The social origins of human thinking.

TomaselloWhat is thinking? Where does human thought come from? How did it evolve? These are important questions for us if we want to understand what makes humans different from other living things and to make the most of our abilities both as individuals and as members of society.

Michael Tomasello’s brilliant A Natural History of Human Thinking (2014) tackles these questions in a way which is clear and accessible for the non-specialist reader. Tomasello argues that co-operative social action is the key to our uniqueness. Once our ancestors learned to put their heads together with others to pursue shared goals, humankind was on an evolutionary path all its own.

The shared intentionality hypothesis:

Thinking can seem to be a solitary activity; something inside us contained within our brain. But it is done in a social and historical context with tools made by others after years of use and learning from others and for an imaginary audience. Human thinking can be described as “individual improvisation enmeshed in a sociocultural matrix”.

Some theorists emphasise the role of culture and its artifacts in making certain kinds of thinking possible. Lev Vygotsky for example observed that children grow up surrounded by the tools and symbols of their culture, including the linguistic symbols which organise their world. Their use of these tools is internalized during their development, leading to the sort of internal dialogue which is the prototype for human thinking.

Others have focused on the fundamental processes of social co-ordination which make culture and language possible; being able to ‘see’ the world from the perspective of other people, subordinating one’s own point of view. ‘Social infrastructure’ theorists (eg: Mead, Piaget, Wittgenstein) share a belief that language and culture are only the ‘icing on the cake’ of the way we understand the social world.

Tomasello draws on new findings about the cognitive abilities of great apes and human infants to support his claim that important aspects of human thinking emanate not from culture and language but from uniquely human kinds of social engagement.

This is a philosophy of action; thinking about the unique ways humans put their heads together with others in acts of shared intentionality with joint goals and joint attention, creating individual roles and perspectives which need co-ordinating. This action is connected to more abstract cultural practices and products such as the cultural institutions we have created over time.

Humans are different:

In short, humans think in a different way, which Tomasello describes as ‘objective-reflective-normative’. This means that only humans can:

  • conceptualize the same situation or entity from different social perspectives.
  • make socially recursive and self-reflective inferences about others’ intentions.
  • self-monitor and evaluate their own thinking with respect to the reasons of others.

Shared intentionality created this unique type of thinking; representation, inference, self-monitoring, as a way of dealing with the problems of social co-ordination and collaboration. Our great-ape ancestors lived individualistic and competitive lives and their thinking was geared to achieving individual goals. In contrast, early humans were forced by environmental circumstances into more co-operation in order to achieve group goals.

Tomasello suggests that the key evolutionary steps were probably:

  1. The creation of new types of small-scale collaboration requiring co-operative communication.
  2. The ability to construct a common cultural framework of conventions, norms and institutions as part of a larger community which required a more permanent shared social world.

Co-operative communication became conventionalised linguistic communication and people could now reason ‘objectively’ from the group’s ‘agent-neutral’ perspective.

None of this means we are ‘hard-wired’ to think in these ways. We learn to do so by exercising these skills in social interactions from early childhood onwards. As we grow up, we internalize our co-operative interactions with others into thinking for ourselves and this becomes a kind of co-operative was of knowing and thinking.

The role of education:

Our ability to co-operate with each other in order to agree and achieve shared goals is probably the most important skill we have. In the complex and interconnected society which we have created, this co-operation with shared intentionality takes more and more powerful and sophisticated forms with enormous potential to shape our world. We therefore have to master it and pass it on to the next generation.

We need the next generation to be adept in the skills of co-operation and democratic decision-making which can harness this human shared intentionality to enhance our lives and our understanding. We need to build and refine all the tools which can make co-operative social action work for good at the human scale as well as at the global scale.

What lessons might teachers draw from all this? We need to put thinking at the centre of our educational project and treat it not as a mysterious internal secret but as a kind of doing; no less active or social for sometimes being silent and solitary. We also need to recognise the value of learning in group settings as well as individually from an early age; of ‘learning by doing’ as well as ‘learning by reflecting’.

Thinking, communicating, empathising and cooperating with others are far from optional ‘soft skills’. They are the hardest and most crucial of human abilities and our survival depends on how well we nurture them.

See also:

Roberto Unger on school as ‘the voice of the future’ (April 2015)

Challenging neurosexism (January 2016)

Any misunderstandings, inaccuracies or simplifications are mine and I am happy to have them pointed out.


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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