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Imitation, Skill Learning, and Conceptual Thought: An Embodied, Developmental Approach

Part of the Biosemiotics book series (BSEM,volume 8)


It is the goal of this chapter to offer a strategy for moving from imitation to conceptual thought. First, I accept that imitation plays a vital role in accounting for the facility with which human beings acquire abilities, but I argue that successful task performance is not identical to intelligent action. To move beyond first-order behavioral success, I suggest that the orientation that humans have toward the means of intentional actions, that is, the orientation required for imitation, also drives us to perfect our skills in a way that produces fertile ground for florid thought.

In Section “What Is So Special About Human Imitation?”, I propose that the difference between animal and human copying lies in what I call the “means-centric orientation.” In Section “Imitation Is Great, but It Ain’t Everything”, I explore three characteristic features of intelligence and claim that the first-order behavioral success that results from imitation is not characterized by these features. In the final section of this chapter, I argue that the means-centric orientation, when inverted onto itself, motivates skill refinement and, as such, allows us to reach the intermediate level of cognitive development. It is at this level, through the individuation and recombination of action elements, that we see a basic syntax of action arise and, with it, the characteristic features of intelligence emerge.


  • Action Element
  • Nonhuman Animal
  • Behavioral Sequence
  • Task Success
  • Intelligent Behavior

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  1. 1.

    For instance, Tomasello (1996, 1999; Call and Tomasello 1998) claims that imitation is proprietary to humans, while others (Byrne 2002; Horner and Whiten 2005) claim that imitation can be observed in the behavior of nonhuman primates.

  2. 2.

    For an instance of such a position, see Byrne and Russon’s (1998) distinction between action and program-level imitation.

  3. 3.

    I use “not-merely-instrumental” value and not simply “inherent” value in order to leave open the possibility that means are a locus of value or significance as a result of their role in offering opportunities for social connection and intersubjective rewards. In this sense, the concern for means would be not-merely-instrumental for the goal at hand, but still offers other kinds of important payoffs.

  4. 4.

    Importantly, studies on rational imitation show that it is not just movements, but actions that are recognized as intentional, which are imitated by children. See Meltzoff (1995); Carpenter et al. 1998; Bellagamba and Tomasello 1999; Gergely and Csibra(2005); Schwier et al.(2006).

  5. 5.

    Tomasello (2009) has now admitted that, in rare cases, nonhuman primates do in fact imitate. However, he still holds that in most circumstances, the copying behavior of nonhuman primates is emulation and not imitation.

  6. 6.

    In fact, ideally, the interest in the action should form the path by which the imitator can learn about intentional states. She should not already know about the demonstrator’s mental states if imitation is meant to be a strategy by which she is going to learn about them. See Meltzoff (2005) for a defense of this position.

  7. 7.

    To be fair, in 2009, Tomasello has written that a concern with action itself may be crucial for differentiating between animal and human copying. This admission, however, is not reflected in a new definition of imitation. As such, my proposal constitutes a significant change in what is taken to be necessary for imitation.

  8. 8.

    After all, the sharing of goals with another person may lead to numerous kinds of behaviors that are neither identical to nor connected with imitation.

  9. 9.

    In addition to this study, especially notable is the work of Gergely and Csibra (2005).

  10. 10.

    Of course, there will be times when humans are concerned with the goals of an action more so than with the means of that action. The main point, however, hangs on the fact that humans are not always so concerned with action, while nonhuman primates are.

  11. 11.

    Yes, people actually do this and hold competitions!

  12. 12.

    Dennett makes a similar point when he says that “The criterion for intelligent storage is then the appropriateness of the resultant behavior to the system’s needs given the stimulus conditions of the initial input and the environment in which the behavior occurs” (1969, p. 50).

  13. 13.

    There are obvious parallels to the point that I am making here and Hume’s classic compatibilist critique of liberty (1961, section VIII). That is, as Hume points out, being free, uncaused, or random cannot ground responsibility since one cannot be responsible for a random or uncaused event. The connection between the agent and the action must be fundamental if agents are going to be responsible for their actions. Likewise, being flexible is not enough for being intelligent, but behaviors must be connected to their environments in the right way if these behaviors are to qualify as intelligent.

  14. 14.

    Prinz writes that “[c]ognitive states and processes are those that exploit representations that are under the control of an organism rather than under the control of the environment” (2004, p. 45).

  15. 15.

    This is Karmiloff-Smith’s term (1990, p. 139).

  16. 16.

    See Karmiloff-Smith (1986, 1990) for evidence of the systematic limitations on flexibility and transferability present at the intermediate level of redescription.

  17. 17.

    See Fridland (forthcoming) for an argument diagnosing why Karmiloff-Smith makes this mistake.

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Fridland, E. (2013). Imitation, Skill Learning, and Conceptual Thought: An Embodied, Developmental Approach. In: Swan, L. (eds) Origins of Mind. Biosemiotics, vol 8. Springer, Dordrecht.

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