than vision, in which spatial information is relatively impoverished. Setting these doubts aside, though, there is a way in which Seemann’s proposal about the role of joint spatial awareness in underpinning reference might be combined with the present proposal: namely, in terms of the idea that co-reference to a past object needs to take account of the participants’ understanding that they were both previously at the location in question (or within perceptual range of it), and have each traversed a continuous path in a common spatial framework of experience and action since that earlier encounter. For a discussion of the role of spatial understanding in recall, albeit limited to the individual case, see Hoerl (2001).

  19. Thanks to a reviewer for inviting me to consider these questions.

  20. This is not to say that having a shared past with someone can never facilitate cooperation (“Grab that book I was reading last night.”) But it is hard to see how joint attention to the past could have the same canonical role for cooperation that joint attention does when, for example, two hunters need to attack at the same time or not at all. Such cooperative scenarios form the base of Campbell’s master argument against reductive accounts of joint attention; see also Wilby (2023) and Seemann (2007).


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ERC Consolidator Grant 726251 for project, “Seeing Things You Don’t See: Unifying the Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience of Multimodal Mental Imagery”. PI: Prof. Bence Nanay.

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Bacharach, J. Is There Such a Thing as Joint Attention to the Past?. Topoi 43, 323–335 (2024).

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