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The Michael Tomasello Mind & Language Reading List

Professor Michael Tomasello has written some of the most influential books on cognitive science, language, and evolutionary psychology in the 21st century. So what are the book that he read that most influenced his ideas? I followed up with him after our podcast episode about some of the authors he mentioned. Below are the books he listed, along with my own annotations.

Mike's Picks

"Origins of Intelligence in Children" by Jean Piaget (1952)

Jean Piaget was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Pretty much anyone whose interested in development or language has been impacted by Piaget's ideas in one way or another. Though he wrote many books, this was Mike's pick for Piaget's must-read. According to Ernst von Glasersfeld (who was actually Michael Tomasello's PhD advisor), Piaget was "the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing." This book is for anyone who wants to read someone who really got the core concepts underlying the mind's structure.

"Mind and Society" by Lev Vygotsky (1978)

This book is for anyone who read Piaget and asked, "Hey, but what about culture?" Vygotsky died in 1934 at the age of thirty-seven. He didn't enjoy widespread fame in the English-speaking world during his lifetime. It wasn't until the publication of this book -- which collected translations of a wide range of papers he published throughout his career -- that people really started to pay attention to him. And since then he's joined thinkers like Piaget among the ranks of people whose ideas have most profoundly influenced the way we think about the developing mind.

"In Search of Mind" by Jerome Bruner (1983)

Mike and I talk a lot about Bruner in our conversation on Cognitive Revolution. Bruner was Mike's mentor, and he was undoubtedly among the most insightful psychologists of the twentieth century. This is his autobiography. We also talked at a number of points about one of Bruner's most influential works, "Acts of Meaning." Either of these is a good starting point for getting into his work, as well as his paper on the Narrative Construction of Reality. Bruner made some of the most incisive arguments against the computer metaphor of the mind, and these works are required reading for anyone who believes that the mind is more than a computer.

"Philosophical Investigations" by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953)

This is often considered among the greatest books on meaning written in the twentieth century. It is one of only two major works that Wittgenstein published in his lifetime (the other being his Tractatus). A lot of the book consists of more on-the-ground examples of the everyday implications of Wittgenstein's philosophy. It's not a straightforward read by any means, but there's no doubt that it's hugely worth grappling with.

"The Construction of Social Reality" by John Searle (1995)

John Searle a professor philosophy best known for the "Chinese Room" argument, though over the course of his career he has engaged with pretty much every major debate in the philosophy of mind. In this short book, Searle looks at things which only exist through social means -- something like money, for instance, which only has value because we all agree that it has value. Searle contrasts these social realities with "brute" realities and argues that brute realities underlie all social ones.

"Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari (2011)

Whenever I travel to a new country I love looking at the airport bookstores; I want to see what's popular in different places. And without a doubt the book that is most consistently at the top of the best-sellers in non-fiction are not only this book by Harari, but his other two major works: "Homo Deus" and "21 Lessons." He's a true phenomenon and this amazing book speaks to people of all background: academics, MBA, humanists, anyone who comes across it. It's one of the best popular renderings of human history that's ever been written.

Cody's Picks

Based on Mike's Picks, I figured I would throw in a few of my own.

"Origin of Concepts" by Susan Carey (2009)

This book belongs right up there in the canon of developmental psychology along side Vygotsky and Piaget. It has all of the philosophical profundity of these works, but is based on decades more empirical research in infant development. Professor Carey takes aim at the biggest claims ever made by philosophers of mind, and backs up her arguments with an impressive collection of empirical research. It's a work of true scholarship.

"Cultural Origins of Human Cognition" by Michael Tomasello (1999)

This is Mike's most influential work, and rightly so. The monograph weighs in at just over a hundred pages, but it's absolutely jam packed with insights about human cognition. When reading it, you really feel you're getting the full story about the mind. The book brings together insights at the various timescales of evolution (very long), history and culture (kind of long), and individual human lives (very short, really). It's core argument is that there was one major genetic augmentation that the human brain went through -- which was the ability for "joint attention" -- and from this single addition, humans were able to bootstrap everything that we've accomplished over the course of civilization. If you haven't read this book yet, get it now. It'll change the way you think about cognition.

"Constructing a Language" by Michael Tomasello (2005)

This book articulates a view that's essentially the opposite of the mainstream positions held by linguists like Chomsky and Pinker. Because the story of "universal grammar" and similar ideas gets pushed so heavily, this book runs contrary to many of our natural assumptions about how language works. And there's little doubt that Mike in my mind is on the right side of the debate. If you really want to understand how language comes about, skip Chomsky and Pinker. This is your book.


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