Seeing subjectivity: defending a perceptual account of other minds

Protosociology (forthcoming)
Abstract
The problem of other minds has a distinguished philosophical history stretching back more than two hundred years. Taken at face value, it is an epistemological question: it concerns how we can have knowledge of, or at least justified belief in, the existence of minds other than our own. In recent decades, philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists and primatologists have debated a related question: how we actually go about attributing mental states to others (regardless of whether we ever achieve knowledge or rational justification in this domain). Until the mid-nineties, the latter debate – which sometimes goes under the name of the “mindreading” debate – was characterized by a fairly clear-cut opposition between two theoretical outlooks: “theory-theory” (TT) and “simulation theory” (ST). Theory-theorists typically argued that we attribute mental states to others on the basis of a “theory of mind” that is either constructed in early infancy and subsequently revised and modified (Gopnik 1996), or else is the result of maturation of innate mindreading “modules” (Baron-Cohen 1995). Simulation theorists, on the other hand, held that it is by creating simulated “pretend states” in ourselves that we understand the mental states of others (Goldman 1995; Gordon 1995). Recently, a number of theorists have suggested another explanation of our understanding of others as having mental states – an explanation that, at least prima facie, seems very different from the TT and ST paradigms. Drawing on the approach to other minds defended by classical phenomenologists such as Max Scheler (1954: 238-64) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2002: 214-16, 403-25), recent participants in the mindreading debate have maintained that we often see, or perceive in some other modality, that another is in the grip of a particular emotion, say. In other words, the processes involved in our detection of others’ emotions and other mental states are often perceptual processes that are not supplemented by any extra-perceptual cognitive mechanisms (e.g., inferential processes, conscious simulation routines, or the like)..
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