Joint action without robust theory of mind


Intuitively, even very young children can act jointly. For instance, a child and her parent can build a simple tower together. According to developmental psychologists, young children develop theory of mind by, among other things, participating in joint actions like this. Yet many leading philosophical accounts of joint action presuppose that participants have a robust theory of mind. In this article, I examine two philosophical accounts of joint action designed to circumvent this presupposition, and then I proffer my own novel account of what makes (at least some) interactions between very young children and others joint. I argue that children can take up without deliberation intentions with a joint content that have been transmitted to them by others. In doing so, children can come to share intentions with others, and by acting on these shared intentions they can come to act jointly, all without employing a robust theory of mind.

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  1. 1.

    Much of what I say in this section has been rehearsed in other places (Tollefsen 2005, pp. 77–84; Butterfill 2012, pp. 24–32; Pacherie 2013, pp. 1823–1826).

  2. 2.

    It is not entirely clear how we should think about the difference between implicit and explicit theory of mind. Psychologists sometimes note that mental state representations in very young children seem to influence involuntary behavior (e.g. gazes) more readily than voluntary behavior (e.g. verbal responses), and this is perhaps crucial. The concept of access-consciousness might be helpful (Block 1995). One might say that an agent’s representations of mental states are explicit to the extent that they are access-conscious. If this is right, then mental state representations start to become explicit at a young age, as indicated, for instance, by the fact that 18- and 24-month-old infants spontaneously intervene in anticipation of action mistakes to correct others (Knudsen and Liszkowski 2012).

  3. 3.

    Interestingly, theory of mind continues to develop even into late adolescence (Dumontheil et al. 2010; Vetter et al. 2013).

  4. 4.

    This characterization is a modification of Tollefsen’s proposal (2005, p. 81). There are various other ways that RTM could be characterized, many of which are compatible with my argument. All that matters for my purposes is that some distinction between the mentalizing capacities of very young children and the mentalizing capacities of adults can be made, where the former capacities are not sufficient for participation in the sort of shared intentions typically discussed by philosophers.

  5. 5.

    For a more nuanced articulation, see Bratman 2014, pp. 84–85.

  6. 6.

    There may be more to the story when we consider the actions of collectives that constitute agents in their own right. For an illuminating discussion of some of the unique features of large, structured groups see French (1979) and List and Pettit (2011).

  7. 7.

    For a discussion of meshing, see Bratman 2014, pp. 53–56.

  8. 8.

    For philosophical accounts of common knowledge, see Lewis 1969, pp. 52–60 and Gilbert 1989, pp. 188–195. Both involve higher-order representations. Because other leading accounts of shared intentions require that participants have common knowledge about something, they are also subject to some of the worries I direct at Bratmanian Shared Intentions.

  9. 9.

    Additionally, people with cognitive disabilities who have difficulty representing and responding to the mental states of others (e.g. autistic individuals, see Baron-Cohen 2001; Frith 2001) can seemingly act jointly, but it is likewise implausible to suggest that their acting jointly can best be explained in terms of Bratmanian Shared Intentions.

  10. 10.

    Carpenter (2009) argues that Tollefsen underestimates the cognitive capacities of very young children and that even very young children have a limited ability to participate in Bratmanian Shared Intentions. While I disagree with this latter claim, Carpenter and I agree that very young children have some understanding of others’ mental states and are motivated to engage in joint action. We also agree that joint action in very young children is “very joint”.

  11. 11.

    Thus, shared goals fulfill one of the three functions that characterize Bratmanian Shared Intentions. But shared goals do not have the function of coordinating plans or structuring bargaining, and in this way they differ from Bratmanian Shared Intentions (ibid., p. 39).

  12. 12.

    Butterfill cites Gergely et al. (1995), Woodward and Sommerville (2000), Csibra et al. (2003), and Luo and Baillargeon (2005).

  13. 13.

    For a discussion from social psychology on group-identification, see Oakes et al. (1994).

  14. 14.

    Bacharach thinks that the second step is logically inevitable once the first step is completed, assuming one’s contribution is necessary for the group’s action, because from A → B we can infer O(A) → O(B), where O(x) stands for ‘it ought to be the case that x’ (ibid., pp. 136, 152–153 n. 16).

  15. 15.

    Cf. Bacharach’s discussion of the different mechanisms that can lead to cooperative coordination (2006, pp. 122–127).

  16. 16.

    Possibly Pacherie could avoid this worry by framing (i′) in terms of presuppositions. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  17. 17.

    Thanks to Arnel Blake Batoon for helpful discussion concerning this passage.

  18. 18.

    There are two ways one could understand this sharing talk. On the one hand, one could individuate intentions by their deliberative source, which would imply that there is literally one intention stretched between the issuer and the addressee. The shared intention, then, would have token states of each individual as proper parts. On the other hand, one could maintain that the issuer and addressee do not literally share an intention. Instead, they have numerically distinct intentions with the same content, deliberative history, and normative properties. On this understanding, what is meant in saying that the two “share” an intention or that the intention is the “same” is that the issuer and addressee both have intentions with these shared properties. I prefer the former, more literal understanding, but my argument does not turn on it. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me for clarification at this point.

  19. 19.

    Specifying this “special way” is notoriously difficult. Deviant causal chains show that causal relations are not sufficient (Chisholm 1966; Davidson 1973).

  20. 20.

    Notice that in ordinary cases, my own reasons can determine the teleological structure of my actions even if I am not attending to, or have temporarily forgotten, why I am doing what I am doing (Roth 2014, p. 644; Hanser 2015, pp. 116–117; Roth 2017, p. 78).

  21. 21.

    For instance, Joseph Raz argues that commands generate protected reasons, which provide addresses with both a first-order reason to ɸ and a second-order reason to exclude from deliberation certain first-order reasons to not-ɸ (Raz 2003, pp. 17–18). For a hybrid account, according to which commands and requests generate reasons for the addressee to act upon the issuer’s communicated intention, see Hanser (2015).

  22. 22.

    Someone may disagree. Having a goal is sometimes more like having an aspiration than an intention. For instance, I aspire to be a falconer one day, but I do not have any concrete plans to that effect, and this goal does not influence any of my planning. Otiose goals of this kind (assuming they are rightly called “goals”) are not relevant to my discussion, so I ignore this complication.

  23. 23.

    The experimenter has other reasons for participating in the joint actions (including those related to the experiment itself) to which the children are not entitled, because the children could not understand or endorse them.

  24. 24.

    It seems as if Bratman would be sympathetic to my argument in this section (Bratman 2014, pp. 104–105).

  25. 25.

    We probably should not think that this self-referential element is part of the content of the intention in any psychologically demanding sense, however, despite what Searle may have believed. Cf. Burge’s (1991) critique of Searle’s views concerning self-reference within the intentional content of perceptual representations.

  26. 26.

    Here it might seem to matter whether we take the shared intention talk literally (see footnote 18). It does not matter, however, because even if the individuals strictly speaking have distinct intentions, those intentions have the same normative properties, including the same satisfaction conditions. Hence, the intentions are satisfied only if the intentions (taken together) cause the action.

  27. 27.

    My conclusion comports with the spirit of Carpenter’s (2009) proposal (see footnote 10). Carpenter suggests that very young children have some capacity to participate in Bratmanian Shared Intentions. While I disagree with this claim, I have argued that very young children can share intentions in a different but functionally similar way. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out to me.


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I have benefited from conversations with many people in the course of writing this paper. Thanks especially to Kevin Falvey, Matthew Hanser, Dan Korman, Abe Roth, the audience at the 2018 Collective Intentionality conference at Tufts University, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on previous versions of this manuscript.

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Story, D. Joint action without robust theory of mind. Synthese (2019).

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  • Joint action
  • Theory of mind
  • Developmental psychology
  • Team reasoning