Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 305–324 | Cite as

The personal and the subpersonal in the theory of mind debate

  • Kristina Musholt


It is a widely accepted assumption within the philosophy of mind and psychology that our ability for complex social interaction is based on the mastery of a common folk psychology, that is to say that social cognition consists in reasoning about the mental states of others in order to predict and explain their behavior. This, in turn, requires the possession of mental-state concepts, such as the concepts belief and desire. In recent years, this standard conception of social cognition has been called into question by proponents of so-called ‘direct-perception’ approaches to social cognition (e.g., Gallagher 2001, 2005, 2007, 2012; Gallagher and Hutto 2008; Zahavi 2005, 2011) and by those who argue that the ‘received view’ implies a degree of computational complexity that is implausible (e.g., Bermúdez 2003; Apperly and Butterfill 2009). In response, it has been argued that these attacks on the classical view of social cognition have no bite at the subpersonal level of explanation, and that it is the latter which is at issue in the debate in question (e.g., Herschbach 2008; Spaulding 2010, 2015). In this paper, I critically examine this response by considering in more detail the distinction between personal and subpersonal level explanations. There are two main ways in which the distinction has been developed (Drayson 2014). I will argue that on either of these, the response proposed by defenders of the received view is unconvincing. This shows that the dispute between the standard conception and alternative approaches to mindreading is a dispute concerning personal-level explanations - what is at stake in the debate between proponents of the classical view of social cognition and their critics is how we, as persons, navigate our social world. I will conclude by proposing a pluralistic approach to social cognition, which is better able to do justice to the multi-faceted nature of our social interactions as well as being able to account for recent empirical findings regarding the social cognitive abilities of young infants.


Social cognition Simulation theory Theory theory Interaction theory Phenomenology Mental state concepts Personal level Subpersonal level Nonconceptual content Pluralism 



Early drafts of this paper were presented at a conference on the personal and the subpersonal at the Institute of Philosophy in London, at the Philosophy Department at the LSE, at conferences of the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology and the German Society for Philosophy of Science, and at the Department of Philosophy in Leipzig. I am grateful for the feedback received from the audiences on these occasions. I am also indebted to two anonymous referees for this journal for their extraordinarily detailed and constructive criticisms which were invaluable for improving this manuscript. Sonja Priesmeyer helped with the final editing. Finally, I am grateful to the organizers of the workshop “Investigating the Social Self” in Parma, Katja Crone and Wolfgang Huemer, for providing me with the opportunity to present my work and for putting together this special issue.


  1. Andrews, K. (2012). Do apes read minds? Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  2. Apperly, I., & Butterfill, S. (2009). Do humans have two systems to track beliefs and belief-like states? Psychological Review, 116(4), 953–970.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Astington, J., & Jenkins, J. (1999). A longitudinal study of the relation between language and theory-of-mind development. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1311–1320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baillargeon, R., Scott, R. M., & He, Z. (2010). False-belief understanding in infants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 110–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barresi, J., & Moore, C. (1996). Intentional relations and social understanding. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 19(01), 107–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bermúdez, J. L. (2003). The domain of folk psychology. In Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 53, 25–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bermúdez, J. L. (2007). What is at stake in the debate on nonconceptual content? Philosophical Perspectives, 21(1), 55–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Buttelmann, D., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2009). Eighteen-month-old infants show false belief understanding in an active helping paradigm. Cognition, 112, 337–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Butterfill, S., & Apperly, I. (2013). How to construct a minimal theory of mind. Mind & Language, 28(5), 606–637.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Camp, E. (2009). Putting thoughts to work: Concepts, systematicity, and stimulus-independence. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 78(2), 275–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carruthers, P. (2013). Mindreading in infancy. Mind & Language, 28(2), 141–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cohen, A. S., & German, T. C. (2009). Encoding of others' beliefs without overt instruction. Cognition, 111(3), 356–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, E. (2007). Participatory sense-making: An enactive approach to social cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6(4), 485–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dennett, D. C. (1969). Content and consciousness. Oxford: Humanities Press.Google Scholar
  15. Drayson, Z. (2014). The personal/subpersonal distinction. Philosophy Compass, 9(5), 338–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Evans, G. (1982). The varieties of reference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Feinman, S. (1982). Social referencing in infancy. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 28, 445–470.Google Scholar
  18. Fiebich, A., & Coltheart, M. (2015). Various ways to understand other minds: Towards a pluralistic approach to the explanation of social understanding. Mind & Language, 30(3), 235–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fodor, J. (1983). The modularity of mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  20. Fuchs, T. (2013). The phenomenology and development of social perspectives. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 655-683. Google Scholar
  21. Gallagher, S. (2001). The practice of mind: Theory, simulation, or primary interaction? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(5–7), 83–107.Google Scholar
  22. Gallagher, S. (2005). How the body shapes the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gallagher, S. (2007). Simulation trouble. Social Neuroscience, 2, 353–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gallagher, S. (2012). In defense of phenomenological approaches to social cognition: Interacting with the critics. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 3(2), 187–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gallagher, S., & Hutto, D. (2008). Understanding others through primary interaction and narrative practice. In J. Zlatev, T. Racine, C. Sinha, & E. Itkonen (Eds.), The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity (pp. 17–38). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Goldman, A. (1989). Interpretation psychologized. Mind & Language, 4, 161–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Goldman, A. (2006). Simulating minds: The philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1997). Words, thoughts and theories. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  29. Gordon, R. (1986). Folk psychology as simulation. Mind & Language, 1, 158–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Grzankowski, A. (2013). Non-Propositional Attitudes. Philosophy Compass, 8, 1123–1137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Heal, J. (1996). Simulation, theory and content. In Carruthers & Smith (Eds.), Theories of theories of mind (pp. 75–89). Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Herschbach, M. (2008). Folk psychological and phenomenological accounts of social perception. Philosophical Explorations, 11(3), 223–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Herschbach, M. (2012). On the role of social interaction in social cognition: A mechanistic alternative to enactivism. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11(4), 467–486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hopp, W. (2011). Perception and knowledge: A phenomenological account. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hornsby, J. (2000). Personal and sub-personal: A defence of Dennett's early distinction. Philosophical Explorations, 3(1), 6–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hurley, S. (2006). Making sense of animals. In S. Hurley & M. Nudds (Eds.), Rational animals (pp. 231–256). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hutto, D. D. (2008). Folk psychological narratives: The sociocultural basis of understanding reasons. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  38. Klinnert, M., et al. (1983). Emotions as behavior regulators: Social referencing in infancy. Emotions in Early Development, 2, 57–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Knudsen, B., & Liszkowski, U. (2012). 18-month-olds predict specific action mistakes through attribution of false belief, not ignorance, and intervene accordingly. Infancy, 17, 672–691.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kovács, A. M., Teglas, E., & Endress, A. D. (2010). The social sense: Susceptibility to others' beliefs in human infants and adults. Science, 330(6012), 1830–1834.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Leslie, A. (1987). Pretense and representation: The origins of “theory of mind”. Psychological Review, 94(4), 412–426.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Maibom, H. (2007). Social systems. Philosophical Psychology, 20(5), 557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. McDowell, J. (1994). The content of perceptual experience. Philological Quarterly, 44(175), 190–205.Google Scholar
  44. Meltzoff, A. N., & Moore, K. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by newborn infants. Science, 198, 75–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Michael, J., & DeBruin, L. (Eds.). (2015). Special Issue: Social Perception. Consciousness and Cognition, 36, 1–572.Google Scholar
  46. Milligan, K., Astington, J., & Dack, L. (2007). Language and theory of mind: Metaanalysis of the relation between language ability and false-belief understanding. Child Development, 78, 622–646.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Moll, H., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Level 1 perspective-taking at 24 months of age. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24, 603–613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Musholt, K. (2015). Thinking about oneself. From nonconceptual content to the concept of a self. Cambridge: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Nagel, J. (2013). Knowledge as a mental state. Oxford Studies in Epistemology, 4, 273–308.Google Scholar
  50. Nagy, E. (2008). Innate intersubjectivity: Newborn’s sensitivity to communication disturbance. Developmental Psychology, 44(6), 1779–1784.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Neisser, U. (1993). The self perceived. In U. Neisser (Ed.), The perceived self: Ecological and interpersonal sources of self-knowledge (pp. 3–21). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Newen, A. (2015). Understanding Others - The Person Model Theory. In T. Metzinger & J. M. Windt (Eds.), Open MIND: 26(T). Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group. doi: 10.15502/9783958570320
  53. Onishi, K., & Baillargeon, R. (2005). Do 15-month-olds understand false beliefs? Science, 308, 255–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Peacocke, C. (1992). A study of concepts. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  55. Perner, J., & Roessler, J. (2012). From infants' to children's appreciation of belief. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(10), 519–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Perner, J., & Ruffman, T. (2005). Infants’ insight into the mind: How deep? Science, 308, 214–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Rakoczy, H. (2012). Do infants have a theory of mind? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30(1), 59–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Rakoczy, H. (2015). In defense of a developmental dogma: Children acquire propositional attitude folk psychology around age 4. Synthese, 1–19.Google Scholar
  59. Ratcliffe, M. (2006). Folk psychology’ is not folk psychology. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 5(1), 31–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Samson, D., et al. (2010). Seeing it their way: Evidence for rapid and involuntary computation of what other people see. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 36(5), 1255–1266.Google Scholar
  61. Schneider, D., Bayliss, A. P., Becker, S. I., & Dux, P. E. (2012). Eye movements reveal sustained implicit processing of others' mental states. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(3), 433–438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Schneider, D., Nott, Z. E., & Dux, P. E. (2014). Task instructions and implicit theory of mind. Cognition, 133(1), 43–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Sellars, W. (1956). Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 1(19), 253–329.Google Scholar
  64. Slade, L., & Ruffman, T. (2005). How language does (and does not) relate to theory of mind: A longitudinal study of syntax, semantics, working memory and false belief. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 117–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Southgate, V., Senju, A., & Csibra, G. (2007). Action anticipation through attribution of false belief in two-year-olds. Psychological Science, 18(7), 587–592.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Spaulding, S. (2010). Embodied cognition and mindreading. Mind & Language, 25(1), 119–140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Spaulding, S. (2012). Mirror neurons are not evidence for the simulation theory. Synthese, 189(3), 515–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Spaulding, S. (2015). Phenomenology of social cognition. Erkenntnis, 80(5), 1069–1089.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Spelke, E. (2003). What makes us smart? Core knowledge and natural language. In D. Gentner & S. Goldin-Meadow (Eds.), Language in mind. Advances in the study of language and thought (pp. 277–311). Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  70. Stich, S. (1978). Beliefs and subdoxastic states. Philosophy of Science, 45(4), 499–518.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Striano, T., & Rochat, P. (2000). Emergence of selective social referencing in infancy. Infancy, 1(2), 253–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Tomasello, M., et al. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 675–691.Google Scholar
  73. Trevarthen, C. (1979). Communication and cooperation in early infancy: A description of primary intersubjectivity. In M. Bullowa (Ed.), Before speech: The beginning of interpersonal communication (pp. 321–347). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  74. 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
  75. Zahavi, D. (2005). Subjectivity and selfhood: Investigating the first-person perspective. Cambrige: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  76. Zahavi, D. (2011). Empathy and direct social perception: A phenomenological proposal. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 2(3), 541–558.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für PhilosophieUniversität LeipzigLeipzigGermany

Personalised recommendations