What guides pretence? Towards the interactive and the narrative approaches


This paper will explore one aspect of the relationship between pretence and narratives. I look at proposals about how scripts play guiding roles in our pretend play practices. I then examine the views that mental representations are needed to guide pretend play, reviewing two importantly different pictures of mental guiders: the Propositional Account and the Model Account. Both accounts are individualistic and internalistic; the former makes use of language-like representations, the latter makes use of models, maps and images. The paper will discuss some worries with the notion of mental guiders, and offer some positive suggestions about what else might be playing the guiding role in pretence. I propose that environmental affordances and socially scaffolded engagements provide the basis of pretence guiders (the Interactive Account), and suggest that engagement in narrative practices further frames and allows elaborations of acts of pretend play (the Narrative Account). I take first steps in developing a new embodied, enactive and intersubjective understanding of pretence, showing why it is a viable alternative to the mental representational accounts of pretence.

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  1. 1.

    Mental representations are typically understood as objects with semantic properties (content, reference, truth-conditions, truth-value, etc.), which fulfill some conditions of satisfaction (truth, accuracy, etc.) and thereby determine the meaning of a thought. In order to explain pretence, mental representations with contents that fulfill some condition of satisfaction are usually invoked.

  2. 2.

    Van Leeuwen’s proposal of imagination as guider is the most recent and enactive of the available accounts. He argues against Nichols and Stich’s (2003) conditional belief account, as well as against replacement theories of Velleman 2000; Currie and Ravenscroft 2002 and Doggett and Egan 2007, which hold that “imaginings take two forms – one form corresponding to beliefs and one to desires – and they effectively replace beliefs and desires in producing actions” (61). The replacement theories are not discussed further in this paper.

  3. 3.

    Aside actual scripts, whether behaviours and norms count as a genuine scripts per se depends on one’s notion of a ‘script’; they can, however, be thought of as guiders in accordance with the minimal description given earlier in the paper.

  4. 4.

    Of course, the same point can be made about following physical scripts like screenplays; even a command “and now sight” does not give one all the details of how to act out a sigh – the actor must already possess embodied skill of sighing, and the actor is guided further (e.g., by the director showing or describing further how to do it). However, invoking sub-personal structures like belief boxes to explain how one’s behaviour is guided from the ‘inside’ through internalized rules of behaviour demands these rules to be more specific.

  5. 5.

    Thanks to the anonymous reviewer for this point.

  6. 6.

    This section does not deal with the ‘forward model’ aspect of the Model Account due to space limitations. However, worries with AORs (constructs similar to forward models) have been further explicated by i.e. by Hutto (2013). Also, as mental images guide together with forward models, undermining the role of mental images undermines in extension the whole account.

  7. 7.

    Possibly a simulation account could take care of this worry, but then the activity would be happening subpersonally and should not be compared to the act of imitating.

  8. 8.

    As Davisdson already noted, to represent ‘imagistic contents’ cententfully demands ‘the gift of tongues’ (1985, 473).

  9. 9.

    This problem is relevant to all accounts that introduce mental representations not just accounts of pretence (but it is relevant to them as well).

  10. 10.

    F&S’s example of the external guider to pretending being a bird in flight is Tony’s friends pretending to be birds in flight. They say: “even if Tony’s action is guided exclusively by the behaviour of others (…), Tony can still be fully in control of his pretense, as well as fully accountable for it”, for his pretence to count as genuine action” (312).

  11. 11.

    Mimicry is a likely first step towards individual pretence due to its developmental priority (Stern 1985; Tomasello 1999).

  12. 12.

    De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007) discuss further the case of charades in the context of Participatory Sense Making, a theory about how we make sense of others through coordinated interaction.

  13. 13.

    Social referencing is a very important factor in shared pretence, as children constantly check whether the other participants or spectators are aware of the situation being just a game. Meyers in Mitchell (2002) notices that “as long as other players tolerate (the pretender’s) cryptic and unaccountable behaviour, [the pretender] need not explain herself or respond to language and so carry on in an idiosyncratic way” (159).

  14. 14.

    There is strong conviction that such non-representational accounts cannot handle the notion of absence or abstraction. The intuition is that in the absence of a ‘bird in flight’ to guide movements, one is guided by its image that has to be created in the absence of the bird in flight, or recreated from memory. However, the sensorimotor account of presence in absence (Noë 2004) or phenomenological account of presence of absence (Sartre 1957) can shed light on alternative accounts of absence, just as the novel, developing, non-representational account of absence (Degenaar and Myin 2014) and memory (Myin and Zahidi 2013) do. On their account, memory is extensive, involving both organism and environment to begin with.

  15. 15.

    This is something like the ‘initial premise’, but not intellectualized as a mental representation.

  16. 16.

    Even Strawson (2004), who criticises narratives, does not deny that they exist as social practices.


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This work was funded by the Marie-Curie Initial Training Network TESIS: Towards an Embodied Science of InterSubjectivity (FP7-PEOPLE-2010-ITN, 264828). I would like to thank Dan Hutto, Sam Coleman, Shaun Gallagher, Erik Myin, Thomas Fuchs, fellows from the TESIS project, colleagues from the University of Hertfordshire as well as Leon de Bruin and the anonymous reviewers for the support received in relation to the work presented in the paper.

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Rucińska, Z. What guides pretence? Towards the interactive and the narrative approaches. Phenom Cogn Sci 15, 117–133 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-014-9381-z

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  • Pretence
  • Play
  • Narrative
  • Enactivism
  • Models
  • Propositions
  • Images