It is not unlikely for a book review to start with a brief outline of the content of a text. Uncharacteristically, this review begins with an admission. Namely, I feel compelled to disclose that before I began to read Cognitive pragmatics: The mental processes of communication by Bruno G. Bara, I was skeptical that the reading would offer a novel perspective on human communication. Admittedly, I was intrigued by the challenge that the author took upon himself and by the premises from which his work was to be explained. As reading progressed from chapter to chapter, it became clear that Bara had delivered on his stated promise to present a novel viewpoint. In my opinion, novelty mainly applies to the author's skillful integration of different research areas (e.g., from linguistics to cognitive psychology and neuropsychology) in an attempt to redefine the object of study, (i.e., human communication) in a manner that makes it amenable to scrutiny from the variety of disciplines that comprise the neuroscience umbrella. As for all attempts to integrate a wealth of evidence from disparate disciplines, areas of uncertainty and/or controversy are bound to emerge. Hence, the primary task of my review will be to highlight the main features of the text, while briefly mentioning a few of such areas.
Let me begin by noting the remarkably logical structure of Cognitive pragmatics: The mental processes of communication, which allows the reader to integrate in a step-wise fashion different ideas and research findings, rendering comprehension effortless. Bara's narrative starts with the premise that human communication is a cooperative activity that involves more than simply transmission of information and that conscious intention to communicate is the essential ingredient. Bara's approach is to investigate the mind of the participants of a communication act in their interchanging roles of speakers and listeners. As a result, human communication is not examined merely from completed products (i.e., the utterances that speakers produce and listeners attempt to comprehend), rather as a dynamic entity, a process, that develops as a cooperative activity to which the interested parties may contribute differentially.
The claim that 'conscious intention' is an essential ingredient of human communication may be judged as controversial or misleading. Namely, most of the human brain's information processing is carried out largely outside awareness, although its products may become, and frequently are, conscious. Even intentions originate from cognitive operations upon which there is little consciousness. In this respect, the dichotomy between 'prior intention' and 'intention-in-action' may accurately reflect the distinction between stable and transitory action plans, the differential amount of processing time devoted to the formulation of such plans, the varied degree of awareness and automaticity of the intermediate steps leading to the final products (i.e., intentions), etc.; but it does not negate the fact that the mental operations that guide all 'intentions' remain largely beyond our awareness. Thus, if mental operations, rather than merely products, of human communication are Bara's object of study, then awareness of one's intention to communicate should remain marginal to his claim that communication is a cooperative activity requiring intention.
Across the entire text, reputable research evidence is discussed to support the notion of cognitive pragmatics (as defined by Bara) and related competence. Developmental and neuropsychological data offer particularly strong support for the author's thesis. Bara explores communication in standard and non-standard settings (e.g., in cases of deception), thereby expanding his examination of human communication to instances where the default rules do not automatically apply. Although his definition of human communication centers on cooperation, other features apply as well, such as common attention, symbolism, sharedness, etc. Many such features, however, remain cursorily defined; and their relationships do not receive a thorough inspection. For instance, through the microscope of a 'process approach', one would expect the cognitive processes that underlie sharedness, common attention and cooperation to be meticulously investigated so as to identify commonalties and differences. Of course, albeit a follow-up text may be the appropriate avenue for the investigation of such processes, their cursory treatment in the current text remains noticeable.
All in all, Cognitive pragmatics: The mental processes of communication is a text that not only summarizes and integrates evidence from different domains regarding the operations underlying human communication, but also makes the reader realize the larger framework upon which human communication occurs. The text may be a starting point for a novice who wants to understand the basics of online human communication or for a professional in the field who is craving a more eclectic approach. Bara's logical and engaging writing makes his text accessible and potentially relevant to both constituencies.
© 2011 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York