Hesperus is Bosphorus

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Cog-Sci Talk at Boğaziçi: Marco Fenici (Bilkent) on “The sociocultural nature of mindreading: an empirical, theoretical, and meta-theoretical defence” (05/03/2019)

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Marco Fenici (Bilkent) will give a talk on Tuesday, March 5th from 5.15-6.45 pm in JF 507. Everyone is welcome. The talk will be on:


“The sociocultural nature of mindreading:  

an empirical, theoretical, and meta-theoretical defence”


Abstract: Mindreading—sometimes also referred to as “Theory of Mind” (ToM)—is usually defined as the ability “to report our propositional attitudes [i.e., such states as belief, desire, hope, or fear], to attribute such attitudes to others, and to use such postulated or observed mental states in the prediction and explanation of behaviour” (Garfield, Peterson, & Perry, 2001). According to a widely shared view in philosophy and cognitive science, this ability is an intrinsic component of the human biological endowment, thus being specified by natural selection within particular neurocognitive structures because of its adaptive value (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Dunbar, 1998). Subscribing to such a view, many developmental psychologists argue that mindreading is innate, manifests in early infancy, and becomes more flexible and sophisticated due to its progressive integration with executive and linguistic abilities (Baillargeon et al. 2010; Helming et al. 2016; Westra and Carruthers 2017).

Against the received naturalist view, advocates of a socio-cultural account have recently claimed that mindreading essentially depends on the practice of talking about mental states to explain behaviour, and has emerged in the course of human cultural evolution as a linguistic construct without being already innately specified within the neurocognitive architecture of the brain (Fenici & Garofoli, 2017; Heyes & Frith, 2014; Hutto, 2008). Accordingly, they argue, mindreading is still transmitted through the mediation of cultural practices, and is acquired during childhood because of social and linguistic interaction. Children’s exposure to conversations discussing mental states does not merely fine-tune some previously existing conceptual understanding but provides them with a new tool to enter the community of minds (Nelson, 2005).

The naturalist and the socio-cultural view provide radically divergent theoretical interpretations of the same empirical data, and furthermore differ with respect to the empirical phenomena that are claimed to be relevant to understand the nature of mindreading. However, their contrast also originates from opposite metaphysical intuitions on the nature of belief. More precisely, while the philosophical background of the naturalist view is widely known to philosophers and cognitive scientists, the socio-cultural view appeals to a set of philosophical intuitions that are rarely unified in a coherent framework. In the talk, I will aim to organize such a framework to provide a solid theoretical foundation for the socio-cultural view, which shows how plausible it is.

The supporters of the naturalist view implicitly assume that beliefs—and, more generally, mental states—are causal/functional states individuated by their representational content and identical with, or supervening on the physical states of the brain (Fodor, 1987). Accordingly, they argue that (i) attributing a belief amounts to recognizing a representational state in the mind/brain of its possessor (Carruthers, 2011; Fodor, 1992; Goldman, 2006), and consequently that (ii) understanding the verbal ascription of a belief requires mapping the linguistic structure of propositional attitudes—i.e., those expressions stating a relation between a cognitive agent, a mental verb, and a that-clause—on one’s internal representation of the attributed belief. All of this requires presupposing (usually implicitly) that beliefs are intrinsically relational, and that their structure mirrors the relational structure of propositional attitudes.

On the contrary, I will claim that the proposed socio-cultural account is coherent with a much less metaphysically compromised view on the nature of belief. According to it, we cannot really say what mental states actually are, and in particular we cannot infer anything about the relational nature of belief from observing the relational nature of PAs (Wittgenstein, 1953). However, we can deduce the conceptual properties of belief from observing how we attribute them in language (Davidson, 1984; Dennett, 1987; Mölder, 2010). I will argue first that, even though we deny that beliefs are representational states in the mind/brain of cognitive agents, we can still ground metaphysically the practice of on talking about beliefs within a measurement theoretic account of propositional attitudes (Matthews, 2007; see also Churchland, 1979; Davidson, 1991, 1999; Dennett, 1987; Sellars, 1980).[1] Second, I will claim that such a slim nominalist view on the nature of belief suggests an original and promising explanation of (i) what is to understand the meaning of the verbal ascriptions of belief, and consequently of (ii) what is to acquire the capacity of mindreading.

As to the first point, I will show how, within measurement theoretic semantics, the meaning of an expression is defined by the relation between the class of the possible utterances of that expression and a properly related class of primitive properties and relations in the world (Dresner, 2010). This view fits the usage-based theory of language acquisition (Carpendale & Lewis, 2015; Montgomery, 2002; Tomasello, 2009), according to which knowing the meaning of an expression amounts to knowing how the expression is uttered within conversation (Sellars, 1974; Brandom, 1994). Applied to mental verbs, it implies that understanding the meaning of the verbal reports of belief amounts to mastering the practice of ascribing beliefs in conversation.

Importantly, the usage-based theory of language acquisition implies that mastering the functional meaning of an expression can drive, rather than follow the conceptual knowledge of a category (Vygotsky, 1978). If this is the case, it may then be possible that children familiarise progressively with the concept of belief while they learn to master the practice of ascribing mental states in conversation. Based on recent discussion, I will argue that the psychological lexicon has the function of supporting the coordination and regulation of social interaction rather than that of describing the inner mental causes of behaviour (Andrews, 2012; Hutto, 2008; McGeer, 2007; Zawidzki, 2013). It follows that acquiring mindreading capacities essentially amounts to acquiring the practice of reporting propositional attitudes in conversation in order to explain and normalize unsuccessful social interaction. In support of this conclusion, I will discuss empirical data showing that infants’ earliest socio-cognitive abilities do not indicate a capacity to attribute mental states (Fenici, 2015a, 2015b), that social and linguistic experience shapes older children’s capacity to identify mental states to predict behaviour (Fenici, 2017), and that mastering the functional meaning of mental verbs may drive children’s acquisition of the concept of belief—as attested by their acquired capacity to succeed in elicited-response false belief tasks (Fenici, subm.).


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Fenici, M. (subm.). How children approach the false belief test: Social development, pragmatics, and the assembly of Theory of Mind.

Fenici, M. (2015a). A simple explanation of apparent early mindreading: infants’ sensitivity to goals and gaze direction. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 497–515. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-014-9345-3

Fenici, M. (2015b). Social cognitive abilities in infancy: Is mindreading the best explanation? Philosophical Psychology, 28(3), 387–411. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2013.865096

Fenici, M. (2017). What is the role of experience in children’s success in the false belief test: Maturation, facilitation, attunement or induction? Mind & Language, 32(3), 308–337. https://doi.org/10.1111/mila.12145

Fenici, M., & Garofoli, D. (2017). The biocultural emergence of mindreading: Integrating cognitive archaeology and human development. Journal of Cultural Cognitive Science, 1(2), 89–117.

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Nelson, K. (2005). Language pathways into the community of minds. In J. W. Astington & J. A. Baird (Eds.), Why Language Matters for Theory of Mind (pp. 26–49). New York: Oxford University Press.

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[1] According Matthews (2007), verbs of propositional attitudes are non-relational in their nature, and—similarly to other measurement predicates—specify non-causal relations between a representational structure of abstract entities and a corresponding empirical structure of measured entities. In the case of propositional attitudes, the representational structure refers to interpreted utterance forms (IUFs)—i.e., sentences that are semantically non-ambiguous, and interpreted pragmatically within their context of utterance. Instead, the empirical structure refers to the internal states of cognitive agents that are apt to produce intentional behaviour. Because the relation between these two structures is reliable—more precisely, because the IUFs describe state of affairs that are essentially related to the intentional aptitudes—, making inferences in the representational structure allows drawing conclusions about the empirical one—what has been called “surrogative” reasoning (Hughes, 1997; Swoyer, 1991).


Written by Lucas Thorpe

February 17, 2019 at 4:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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