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Two Challenges to Hutto’s Enactive Account of Pre-linguistic Social Cognition


Daniel Hutto’s Enactive account of social cognition maintains that pre- and non-linguistic interactions do not require that the participants represent the psychological states of the other. This goes against traditional ‘cognitivist’ accounts of these social phenomena. This essay examines Hutto’s Enactive account, and proposes two challenges. The account maintains that organisms respond to the behaviours of others, and in doing so respond to the ‘intentional attitude’ which the other has. The first challenge argues that there is no adequate account of how the organisms respond to the correct aspect of the behaviour in each situation. The second challenge argues that the Enactive account cannot account for the flexibility of pre- and non-linguistic responses to others. The essay concludes that these challenges provide more than sufficient reason to doubt the viability of Hutto’s account as an alternative to cogntivist approaches to social cognition.

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  1. 1.

    There are a number of accounts of cognition which describe themselves as ‘Enactive’. Throughout this paper the focus is on Hutto’s brand of Enactivism as defended in his book ‘Folk Psychological Narratives’, and the arguments explored may not apply to other Enactive approaches.

  2. 2.

    Note that organisms are not directed towards the proposition, but towards the state of affairs represented by that proposition.

  3. 3.

    FPN: Hutto, D.D. (2008) Folk Psychological Narratives: the sociocultural basis of understanding reasons.

  4. 4.

    This essay will not discuss or assess Hutto’s reasons for holding this view, for more see FPN, ch. 5&7.

  5. 5.

    This is not an accurate description of the intentional attitude, as ‘I want to contact the light with a certain force’ is a representational mental state. However, as there is no way of transcribing intentional attitudes into linguistic terms this must suffice for present purposes.

  6. 6.

    Fitzpatrick (2009) offers an excellent discussion of the role of parsimony in the mindreading debates.

  7. 7.

    One might argue that infants gradually learn how to respond to a behaviour which correlates with more than one intentional attitude through trial and error (I’m grateful to a reviewer for pointing out this possibility). But trial and error cannot explain why a statistically significant percentage of infants in Gergeley’s study succeed in responding to the ‘right’ intentional attitude in a novel situation. How often infants (and non-human animals) are able to respond to the appropriate intentional attitude in novel situations is an empirical question, and further analysis of the empirical literature is needed to address this issue.


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This paper developed from a talk presented at the Ruhr Universität, Bochum, as part of the graduate workshop Extended Minds, Extended Selves, and Social Minds in March 2011. I am grateful to Albert Newen who invited me to attend that workshop, and to the participants whose discussion helped with the development of this paper. I would like to thank Robert Hopkins and Stephen Laurence for their comments on earlier drafts of this piece, and to acknowledge the extremely helpful comments of an anonymous Philosophia reviewer.

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Correspondence to Jane Suilin Lavelle.

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Lavelle, J.S. Two Challenges to Hutto’s Enactive Account of Pre-linguistic Social Cognition. Philosophia 40, 459–472 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-011-9356-z

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  • Enactivism
  • Mindreading
  • Intentional attitudes
  • Pre-linguistic understanding
  • Social cognition