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An Externalist Theory of Social Understanding: Interaction, Psychological Models, and the Frame Problem


I put forward an externalist theory of social understanding. On this view, psychological sense making takes place in environments that contain both agent and interpreter. The spatial structure of such environments is social, in the sense that its occupants locate its objects by an exercise in triangulation relative to each of their standpoints. This triangulation is achieved in intersubjective interaction and gives rise to a triadic model of the social mind. This model can then be used to make sense of others’ observed actions. Its possession plays a vital role in the development of the capacity for false belief reasoning. The view offers an integrated account of the development of social cognition from primary intersubjectivity to level-2 perspective taking. It incorporates insights from interactionism and mindreading theories of social cognition and thus offers a way out of the stalemate between defenders of the two views. Because psychological sense making is perspectival, the frame problem does not arise for social reasoners: the perspective they bring to bear on the action that is to be interpreted constrains the information they can select to make sense of what others do.

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  1. 1.

    Within the group of supporters of mindreading approaches to social cognition, defenders of the Theory Theory hold that social cognizers make use of a theory of how mental states inform behaviour. Mental state concepts may be innate (e.g., Leslie, Friedman, & German, 2004) or developmentally acquired (e.g., Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997). Defenders of the Simulation Theory maintain that we ascribe mental states to others by imaginatively putting ourselves in the other’s shoes (e.g., Goldman, 2006). Hybrid views are possible. This is well-trodden terrain and it is not necessary to rehash the debate for present purposes.

  2. 2.

    For the purposes of this paper, I bracket a group of findings that ascribes the ability to pass some implicit false belief tests to children as young as fifteen months of age (e.g., Onishi & Baillargeon, 2005; Southgate, 2010). My reason for doing so is that some of the relevant findings have recently failed to replicate (Kulke, Reiss, Krist, & Rakoczy, 2018; Kulke, Von Duhn, Schneider, & Rakoczy, 2018) and that, consequently, it is currently controversial whether infant mentalising is a real phenomenon (Kulke, Johannsen, & Rakoczy, 2019).

  3. 3.

    See Spaulding (2010) for an overview of the respective positions and an argument against the interactionist contention that mindreading occurs only in exceptional circumstances.

  4. 4.

    Empathy is often thought to play a key role in the felt understanding of others. See Stueber (2006) for a discussion of both its felt aspect and its role in folk psychological reasoning.

  5. 5.

    Though it should be noted that not all tests of young children’s psychological reasoning capacities are spatial: see for instance the colour filter tests of Moll and Meltzoff (2011).

  6. 6.

    In what follows, I use the verb “to proprioceive” as a shorthand for “to apprehend by means of proprioception”. Thanks go to one of my reviewers for highlighting the need for clarification.

  7. 7.

    Dreyfus’s (1993/2014) Heideggerian notion of “coping” is one version of such a view. Hutto’s (2011) enactivism is another example of a way of thinking about human activity without appeal to mental state concepts.

  8. 8.

    I call such creatures “doers” or sometimes “agents”, without thereby meaning to imply that their bodily movements can necessarily be explained by appeal to mental state concepts.

  9. 9.

    One way to understand the notion of a doing is by drawing on a conclusion of Borg’s (2007) in her discussion of the role of mirror neurons in intention attribution. She suggests that the discovery of mirror neurons can tell us something about which creatures an observer is prepared to treat as minded (and, you might add, which kinds of movements as purposive activities) even though it falls short of explaining how we come to know about the large-scale intentions with which they move. Doings can be thought of as purposive activities whose perception presents the executing creature as minded, irrespective of whether large-scale intention attribution is taking place.

  10. 10.

    In a seminal article, Rizzolatti, Fadiga, Fogassi, and Gallese (1997) argued that there is a specific kind of spatial format that is represented in the brain as a spatial map that is vital for the control of motor movement. For a recent discussion of the relation between egocentric space and action space, see De Vignemont (2018).

  11. 11.

    In particular, conceptualising peripersonal space is dependent on the notion of an egocentre occupied by the agent’s body.

  12. 12.

    In its original form, this is the problem of whether a person born blind could immediately identify an object they have known only by touch if they came to see it. For an account of how it pertains to facial imitation, see Meltzoff (1993).

  13. 13.

    Children begin to pass the “mirror test” (or the closely related “rouge test”), in which their ability to recognise themselves in a mirror is tested, around 18 months (Archer, 1992). It should be noted that the mirror test is subject to considerable criticism.

  14. 14.

    To see this, compare the situation of the imitating infant to that of the Davidsonian radical interpreter (Davidson, 1973): the interpreter can always point out the features of the environment that are visible to both the speaker and the interpreter in order to ascertain the accuracy of the interpretation at issue. Even though there is no knowing whether speaker and interpreter conceptualise the demonstrated scene in the same way, there is still some kind of means of comparison that enables the interpreter to assess the accuracy of his translation, which is what the imitating infant lacks.

  15. 15.

    Gallagher (2005, pp. 65-85), Meltzoff (1993); Meltzoff and Moore (1995) offer evidence in support of this idea.

  16. 16.

    See De Vignemont (2018) for a discussion of the role of action space in the visual experience of nearby and distal objects.

  17. 17.

    For discussion see Briscoe and Grush (2020).

  18. 18.

    Some recent work offers empirical evidence in support of the existence of a social spatial framework. Costantini and Sinigaglia (2011) find that the perception of objects’ affordances for action is modulated not just by the spatial relation between perceiver and object but also by the relation between a potential co-actor and the object. The notion of social space is further supported by a study by Maister, Cardini, Zamariola, Serino, and Tsakiris (2015), who find that shared experience of the enfacement illusion results in a remapping of the representation of the other’s peripersonal space as one’s own; and, less directly, by a study by Soliman, Ferguson, Dexheimer, and Glenberg (2015), who suggest that the shared manipulation of an object with others builds on a joint body schema. See Seemann (2019) for a detailed discussion.

  19. 19.

    See De Vignemont (2009) for a discussion of the difficulties involved in making the notion of low-level simulation precise.

  20. 20.

    A recent much-discussed study finds, contrary to orthodoxy about social imitation in infancy, that infants do not imitate others’ facial expressions: they react with tongue protrusions also when presented with adults’ happy faces or finger pointing (Oostenbroek et al., 2016). Note that these findings, if vindicated, do not pose a problem for the current proposal. The thesis of an intermodal social space does not require that neonates imitate facial gestures; it requires only that they deploy perception and proprioception in the intersubjective process.

  21. 21.

    The crucial role of joint attention in the development of social cognition is prominently stressed by the Shared Intentionality Hypothesis, as defended by Tomasello and his colleagues (e.g., Tomasello & Carpenter, 2007; Tomasello & Moll, 2010). There are clear parallels between this body of work and the present proposal in various respects, amongst them the stress on joint attention as a key event in human sociocognitive development. One important difference between the two approaches is that social externalism attempts to explain the most basic forms of social understanding without having to appeal to intention recognition. Thanks go to a reviewer for highlighting the connection.

  22. 22.

    It is an open question whether non-human primates are capable of joint attention (e.g., Leavens, 2011).

  23. 23.

    For a recent critical analysis, see Battich and Geurts (2020).

  24. 24.

    I do not here discuss the difficult question of how exactly to think of such a standpoint (or egocentre). One locus classicus is Evans’s (1982) work on spatial representation. For proposals of how to think about the notion of an egocentre within an action-based view of perception, see e.g. Grush (2001, 2007) and Schellenberg (2007).

  25. 25.

    The epistemological backdrop of the approach I am developing here is the “knowledge first” programme most prominently defended by Williamson (2000). The approach I am recommending is sympathetic to Nagel’s (2017) view that the contrast that matters for mental state attribution is not between true and false beliefs but between factive and non-factive mental states, and that observation of perceptual access is a promising entry point for mental state attribution; thanks go to one of my reviewers for highlighting the connection. See section III (b) for more on the epistemology of social space.

  26. 26.

    In a related vein, Schellenberg (2007) argues that knowing an object’s perspective-transcendent spatial properties requires knowing how to act on it.

  27. 27.

    This section summarises aspects of a much larger discussion in Seemann (2019).

  28. 28.

    For an argument that there is no such thing as common knowledge, see Lederman (2018). For the view that common knowledge is impossible because subjects can never know whether they have it, see Sperber and Wilson (1995, p. 23). For a comprehensive argument in favour of the possibility of perceptual common knowledge, see Seemann (2019).

  29. 29.

    This is compatible, of course, with one or more subjects mistakenly believing that they have it.

  30. 30.

    Williamson (2000) introduces the notion of a “cognitive home”, in which all facts are open to view, and argues against its possibility. Public perceptual environments constitute a social version of such a cognitive home.

  31. 31.

    See Nagel (2017) for a related view.

  32. 32.

    The notion of a representation-enabling “background” of nonrepresentational capacities goes back to Searle (1983). I am not, for present purposes, using the notion in strictly nonrepresentational terms.

  33. 33.

    There is an interesting question whether an interpreter’s perspective determines her interpretation of an observed doing or whether it merely constrains the information she can select to support it. Discussion is not possible here. It is also not required for the present argument.


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Seemann, A. An Externalist Theory of Social Understanding: Interaction, Psychological Models, and the Frame Problem. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2021).

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