Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 8, pp 2011–2028 | Cite as

The essence of agency is discovered, not defined: a minimal mindreading argument

  • Andrew SimsEmail author


In this paper I give a novel argument for this view that the AGENT concept has an externalist semantics. The argument argues the conclusion from two premises: first, that our first relationships to agents is through a subpersonal mechanism which requires for its function an agential proto-concept which refers directly; and second, that there is a continuity of reference between this proto-concept and the mature concept AGENT. I argue the first on the basis of results in the developmental psychology of social cognition. I argue the second on the basis of a process of elimination, by considering three possibilities for the relationship between the two concepts. On the basis of these two premises the conclusion is drawn that AGENT is a concept that refers directly. That has the following consequences for the philosophy of action: first, that “action” is not an appropriate term for reductive analysis, as the causal theory of action assumes; and second, that we should be looking to the appropriate empirical disciplines for an elucidation of the concept.


Mindreading Agency Free will Natural kinds Reference 



I would like to thank Helen Steward and my colleagues at CEFISES for comments and advice on an earlier version of this paper. This work was funded by the Action Recherche Concertée “Free Will and Causality.”


  1. Anscombe, G. E. M. (1957). Intention. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  2. Apperly, I. A., & Butterfill, S. A. (2009). Do humans have two systems to track beliefs and belief-like states? Psychological Review, 116, 953–970.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bishop, J. C. (1989). Natural agency: An essay on the causal theory of action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Boyd, R. (1991). Realism, anti-foundationalism and the enthusiasm for natural kinds. Philosophical Studies, 61, 127–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boyd, R. (1999). Homeostasis, species, and higher taxa. In R. A. Wilson (Ed.), Species: New interdisciplinary essays (pp. 141–185). Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bugnyar, T., Reber, S. A., & Buckner, C. (2016). Ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors. Nature Communications, 7, 10506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Butterfill, S. A., & Apperly, I. A. (2013). How to construct a minimal theory of mind. Mind and Language, 28, 606–637.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Butterfill, S. A., & Apperly, I. A. (2016). Is goal ascription possible in minimal mindreading? Psychological Review, 123, 228–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2008). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12, 187–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Campbell, J. (2012). Perceiving the intended model. In A. Raftopoulos & P. Machamer (Eds.), Perception, realism, and the problem of reference (pp. 96–122). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carruthers, P. (2016). Two systems for mindreading? Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 7, 141–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Clayton, N. S., Dally, J. M., & Emery, N. J. (2007). Social cognition by food-caching corvids: The western scrub-jay as a natural psychologist. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362, 507–522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Davidson, D. (1963). Actions, reasons, and causes. Journal of Philosophy, 60, 685–700.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Deery, O. (2015). The fall from Eden: Why libertarianism isn't justified by experience. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 93, 319–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. DiCarlo, J. J., Zoccolan, D., & Rust, N. C. (2012). How does the brain solve visual object recognition? Neuron, 73, 415–434.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Donnellan, K. S. (1966). Reference and definite descriptions. Philosophical Review, 75, 281–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Heider, F., & Simmel, M. (1944). An experimental study of apparent behaviour. American Journal of Psychology, 57, 243–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Heller, M. (1996). The mad scientist meets the robot cats: Compatibilism, kinds, and counterexamples. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 56, 333–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hurley, S. L. (2000). Is responsibility essentially impossible? Philosophical Studies, 99, 229–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jackson, F. (1998). From metaphysics to ethics: A defence of conceptual analysis. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  21. Kripke, S. (1980). Naming and necessity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  22. McCormick, K. A. (2015). Companions in innocence: Defending a new methodological assumption for responsibility theorising. Philosophical Studies, 172, 515–533.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. McKenna, M., & Pereboom, D. (2016). Free will: A contemporary introduction. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Nichols, S. (2015). Bound: Essays on free will and moral responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. O’Brien, L. (2017). Actions as prime. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 80, 265–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Onishi, K., & Baillargeon, R. (2005). Do 15-month-olds understand false beliefs? Science, 308, 255–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Putnam, H. (1970). Is semantics possible? Metaphilosophy, 1, 187–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Putnam, H. (1975). The meaning of ‘meaning’. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 7, 131–193.Google Scholar
  29. Recanati, F. (2012). Mental files. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Rizzolatti, G., & Sinigaglia, C. (2010). The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: Interpretations and misinterpretations. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11, 264–274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Shea, N., & Bayne, T. (2010). The vegetative state and the science of consciousness. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 61, 459–484.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sims, A. (in press). Agency and the metaphysics of nature. Australasian Philosophical Review, 3(1).Google Scholar
  33. Steward, H. (2012). A metaphysics for freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Vargas, M. (2013a). Building better beings: A theory of moral responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Vargas, M. (2013b). If free will doesn’t exist, neither does water. In G. Caruso (Ed.), Exploring the illusion of free will (pp. 177–202). Lanham: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  36. Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wellman, H., Cross, D., & Watson, J. (2001). Meta-analysis of theory-of-mind development: The truth about false belief. Child Development, 72, 655–684.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations (2nd ed.) (G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut supérieur de philosophieUniversité catholique de LouvainOttignies-Louvain-la-NeuveBelgium

Personalised recommendations