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From Theory of Mind to Vicarious Perception


We attribute mental states to others all the time: if I know that my wife wants diamonds for her birthday, or that my daughter knows how to open her bedroom door, this may influence my actions. Our the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, desires, wishes, etc – to others, which is known as ‘theory of mind’, is taken to be the central concept in understanding how we are trying to make sense of others: how we engage cognitively with other agents.

Some important questions about ‘theory of mind’ are:

(i) Do non-human animals have theory of mind?
(ii) How does theory of mind develop in ontogeny?
(iii) What mental processes make theory of mind possible in humans?
(iv) What are the neural underpinnings of theory of mind?

I argue that the emphasis on theory of mind is a methodological mistake and that the empirical findings from developmental psychology and primatology point to a possible alternative, vicarious perception.

We very often experience objects as affording actions to us: we experience an apple as edible or as affording eating. Importantly, sometimes, we experience objects as affording actions not for ourselves, but for someone else. Sometimes we see an apple as edible not for myself but for you. This is the phenomenon I call ‘vicarious perception’. Vicarious perception is a simpler, and more basic, way of engaging with others cognitively than theory of mind.

I argue that while questions (i) – (iv) are difficult to tackle as long as they are about theory of mind, if we take them to be about vicarious perception, we get straightforward answers. More specifically, all experiments that are supposed to show that non-human primates have theory of mind in fact demonstrate that they are capable of vicarious perception. The same goes for the experiments about the theory of mind of less than 12 month old infants. If we shift the emphasis from theory of mind to vicarious perception, we can make real advances in understanding the origins of social cogni

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Tipo de actividad
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Contacto administrativo
Anne Adams (Ms.)
Aportación de la UE
€ 100 000