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In defense of pluralist theory

A Correction to this article was published on 07 March 2020

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Abstract

In this article I defend pluralist theory against various objections. First, I argue that although traditional theories may also account for multiple ways to achieve social understanding, they still put some emphasis on one particular epistemic strategy (e.g., theory or simulation). Pluralist theory, in contrast, rejects the so-called ‘default assumption’ that there is any primary or default method in social understanding. Second, I illustrate that pluralist theory needs to be distinguished from integration theory. On one hand, integration theory faces the difficulty of trying to combine traditional theories of social understanding that have contradictory background assumptions. On the other hand, pluralist theory goes beyond integrating traditional theories by accounting for a variety of factors that may play a role in social understanding but have been (widely) neglected in such theories, including stereotype activation, social and personal relationships, contextual features, individual moods, perceptions, and so on. Third, I argue that if the default assumption is rejected, pluralist theorists need to provide another positive account of why particular cognitive processes are more likely to come into play in a specific instance of social understanding than others in order to provide a genuine alternative to traditional theories. I discuss three versions of pluralist theory that meet this challenge by pointing to normativity, fluency, and interaction.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Since pluralist theory is not devoted to any particular view of cognition per se, it is perfectly possible that philosophers who endorse different but not contradictory views of cognition team up to explore the varieties of social understanding from a pluralist viewpoint. For example, Fiebich et al. (2017) agree with respect to pluralism in social cognition but differ in their views of whether cognition is enactive (Hutto and Myin 2017; Gallagher 2017a) or whether to remain neutral with respect to endorsing neither enactivism nor cognitivism, though sympathizing with dynamic embodied views of cognition (e.g., de Bruin and Kaestner 2012) when it comes to social understanding in interactive settings (Fiebich 2015, chapt. 4).

  2. 2.

    Note that the distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 processes resembles the 2-System approach defended by Fiebich and Coltheart (2015), but it is neither essential for integration theory nor pluralist theory to advocate a 2-System view of cognition.

  3. 3.

    Anika Fiebich (2015) developed a pluralist approach to social understanding in framework of her doctoral thesis independently from Kristin Andrew’s work and inspired by scientific discussions with Maxoltheart (Fiebich and Coltheart 2015). Unfortunately, she only heard about Andrew’s approach when the book ‘How apes read minds’ appeared in 2012 shortly before submitting her thesis at the Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, so that a substantial discussion of Andrew’s approach in the thesis (published three years later in roughly its original version according to German law) was not possible anymore.

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Acknowledgements

Funding was provided by Università degli Studi di Milano.

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Correspondence to Anika Fiebich.

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Fiebich, A. In defense of pluralist theory. Synthese 198, 6815–6834 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02490-5

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Keywords

  • Pluralist theory
  • Folk psychology
  • Social cognition
  • Theory of mind